Wildfires on one of the world's largest wetlands

The beautiful landscape of Ibera's wetlands is now yet another example of the destruction of climate change.

Molly Watson
5th March 2022
Ibera's wetlands are burning to a dangerous extent. Image: Emilio White
What if I told you there was a place where crystal clear water ran round pockets of grassland and rainforest, with islands of floating vegetation? In spring and summer carpets of flowers would flow round the islands, and the water was so deep horses swam alongside schools of fish. Caiman would bask on the banks, pink spoonbills would fly overhead, and spotted cats would slink through the undergrowth. Now, what if I told you that this place, which was once so bustling with life, is being burnt alive?

The place I have just described to you is the Esteros de Iberá, the world's second largest wetland. Iberá is found in the province of Corrientes in northern Argentina, which has been experiencing a severe drought since mid-November 2021, having rained less than 10% of the summer average. Prescribed burning and accidentally started fires has led to uncontrolled blazes burning 800,000 hectares (9%) of the province this year alone.

The origins of prescribed burning are highly disputed, but the practice has been used for the past century by cattle ranchers to produce new growth for livestock. In recent decades climate change has led to unpredictable rainfall and severe droughts making it harder to control the fires; they have unfortunately become an annual occurrence. In this rural province, which is dependent on ecotourism and agriculture, and where an estimated 49.3% of the population lives below the poverty line, the consequences have been devastating.

So, you might be thinking at this point, how terrible, but why does this far-flung corner of the planet matter? Well, the Iberá wetlands are one of the last strongholds for many vulnerable and endangered species, globally wetlands support over 40% of our flora and fauna. They are also the most efficient carbon syncs, protecting us from global climate change and extreme weather events.

Caiman gather in the only water they can find. Image: Emilio White

Iberá has thus been the focus of a major rewilding project run by the Rewilding Argentina Foundation. The project aims to preserve and restore ecosystems, as well as providing opportunities for local people. This is because complete ecosystems are better able to stabilise our climate. Iberá has been threatened for decades by cattle ranching and forestry, and now it is facing this new threat, which could compromise the decades of hard work by organisations like Rewilding Argentina.

Whilst the fires blaze and underfunded firefighters and volunteers fight the flames a political debate ensues between Juan Cabandié, the Minister for the Environment from the Victoria party, and Gustavo Valdés, Governor of Corrientes from the Unión Cívica Radical party. When the fires first became a major problem in January 2022 the Corrientes authorities requested hydrant plains, specialist equipment, and backup from the national government, but they never responded.

A howler monkey looks out over a burnt forest. Image: Emilio White

Whilst unsustainable land management practices, and corrupt governments are responsible for the severity of the current situation, climate change is arguably the driver behind it. The ecological ramifications have been horrifying, but countless homes and livelihoods have also been lost. Climate change is happening here and now, and it is destroying the very places that have the power to help us fight it.

If you would like to learn more about the importance of the world’s wetlands or you are considering donating, please look at the following resources:

The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust https://www.wwt.org.uk/

The Collett Trust for Endangered Species – Reserva Don Luis https://www.collett-trust.org/

The Rewilding Argentina Foundation - https://rewildingargentina.org/home-eng/

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