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ARGENTINA | 21-11-2020 08:54

More than one million hectares destroyed by fire in Argentina this year

Environmental calamity continues: over 10,000 square kilometres of land has been destroyed by fire so far this year.

More than one million hectares of land have been devastated by fire so far this year, according to government figures released as the Times went to press. 

Since our special report six weeks ago, an additional 3,111 sq km have been lost to fire. To date, 10,808 square km (1,080,846 hectares) have been lost since the turn of the year – the size of the Caribbean island of Jamaica.

This year, all but one province (San Juan) has suffered blazes serious enough to need assistance from Argentina’s Servicio Nacional del Manejo de Fuego (National Fire Management Service, SNMF).

SNMF officials stress that this an estimate, and the full picture will only become clear once all the fires have been extinguished, whenever that may be.

Though the extent of the blazes has been reduced over the last few weeks, thanks to thousands of individual firefighters supported by spotter and extinguisher planes, fires continue to rage in six provinces: Córdoba, Entre Ríos, Jujuy, Corrientes, Río Negro and Neuquén.

Córdoba and Entre Ríos have borne the brunt of the damage, with 6,363 sq km burnt in those two provinces alone – equivalent to the landmass of the state of Delaware in the United States.

Powerful rainstorms in the latter half of October extinguished all the fires in Córdoba (326,800 hectares burnt so far this year), but overnight Thursday emergency services were called out to tackle a new blaze in the hamlet of San Carlos Minas in the northwest of the province.  

Fires have also returned to Entre Rios (309,460 hectares), in the islands of the Paraná delta close to the city of Rosario. 

On Thursday, environmental campaigners in the province made a judicial claim to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, CIDH), calling for urgent action to tackle fires in one of the largest and most biodiverse regions in the world.

Activists from Mundo Aparte and El Paraná NO se toca said “fundamental human rights to life, security and a healthy environment” were being contravened by the fires, many of which are suspected to have been started deliberately. 

In their November Informe Nacional de Peligro de Incendios de Vegetacion summary, the SNMF records a total of 145 serious fires during October: 38 of them in Jujuy province alone, 

where a total of 37,240 hectares have been affected by fire in the year so far – more than double the area burnt in the previous three years put together (18,205 hectares). 

Blazes continue to ravage Calilegua national park, damaging 9,295 hectares so far, 12 percent of the area of the national park which is home to jaguars, capuchin monkeys and more than 370 species of birds.

The most serious blaze at Zanjón Seco, which straddles Ruta 34 to the Bolivian border, has been burning now for two months. It is said to be “contained”, but further fires have broken out at the southern border of the park, close to the city of Libertador San Martín. 

Jujuy’s Environment Minister María Inés Zigarán said: “There’s environmental damage to the mass of forest and biodiversity that we aren’t even able to assess yet.” 

Last weekend, the official was joined by the nation’s Environment Minister Juan Cabandié for a helicopter flight to survey the devastation.

 Cabandié later said: “Climate change is not an abstract concept, it’s a reality that we are suffering. We have to discard the practice of burning as a means of production. We can’t degrade the environment using a method that belongs to another time and place.”

The SNMF stressed that the weather system of La Niña provoked a combustible mix, with rain still below normal levels, and temperatures higher than usual at this time of year.

While the north of the country is coming towards the end of the dry season, and the highest risk of fire outbreaks, in Mendoza, La Pampa, San Luis and south east Buenos Aires “dangerous conditions normally increase” over the summer.

This is mirrored in Patagonia, with temperatures above normal for this time of year. A fire broke out on Wednesday in woodland at the beauty spot of Lago Gutiérrez near Nahual Huapi national park in Río Negro, which attracts visitors as the weather warms up.

One local said: “It’s a latent fire risk because people go into the woods and make fires to cook asado and spend the day and it’s dangerous. People camp and leave lots of rubbish.” 

 A blaze also broke out earlier this week in one of the peatbogs of native woodland near Ruta 23 at Tierra Fertil in the provincial park of the Mitre peninsula, Tierra del Fuego, but it was quickly extinguished.

The peatbogs, or tuberas, of the peninsula are key to the battle against climate change, as they are the biggest stores of carbon capture in the country.
 

SNMF stats from 1/1/20 to 15/11/20

Province  – Hectares

Córdoba – 326,800

Entre Ríos – 309,460

Chaco – 85,000

Salta – 71,870

San Luis – 47,642

Jujuy  – 37,240

Río Negro – 36,357

Catamarca – 31,220

Santiago del Estero – 29,533

Formosa – 20,459

Santa Fe – 19,058

Neuquén – 15,541

Mendoza – 13,908

Tucumán – 11,390

Corrientes – 7,876

Chubu – 6,263

La Pampa – 5,695

La Rioja – 2,397

Misiones – 1,732

Buenos Aires – 1,104

Santa Cruz – 302

Tierra del Fuego – 0.5

Total1,080,847

 

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Nick Evans

Nick Evans

Nick Evans is a British journalist and tour guide based in Salta, Argentina. Since 2008, he has been running Poncho Tours, a travel company specialising in tailor-made tours in northwest Argentina, with his wife.

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