Tens of thousands of hectares destroyed as environmentalists call on government to take greater action against the fires.
Paraguay - Wildfires have raged over vast swaths of South America in recent
weeks, including in Paraguay where blazes have destroyed tens of thousands of
hectares of protected wetlands and other areas.
a landlocked nation bordering Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, has lost roughly
40,000 hectares of forest from the perennial floodplains in the north of its
sparsely populated western Chaco region, since mid-August, according to Guyra
Paraguay, a non-government organisation. These floodplains form part of the
Pantanal, the world's largest tropical wetlands - an area of enormous
ecological importance that also stretches into Brazil and Bolivia.
to Paraguayan Department for National Emergencies (SEN), fires began in parts
of the Paraguayan Pantanal on August 16. An area near the remote town of Bahia
Negra, which sits on the triple border between Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil,
saw 21,000 hectares burn over just two days, SEN said.
included the loss of an estimated 60 percent of the Three Giants Biological Reserve,
a 15,000-hectare conservation area that hosts the only research centre in the
Paraguayan Pantanal, according to Guyra Paraguay, which manages the reserve.
Not far to the northwest, the Cerro Chovoreca Reserve also lost 18,000 hectares
of protected forest.
Aquino, director of WWF Paraguay, told Al Jazeera that the fires have put the
biodiversity of the region - home to 3,500 plant species, 656 bird species, 325
fish species and 159 mammals - in great danger.
people living in the area, including members of indigenous Ayoreo and Yshir
communities, have been affected. Sixty people required urgent medical attention
due to smoke inhalation, according to SEN.
director of SEN, Joaquin Roa, told local media on August 18 that fires
affecting the Paraguayan Pantanal were largely under control. Efforts of
emergency teams alongside rainfall and a change in wind direction have held
reduced their spread. However, there are still fears that changing winds could
bring more fire from Bolivia and Brazil.
say gov't slow to respond
response of Paraguayan authorities to the fires has received criticism. Last
week, senators approved a bill to declare an environmental emergency in the
affected regions of the country, which would require all institutions of the
executive branch of government to work collaboratively with regional
governments to safeguard those in the affected area and to fight the flames.
But it has yet to be approved by Congress's lower chamber and signed by the
areas, it was largely left to limited numbers of volunteer firefighters
travelling in from other regions of Paraguay, alongside local residents and
workers, to tackle the flames, Gustavo Viera, commander of Paraguay's Volunteer
Firefighters Corps' forest fire quick-response unit, told local media.
Guyra Paraguay told local media that it had been reporting outbreaks of fire in
the Pantanal for weeks before any state action was finally taken. The government
has not responded to these claims.
Benitez, environmental adviser for the Frente Guasu, the second-largest
opposition party, claimed the government only reacted after thousands of
hectares of forest had been consumed.
told Al Jazeera that authorities "simply don't have a prevention mechanism
for these events".
Monday, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez travelled to the affected area
of the Pantanal to show his support.
come to support our people and we're going to stay here until the danger has
passed," he said.
same day, Abdo Benitez tweeted that Chilean President Sebastian Pinera
committed to providing a firefighting plane to help Paraguay control the fires.
On Wednesday, Abdo Benítez met Pinera in Asuncion, Paraguay's capital, in
advance of a planned trip by the two presidents to the Pantanal to further
survey the situation.
Benitez has previously ordered an investigation into the cause of the recent
fires, saying if they were caused by individuals, responsible parties would
Aquino does not doubt the human origins of the fires. She said that the
widespread practice of burning grasslands to improve the quality of pasture for
cattle is a constant cause of large-scale forest fires during the dry months of
the Chaco's winter.
the fact that we have a law against these practices, people continue to do
it," she said.
recent declaration made in response to the fires, WWF Paraguay called on the
government to take urgent action to control intentional burning and to create
sustainable policies to protect the country's ecosystems and ecoregions.
deforestation of the Paraguayan Chaco, driven by ever-expanding demand for land
for cattle-ranching and growing soy, make the need for measures extremely
pressing. The most recent available figures show that the area used for
ranching increased by 43 percent in the region from 1991 to 2008, exposing
increasing areas of the region to the dangers of fire-use by ranchers.