Asuncion, 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.
Paraguay, 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.
According 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.
This 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.
Lucy 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.
Additionally, 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.
The 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.
New outbreaks have been reported by emergency teams near Bahia Negra with videos recorded on Saturday and provided to Al Jazeera showing smoke still rising from the forest.
Groups say gov’t slow to respond
The 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 president.
In some 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.
Additionally, 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.
Victor 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.
Benitez told Al Jazeera that authorities “simply don’t have a prevention mechanism for these events”.
On Monday, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez travelled to the affected area of the Pantanal to show his support.
“We’ve come to support our people and we’re going to stay here until the danger has passed,” he said.
On the 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.
Abdo Benitez has previously ordered an investigation into the cause of the recent fires, saying if they were caused by individuals, responsible parties would face consequences.
WWF Paraguay’s 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.
“Despite the fact that we have a law against these practices, people continue to do it,” she said.
In a 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.
Rapid 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.