By Gustavo Torres
The Ñeembucú wetlands, which cover more than 1 million hectares exceptionally rich in biodiversity and water reserves, are threatened by expanding agricultural frontiers in Paraguay.
Located in the extreme southwestern corner of the country, these wetlands, consisting of rivers, streams, ponds, streams, creeks, lakes and springs, are natural offshoots of the Guaraní Aquifer, an underground freshwater reservoir that extends throughout the subsoil of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. It is of high agricultural and geostrategic value for the four countries that make up the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR).
Social organizations in the Ñeembucú department have warned of the threats to this important ecosystem due to water diversion for irrigation and increased pesticide use, mainly on rice crops.
Under the slogan “Let´s save the wetlands,” the Union of Ñeembucú Civic Organizations (UOCÑ) — comprised of more than 20 environmental, political, religious, campesino, and educational groups — has channeled its efforts to protect this fragile ecosystem where diverse species of flora and fauna reside and which also connects to the Yberá wetlands in the province of Corrientes, Argentina.
Production advancement, or environmental disaster?
Several experts agree that the encroachment of agricultural frontiers and changes in water flow in the Ñeembucú estuaries will inevitably cause the destruction of many plant and animal species, as well as eventual environmental pollution.
For José Alfredo Salinas Daiub of the Ecological Movement of Southern Wetlands and professor at the Universidad Nacional de Pilar, “the problem is compounded by the increased export of agricultural commodities (soybean, sunflower, wheat, corn, rice, etc.); their large-scale production in addition to agribusiness agents — primarily of rice and soybeans — are expanding their reach into this region of immense natural value.”
Salinas Daiub adds that “the escalation of production in light of increased demand for rice has led to increased use of fertilizers and pesticides on crops in agricultural zones located in sensitive areas such as the Ñeembucú wetlands.”
“Diverting the estuary waters to the main irrigation canals destroys the natural habitats for spawning fish, camalotales [water hyacinths], capybaras [rodents] and the crustaceans that are the usual source of food for herons and storks,” Salinas Daiub told Latinamerica Press.
The environmentalist and academic warns that “the indiscriminate use of pesticides in rice fields throughout wetlands regions, the camalotales — which purify water with their root system and where birds and fish nest — end up resistant to herbicides like glyphosate or paraquat. This means there would be a constantly increasing need to use [these products] and depend on their multinational manufacturers, as the agrochemicals market would be secured for them, while the population will be disconnected from a healthy and natural environment.”
The rapid movement of mechanized agriculture and the establishment of rice plantations without an environmental license in the Ñeembucú wetlands triggered a response from the ñeembuqueña population, including in Pilar, the departmental capital. Since 2007, environmentalist movements began to emerge, made up of students, academics and small rural producers from Ñeembucú and the neighboring department of Misiones, demanding the right to live in a healthier and more natural environment.
These organizations have been conducting public meetings since 2009 in all of the departmental districts where people are affected by this problem, and have forced local and departmental authorities, the government´s Environment Secretariat (SEAM), members of the Standing Committee of the National Congress and the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies, to take a stand on the matter.
“This group of organizations in a short amount of time became, without forgetting their roots, the Union of Ñeembucú Civic Organizations [UOCÑ], forming a strong and powerful social force, with press, science and research, social , cultural, public policy and environmental offices that reflect the social spectrum of the department of Ñeembucú, “said Salinas.
The UOCÑ said in a recent statement that “from the public hearings messages have emerged that are clear, united, and significant: that we must move swiftly towards a development model that is sustainable, rational, environmentally sound, and is compatible with agricultural, industrial, and tourist development and any other activity that has to do with the conservation of nature.”
UOCÑ´s actions managed to get SEAM and the Senate´s National Defense Commission for Natural Resources (CONADERNA) to promote, since late March, the Ñeembucú wetlands a protected area at the international level.
This came following a major public hearing in the Senate where the status of the Ñeembucú wetlands was discussed with producers of rice and organic crops, social movements and government institutions; it was attended by officials from SEAM and the Prosecutor´s office, as well as residents of affected areas.
The next step is the presentation of a draft amendment to the Water Resources Act, to expand chapter IX with regards to wetlands conservation and management.
SEAM recently declared the wetlands to be of National Environmental Interest, but they are not protected. Therefore, the next step is the submission by environmental authorities of a draft amendment to the Water Resources Act to expand the chapter on wetlands conservation and management and from there, to encourage the inclusion of the Ñeembucú wetlands in the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement for the conservation and wise use of wetlands in the world, of which Paraguay is a signatory, and declare it a Ramsar site.
In a presentation made on March 30 to CONADERNA, the director of Protected Areas at SEAM, Rafael González, said that “a wetland is determined to be a Ramsar site when it is of international importance because of its biological richness, and when it serves as a refuge for a significant number of seasonal migratory waterfowl.”
For the Ñeembucú wetlands to be declared a Ramsar site, González said, “numerous activities are being carried out in collaboration with local and departmental authorities in Ñeembucú,” including land management initiatives, increased local training and a search for alternative development paths for the region, such as promoting eco-tourism, legal appropriateness, and the promotion of sustainable productive development, among others.”
Parliamentarian Olga Ferreira, of the Patria Querida Party, stated that she is working on a bill to declare the Ñeembucú wetlands a protected area and prevent large-scale farming within them to avoid its negative environmental impacts.