Uruguay - Argentina


Pollution up in smoke



For the past week, almost 100 thousand hectares of grasslands are burning in the Paraná Delta, Entre Ríos and Santa Fe, generating a dense cloud of smoke that is carried by the wind and has engulfed the city of Buenos Aires and the south of the province. The smoke has also affected the cities of southern Uruguay, covering the riverside city of Colonia, as well as Montevideo and Punta del Este, and even Rocha, on the border with Brazil.




The Argentinean government has laid the blame on 300 producers, owners and tenants of these fields, who it accuses of “greed,” having intentionally started these fires to avoid the costs of mechanically and/or chemically cleaning their lands to make them fallow. They have all been reported to the judicial authorities, who are investigating the origin of the fires.


Hundreds of people, including 137 children, have been treated in hospitals around Buenos Aires. Most of these patients complained of respiratory problems. After several accidents involving multiple vehicles, with mortal and seriously wounded victims, a dozen routes in the affected area were closed intermittently on account of the scarce visibility that rendered circulation dangerous.


In Montevideo, emergency healthcare services registered a 30 percent increase in the number of calls from people suffering from a variety of smoke-related complaints.


The Argentinean Minister of the Environment, Romina Picolotti, accused producers of acting “barbarically,” because as soon as firefighters and rescue workers put out the fires, producers ignited new ones.


If Picolotti and the Argentinean government are right, in addition to the criminal and civil liabilities that these terrible actions may involve, the situation exposes the extremes of immorality that are possible when one acts motivated solely by the desire to make a profit at all costs. Subjecting 15 million people to an unprecedented aggression, destroying the ecosystems of the burnt areas, rekindling fires extinguished by firefighters, generating potentially mortal highway conditions… when it comes to making money, anything goes.

Little does it matter if these producers are raising cattle or planting soybean: the production system and the mentality are one and the same. This should not surprise us, as these same “productive agents” have been bombarding the region with glyphosate and other herbicides, fertilizers and insecticides for years, with the complicity of the governments, forcing genetically modified crops right up to our doorstep.


Many of these chemical products are applied indiscriminately, and the soil receives such high levels of agro-toxic chemicals that they seep down into the groundwater. These substances have even contaminated the recharge area of the Guaraní Aquifer, the world’s largest fresh water underground reserve. Unfortunately, these substances do not give off smoke, and therefore the damage is easier to hide, although it is no doubt much more widespread in space and in time and its effects in terms of environmental contamination and human health risks are much more severe.


This time the “barbaric attitude” was exposed to the public. But when the fire is extinguished and the smoke clears, pollution will remain and will continue to spread, on both sides of the Uruguay and Plata Rivers.


It would be naïve to expect an ethical attitude from any of these social and political actors, who will only feel they have to limit their actions if they are pressured by a society that is aware of the problem. Perhaps this “dress rehearsal” of an environmental catastrophe will help the majorities realize that today it’s smoke, but tomorrow it may be something much worse. That smoke is something you can see and breathe, but that there are other contaminants that go unnoticed for a long time. And that there is only one environment and it belongs to us all, an environment without borders, without diving walls, and without encapsulated “private properties.”


Let’s hope we can see through the smoke screens.  

From Montevideo, Carlos Amorín
April 21, 2008





Photo 1: Port of Montevideo (Uruguay), 4-18-2008 8:30 am (Yenny Bessonart)

Photo 2: Sierra de las Ánimas (Uruguay) emerging behind the cloud of smoke,
             4-19-2008 6:00 pm (Rel-UITA)

Photo 3: Cerro Pan de Azúcar (Uruguay), 4-19-2008  6:30 pm (Rel-UITA)

Photo 4: Rural area of the Department of Maldonado (Uruguay)



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