Smoke from fires roaring through a vast drought-dried wetland area has reached Buenos Aires, spurring a lawsuit and legislative action
By Marcela Valente
BUENOS AIRES, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As Argentina suffers through one of its worst droughts in decades, fires in the Paraná Delta - the country's largest wetland - are billowing smoke as far away as Buenos Aires, residents said.
The fires, on land normally used for grazing, appear to have been sparked by ranchers burning pastures to clear them, a traditional practice, according to government officials.
But the blazes are now so large and persistant they have provoked government debate and a lawsuit.
The head of the National Fire Management Service, Alberto Seufferheld, estimated that the fires, which began in January, have now spread over an area of about 90,000 hectares, more than four times the area of Buenos Aires, the capital.
They have not sparked widespread evacuations but threaten the region's biodiversity - including animals such as the capybara, the world's largest rodent - and are boosting climate-changing emissions.
The blazes prompted Argentina's parliament to last week begin discussing a national wetlands protection law, which calls for an inventory of the country's wetlands, better protection for them and penalities for those who set intentional fires.
The fires also have sparked a Supreme Court lawsuit demanding the delta receive stronger protections on behalf of future generations.
LOSSES TO NATURE
The Paraná River, and its delta of about 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres), is suffering its worst drought in 50 years.
Once waterlogged areas - including marshes, streams and lagoons - are now dry, with dried-out vegetation helping fuel the flames of fires.
Smoke - visible as a haze of red across the horizon - has poured into the nearby cities of Rosario and Paraná and reached as far as the capital last week.
Natalia Morandeira, a wetlands biologist at the National University of San Martin, said the delta area was hugely biologically diverse.
A study published in June by Morandeira and others warned that satellites images had shown about 3,700 areas of high temperature - some likely to be fires - in the delta that month, the highest number in nine years.
By the end of July, such "hot spots" had tripled to more than 9,000, the highest level since 2008, she said in a telephone interview.
Extreme drought is expected to linger for at least three more months in the northeast region of Argentina, the country's fire management service has predicted.
Fire-fighting planes and helicopters and forest firefighters have tried to combat the blaze since January. It is now "contained but not extinct," the fire service's Seufferheld told Argentina's national news agency.
Residents of Rosario, the city closest to the fires, said smoke inhalation presented a risk with people already concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and wearing masks to try to prevent its spread.
"Since January, we are breathing smoke day and night and we also have a visibility problem," Laura Prol, of the Rosario Ecologist Workshop, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.
But she said she was most worried about losses of wildlife and plants in the delta, which she said might be "devastating".
The region has hundreds of species of plants, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians and other animals.
A small number of cattle ranchers, fishermen, beekeepers and tourism providers also live on islands in the delta.
"I spoke to islanders and they are covered by smoke," Morandeira said.
The Paraná Ecologist Forum in Argentine's Entre Rios province in July brought a lawsuit in the country's Supreme Court appealing for ecosystems such as the Paraná Delta to be better protected for future generations.
On behalf of seven children, the forum asked that the delta be given the same legal protections as an individual.
The forum's lawyer, Aldana Sasia, said that if the court upholds the suit it would be the first example of a climate ruling that aims to protect an ecosystem for future generations in Argentina.
The plaintiffs argued that the delta is deteriorating "drastically" because grazing and farming have become too intensive and that its recovery "is essential for climate change mitigation and adaptation".
Burning causes dramatic increases in climate-changing emissions, driving "the climate crisis humanity is facing", the lawsuit said.
Pasture-clearing fires are a regular feature of the delta landscape, but worsening drought and fire "puts these ecosystems at risk of devastation, exceeding any level of resilience that native species might present," the study by biologist Morandeira and others said.
With the lawsuit, "we are not looking to prevent fires but to change land use", particularly in terms of reducing intensive grazing, Sasia said in a telephone interview.
Massive fires in the delta in 2008 brought smoke to Buenos Aires, where the delta ends, and led to a ban on unauthorized burning. However, this year the rules have been breached, Morandeira said.
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(Reporting by Marcela Valente ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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