Disasters & Accidents

Fires causing incalculable biodiversity damage in NE Argentina

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Buenos Aires, Feb 23 (EFE).- Wildfires in the northeastern Argentine province of Corrientes for weeks have been burning everything in their path and have now scorched 40 percent of the surface area of the Ibera National Park, which includes wetlands, grassland and native forest that have suffered “incalculable” damage to their biodiversity as a result.

According to the latest report from the Environment Ministry on Wednesday, 10 fires remain active in Corrientes, five of them near and within Ibera, which is one of the country’s largest ecological preserves.

So far, the fires have burned a total of 785,238 hectares (about two million acres), almost 9 percent of the province’s total land area, of which 245,110 ha are swamps, 225,015 ha are grassland and another 28,733 ha are native forest, according to figures from the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA), as updated on Feb. 16.

Located in southern Corrientes, the Ibera National Park is a natural enclave of more than 183,000 ha with more than 4,000 species of flora and fauna.

The zone is the site of sporadic wildfires that eliminate underbrush so that the ecosystem can clear itself of excess debris, but the fires declared in early January are unique in terms of their dimensions and virulence due to a fateful combination of prolonged drought, extreme temperatures and low humidity.

“Since there’s no water and very high temperatures, we have an awful lot of fires that are affecting huge areas and with a terrible intensity,” Sebastian di Martino, a biologist and the conservation chief for Rewilding Argentina, an organization that manages several projects to reintroduce various species into Ibera, told EFE.

Thus, provincial Gov. Gustavo Valdes on Wednesday announced a program valued at 400 million pesos (about $3.7 million) to fund “reconstruction” of the park.

“We’re going to go out and seek the necessary resources, from national and international entities, so that this provincial asset of Ibera also becomes an asset of Argentines and the world,” said Valdes, who on Tuesday approved another 2.8 billion peso aid package for producers.

Formerly a place for observing flora and wildlife, the images being broadcast on Wednesday from Ibera are devastating: caymans seeking refuge among the thickets, deer fleeing across the plain and capybaras hunting for food among the ashes.

For now, Rewilding Argentina has successfully evacuated all the animals it was maintaining in pens while they awaited reintroduction into the natural habitat, but Di Martino said that there will be “many deaths” among the wildlife, above all in the native forests, which are zones that do not suffer regular fires.

“The impact on the fauna is going to be high. The capybaras, the alligators and the deer from the marshes are seeking places with water and today there are no places with water, they’ve few and far between, and so they’re surrounded by the fire and they’re dying,” the biologist said.

The fires have also destroyed hundreds of kilometers of fencing, raising the risk that the park animals will begin to “compete” for food with cattle in surrounding pastures.

“If the cows get in, they’re going to put extra pressure on the grasslands and that will be catastrophic, as well as being terrible competition for the fauna that is already hit hard, because the herbivores that have been punished by the fire are going to be competing and are going to be displaced by the livestock,” Di Martino said.

In the Rewilding expert’s opinion, the reconstitution of the park’s different ecosystems will take time. The grassland will require a minimum of two or three years to recover, while the forests will take decades to return to their state before the fires.

In any case, Di Martino emphasized the “resilience” of the rea, which in recent years has recovered a good portion of its key carnivore, herbivore and fruit-eating species.

“Certainly, Ibera today is a better prepared ecosystem than 10 years ago to face the catastrophic effects of the fire. An ecosystem that is more complete, more functional, recovers better from catastrophes,” Di Martino said.

EFE jacb/rgm/jls/bp

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