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Rising from the ashes

April 06, 2022
tags:#Corrientes, #Argentina, #wildfires, #wetlands
by:Cecilia Fernández Castañón
More than one million hectares burned during a wildfire in Corrientes, a highly biodiverse province in northeast Argentina that is among the poorest in the country. The disaster destroyed natural areas and small local producers that are now looking for ways to recover. While climate change and environmental degradation played a part in stoking the flames, many believe that governmental negligence is also to blame for the catastrophe and turn to the authorities for answers.

An unprecedented wildfire consumed more than a million hectares of Argentina's territory, equivalent to 12 percent of the area of Corrientes, a northeastern province known for its high biodiversity.

The causes of the disaster, which occurred in February, ranged from a historic drought to environmental degradation caused by production models that encourage the spread of mono-crop plantations of exotic species, such as pine and eucalyptus. This was compounded by a lack of preparedness on the part of the national and provincial governments in terms of fire management, resulting in a fatal combination that devoured valuable natural environments. 

Over the ashes, small producers in one of the poorest regions of the country and environmental organisations continue to assess the damage. An inevitable question now arises: will it be possible to restore the natural environments that were burned? The answers are still provisional, but they allow us to begin to think about strategies for recovery and prevention in the future, seeking to avoid a repetition of disasters such as this one. 

The province 

Corrientes is an Argentine province located in the northeastern region of the country, bordering Brazil and Paraguay. It is located in an area with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, with almost 40 percent of the population unable to cover their basic needs, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC).

However, it is one of the most biodiverse provinces in Argentina, known for its valuable natural attractions, including the second largest freshwater reservoir in Latin America after the Amazon: the Iberá Wetlands. Its main productive activities are cattle raising and the cultivation of rice, citrus fruits and yerba mate.

It is also the Argentine province with the largest area of forests planted with exotic species, such as pines and eucalyptus, which are used for the timber and paper industry and cover about 500,000 hectares, according to data from the National Inventory of Forest Plantations of the National Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries

The wildfires

The latest official report from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) indicated that between 15 January and 27 February, 1,042,514 hectares were burned, a figure that makes the fires in Corrientes one of the largest to have occurred in Argentina in recent decades. The data collected by the technicians indicate that most of the environments devoured by the fire were marshes, wetlands, scrublands and pastures. Besides, more than 34,000 hectares of native forests were also lost. 

The fire also had serious effects on the native fauna of the area, which includes endemic and endangered species such as caraya monkeys, anteaters and peccaries, as well as various birds such as macaws and capuchins, among others.

Although there is still no precise data on the number of animals that died as a result of the fires, the general environmental degradation will have a significant impact on their habitats, affecting their living and reproductive habits.

The causes of this unprecedented catastrophe are numerous. One of the main ones is the long drought caused by La Niña current, a natural climatic phenomenon that delays the rainy season in several South American countries. In addition, extreme temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius favour the spread of fires.

After visiting the affected areas, Cecilia Nicolini, Secretary of Climate Change of the National Ministry of Environment, said in an interview with a national newspaper that the disaster in the north of the country is one of the direct consequences of this global phenomenon. "What happened in Corrientes teaches us that climate change is here, it is no longer an agenda for the future, as it used to be," she said. 

The struggle of small producers

The fires did not only cause environmental damage, but also millions in economic losses that will affect the region's entire productive system. While the national and provincial governments have announced assistance programmes aimed at the recovery of various sectors, there are small producers who have lost all their work and are facing a scenario of uncertainty about what is to come. 

This is the case of the apiculture workers of a cooperative in Loreto, a small town located 200 kilometres from Corrientes. "The fire destroyed 80 percent of the beehives and we lost 15 years of work. The little that was left standing won't be enough to produce honey because there are no flowers or water for the bees," says Diana Aguirre, head of an association of some 30 beekeepers.

In other years, this group of small producers obtained up to 4 tonnes of honey, which was destined for the domestic market and exported to Europe after being characterised at source with varieties from citrus, eucalyptus and native forests. 

In addition to the loss of this genuine source of income, the apiculturists lament the loss of the fundamental role that bees play in an ecosystem that has been completely devastated.

"This not only affected our hives, but also those of native bees that are naturally in the environment and were lost, destroying their pollination services. These bees were already being affected by the use of agrochemicals on the crops and now the fires could be fatal for them," said Diana, who hopes that state policies will reach her sector, as well as of others in the area who lost their mini-crops of pumpkin or yucca and will have to start again from scratch. 

Fire in the water

After the Amazon in Brazil, the Esteros del Iberá are the largest wetlands in South America and represent one of the largest freshwater reservoirs. This valuable ecosystem has been protected since 2018 through the Iberá National Park, a nature reserve of more than 180,000 hectares of which 94,000 hectares were devoured by fire, representing about 60 percent of the area. 

"Most of the wildlife managed to take refuge in the environments protected by the adjacent Provincial Park, which was also affected by the fire, but to a smaller extent," Sebastián Di Martino, biologist and Conservation Director of Rewilding Argentina, an NGO that implements projects in Corrientes, Chaco and Patagonia provinces, told FairPlanet. "In Iberá, the National Park and Provincial Park together cover some 750,000 hectares and are one of the largest protected areas in Argentina. This will play a fundamental role in the recovery of landscapes and wildlife."

"That is why we believe that size matters a lot in conservation," Di Martino added. "If this catastrophe had happened in a smaller protected area, the damage would be total, but we are confident in the resilience of this environment and that the results of the ecosystem functions that we have recovered through the reintroduction of species in recent years are going to work." 

For Di Martino, fire is an element that has always been present in Iberá and with which they are used to working in controlled conditions. "In Iberá we live with fire. The grassland is an environment that is used to burning and has the capacity to recover. Fires are caused either by lightning strikes during a storm or by cattle ranchers looking to renew pastures for their livestock, but this year's particular conditions meant that the fire could not be controlled and I think that is where the problem lies: we need better fire management policies," he says. 

"That is where the problem lies: we need better fire management policies."

When the fires broke out in Corrientes, the lack of preparedness by state agencies, both national and provincial, became evident, as they engaged in a media war of accusations that only confirmed the widespread confusion in dealing with these issues.

The fires attempted to be controlled by volunteer fire stations without resources, which generated a wave of solidarity campaigns throughout the country that spread through social networks and raised millions. 

But the underlying problem will continue, and colossal fires like the one in Corrientes could be repeated in places that are betting on productive models that destroy natural environments.

These factors, combined with the visible effects of climate change, suggest that action is urgently needed.

Image by Zach Behrens via Flickr

Article written by:
Cecilia Fernández Castañón
Embed from Getty Images
Almost 800,000 hectares have been consumed by wildfires that have destroyed more than 9 percent of Argentina's Corrientes province.
© ELENA BOFFETTA/AFP via Getty Images
Embed from Getty Images
A view of burned animal as the wildfire destroyed forests, wildlife and houses in Corrientes, Argentina.
© oaquin Meabe/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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