22 April 2008

Smoked: It's blame time!

The authorities are saying that 60–80% of the fires on the islands of the Paraná river delta are under control, and given the expected wind patterns Buenos Aires is unlikely to be covered by smoke again (though some say Buenos Aires is likely to be covered by smoke again!).

Here in Rosario we've seen no more of it after the ash-filled smelly cloud that appeared last Friday evening and stayed until Saturday afternoon, though there was some smoke blowing in again on Monday evening.

Se vino el humo II

The eastern and southern horizons continue to be covered with an almost uniform smoky blanket, gray during the day and turning a sick shadow of purple before sunset. It goes south, mostly, but as soon as the wind shifts it will surely come back. As I write this, National Route 9 is closed to traffic because of the smoke and an accident involving three trucks, and the Rosario–Victoria Bridge is, once again, closed as well. People keep complaining of eye and throat irritation. The fires near Victoria, across the delta, are still far from contained.

The smoke is not merely smelly, dirty or irritating, since it's not just burning plant matter — there are about 220 thousand head of cattle on the islands, each producing 21 times as much waste as a human being. All that dung is burning and raining on an area shaped like an elongated trapezoid, its shorter base, between Rosario and Victoria, being 60 km wide, and the longer one, located 300 km south-southwest at the mouth of the Río de la Plata, about double or triple that width.

Now the Uruguayans are also mad at us — first we block their international bridges in protest for a paper mill that was supposed to pollute our air and water, and, while said paper mill cleanly and flawlessly works as it should, we sit idly as the whole delta of the Paraná turns into smoke and sends that smoke their way, and then we realize the situation is grave (i.e. the smoke has reached the upper-class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires) and desperately start trying to put the fire out with more courage than equipment.

The fires, as an official conservative estimate, have devastated 70,000 hectares (700 km² or 173,000 acres) of the delta's islands. The government of Santa Fe wants to turn the Paraná's islands and wetlands into a protected area, like a national park. Governor Hermes Binner has demanded that Sergio Urribarri, governor of Entre Ríos, do something about the whole issue, because that's their jurisdiction, and they're the ones who allowed ranchers to overpopulate the islands and burn them to clear the scrub. Binner ironically repeated what Rosario's mayor had said about the smoke — "We've lived with these problems every year. Fortunately this time the smoke reached Buenos Aires, so it's everybody's concern now."

The fires aren't just a source of smoke, but they've also killed off the whole ecosystem. Of course grass will grow again; that's the purpose of the fires. But the islands are (were) much more than simply grassy plains for cows to graze on. The destruction originally began when the numbers of cattle multiplied by 15 in a matter of years. Those cows' excrement and urine are full of nutrients that the environment cannot absorb properly. When algae get hold of them, they choke the streams where they grow, then die and rot, and this causes a proliferation of bacteria that consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, killing the fish and the rest of the aquatic fauna (the process is called eutrophication).

A lawyer is accusing Romina Picolotti, Secretary of the Environment, for her handling (or lack thereof) of the problem. Picolotti is an environmentalist who used to counsel the Gualeguaychú Assembly regarding the Uruguayan pulp mills (remember?), and I thought she would be at least alarmed, but she acts like a bureaucrat and seems to have blended extremely well into the state of general indifference to real problems that characterizes the Argentine government. Like somebody said (I overheard on TV) she realized there was a problem when the smoke started coming in through her windows.

Among the impending failure of the negotiations with the agricultural producers, the governments has resorted to finger pointing, accusing farmers of burning fields with no regard for human life only to reap more money from crops. This is strictly true, but then the majority of the farmers who've done nothing wrong were justly enraged. The government was unsubtly trying to shift all the blame on their chosen enemies of the day.

Yesterday, grassroots agro-leader Alfredo De Angeli remarked that, back when the roads were blocked, the people were armed so as to defend themselves in case the truck drivers sent by Hugo Moyano (head of the truckers' union, allied to the government) tried to force them out. Within hours, prosecutor Guillermo Marijuán filed an accusation against De Angeli for "inciting violence". Marijuán being usually independent, one must wonder whether he sold out, or was pressured by the government, or was simply stupid. De Angeli is an aggressive activist, to be sure, but his comment was a description of the tense environment of the road block, not a call to arms.

The last ridiculous development on this sad story is the indictment of a rural worker who was found setting fields on fire. This person couldn't possibly do much on his own, and certainly not without orders from an employer or permission from the owner of the field. In our slang this is called a perejil — a kind of scapegoat, but one specifically chosen due to his complete lack of power to influence the big picture (like a street drug dealer that gets jail time because of an ounce of marijuana, while the one that brings the dope in by tons stays free).

My own impression is that the national administration is lost and, faced by problems on several fronts, behaves like a caged tiger, almost blind with fury. Ten days from now the farmers' "truce" will end, and it's quite possible that the fires, or the problems caused by them, won't have been extinguished by then. In the meantime, Secretary of Commerce Guillermo Moreno wants to seize cattle from their owners to sell on the market and keep the price down. Inflation continues to rise, and the government stays on denial. They're going to indebt the country heavily to build a bullet train that only rich people will be able to afford. Our capacity to produce electricity and natural gas is strained. The power fees are going to rise soon. Paraguay's new president wants to renegotiate the price of the energy from Yacyretá they sell to Argentina.

1 comment:

  1. For perejil, we'd probably use fall guy in English.


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