Paraguay: Wildfires rip through world’s largest wetland; affecting indigenous people and biodiversity

Paraguay officials are battling fierce wildfires for a third consecutive year as a severe drought and a winter heatwave hit the South American country.

Vast areas of Paraguay have been affected, with blazes concentrated in the northeastern administrative departments of Concepcion and Amambay.

Thick smoke has reached the capital Asuncion, leaving the sky yellow and severely reducing air quality.

Fires have been seen in at least five protected forested areas with 70 percent of the Cerro Cora National Park, a 5,836-hectare area of immense ecological and historical importance, consumed by flames, according to official figures.

“High temperatures, strong winds, and low humidity”, combined with an ongoing drought, were creating ideal conditions for wildfires Dario Perez, a specialist in forest fires with Paraguay’s volunteer fire service said.

The drought has seen the Parana River, South America’s second-longest waterway, which flows through Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina drop to its lowest level in 77 years.

The current severe drought conditions may have links to broader environmental issues, said Roger Monte Domecq, professor of hydrology at the National University of Asuncion.

“We know that droughts are natural, they’ve always happened, but they’re now getting worse due to land-use change and deforestation in the region, and climate change.”

In 2019, devastating wildfires burned 320,000 hectares of forested areas in Paraguay. In 2020, another 150,000 hectares of forest were affected according to INFONA.

“I must emphasise that 90 to 95 percent of the wildfires in Paraguay are started by humans,” said Perez. “They are fires that get out of control: accidentally or perhaps deliberately.”

He said while burning rubbish was the principal cause of blazes in urban areas, fires in rural Paraguay were mostly produced by agricultural burning practices used to renew pastureland for cattle ranching.

Fires have also been linked to the vast illegal cannabis plantations that dot Paraguay’s national parks.

State institutions have acted to reinforce firefighting capacity on Paraguay’s remote border with Bolivia. Fires in the neighbouring country have already affected 280,000 hectares of forest according to Bolivian authorities. On Monday, flames from those wildfires crossed into Paraguay.

These outbreaks threaten Paraguay’s section of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland and home to enormous biodiversity. Fires in 2019 burned 61,000 hectares of the delicate ecosystem, according to NGO Guyra Paraguay.

Fires in this area also threaten the Paraguayan section of the Gran Chaco, South America’s second-largest forest.

This represents a grave danger for the Ayoreo Totogosobie, the continent’s last Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation outside the Amazon.