Struck by an historic drought, entire regions bordering Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil have experienced devastating fires in recent months, devastating forests and wetlands of exceptional biodiversity.
As the dry season comes to an end in this region of central South America, a watershed formed by several major rivers – Paraguay, Parana, Uruguay – observers agree that the situation on the fire front in 2020 has been particularly critical.
“The fires this year are much more numerous. In Argentina, for example, they have increased by around 170%, which is very serious, ”explains Elisabeth Möhle, researcher in environmental policies at the National University of San Martin (UNSM).
For her, these fires are “part of a year when mega-fires have multiplied in the Amazon, Australia, California … and now the Gran Chaco”, the second wooded area in South America after the Amazon. , on the border of the four countries.
In the first place, long months of unprecedented drought: unprecedented for 47 years in the Pantanal, the largest wetland in the world, between Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia.
The Parana River, one of the most powerful on the planet, which originates in Brazil and flows into the Rio de la Plata estuary, had never been so low since 1970.
In Rosario, in eastern Argentina, the level in August was 80 cm, compared to 3 to 4 meters normally at this time of year. Ditto for the Paraguay River, with a drop “not seen for half a century” in Asuncion, according to the National Directorate of Meteorology.
“Stronger, more intense”
An ideal scenario for fires, fueled by strong winds and temperatures exceeding 40 degrees, to spread with extreme ease, especially since the dry season is the period of burning, a practice still very common in the region, intended to regenerate soils.
In Paraguay, “the outbreaks (voluntary or involuntary), at the end of September and the beginning of October, broke all records,” said Eduardo Mingo, of the National Meteorological Directorate. According to authorities, the number of fires increased by 46% in 2020.
Due to the intensity of the fires, Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay, as well as several cities in northeast Argentina and southern Brazil, have lived for days, if not weeks, in a row under heavy conditions. fumes.
Without the usual precipitation that floods the land, wetlands have suffered particularly.
In the Brazilian Pantanal, a unique biodiversity sanctuary, images of charred trees, caimans, charred birds and snakes have toured the world. A quarter of the area was devastated by flames between January and September, while the Paraguayan part had already been badly affected in 2019.
In the Parana delta, another vast wetland and reservoir of biodiversity, fires struck in January with unprecedented intensity, transforming tens of thousands of hectares over the months into “ash deserts”.
“Reptiles died, migrating birds, small mammals, turtles …” said Cesar Massi, naturalist in the province of Santa Fe. “I remember that during the previous drought of 2008, there was fires. But this year it was stronger, more intense, and more extensive over time, ”he notes.
In addition to drought and uncontrolled burning, responsibility for arson attacks to deforest and expand agriculture is a leitmotif in all these regions, while agribusiness is for these countries an incomparable source of foreign exchange.
In northern Argentina, “despite the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, between March 15 and September 30, (…) twice the surface of Buenos Aires have been deforested”, denounces the Greenpeace organization.
Paraguayan side, the international NGO Mighty Earth recalls that the dry forests of Chaco in Paraguay are “one of the main centers of deforestation in the world, mainly for the extension of animal husbandry, and more recently for soybeans”.
Faced with the disaster in the Parana delta, the Argentinian government itself has pointed the finger at the responsibility of cattle breeders, accused of lighting fires to “extend the breeding areas”.
At the same time, NGOs denounce the lack of financial resources allocated by governments to enforce regulations and set up real prevention programs on a large scale.
“The provincial government has less and less budget for prevention, there are no monitoring stations, the environmental police have been dismantled”, deplores Alfredo Leytes, member of Ambiente en Lucha, an environmental collective from Cordoba.
In Brazil, “we have seen a 58% drop in contracts for” brigadistas “” these volunteers trained to be mobilized against fires, notes Alice Thuault, of the NGO Institut Centro de vida, which points to the responsibility of anti-positions. environment of the government of Jair Bolsonaro.
While the episodes of drought should multiply due to global warming, Elizabeth Möhle especially pleads for “a dialogue between the various actors”, farmers, breeders, authorities, ecologists, in order to “regulate the use of the territories and ensure development. more sustainable which currently does not exist ”.