Site icon Conservation news

Agrochemicals and industrial waste threaten Argentina’s Gran Chaco

Soy farming and spraying of the land near Sinop. Greenpeace document a number of geographical areas in the Amazon, looking at the impacts of deforestation on various aspects of forest life. They look at people, natural wildlife and the landscape which has drastically altered as huge areas are cleared to meet agricultural demand. Soya plantations are the leading cause of deforestation in the region.

  • Farmers in Argentina are using increasing amounts of herbicides and other agrochemicals to boost their crop yields.
  • In the country’s Gran Chaco region, the unregulated use of agrochemicals has had devastating ecological effects, including the contamination of water sources that residents depend on.
  • The Gran Chaco’s waterways are also under pressure from industrial pollution, heavy metals, oil spills, and arsenic found naturally in underground reservoirs.

Carolina Cendra owns a small field about 20 kilometers, or 12 miles, from the town of Napenay, in Argentina’s Chaco province. On her 10 hectares (25 acres), she grows squash, cassava, and fruit trees, also known as “service crops.”

“About four years ago,” Cendra says, “I had a serious health problem: diarrhea and cramps that prevented me from sleeping. The doctors couldn’t tell me what was the problem. In the end, I was hospitalized for almost a year. It was intestinal poisoning caused by the agrochemicals that the water in my house contained.”

This is not an isolated event. In many other places in Argentina’s Gran Chaco eco-region, water is a scarce resource that requires ingenuity to collect during the rainy season. “We have a tank of about 3,000 liters [800 gallons] on the roof of our house,” Cendra says, “and from it, we get the water to drink, cook, shower and feed the animals.”

Cendra’s farm is surrounded by large fields of soy, corn and wheat. “The aerial spraying began about four years ago. Planes were flying over my house all the time. The first effects of the pesticides were seen on the leaves of squashes as they began to die similarly to when frost damages them. Then, I started to feel bad. It was not just my intestines, all of us at home had red and itchy skin after bathing. We complained and they came to analyze the water. The water in the tank and the well was heavily contaminated by agrochemicals. And although we managed to stop the spraying carried out by airplanes, the effects continues today. I have to take good care of myself when I eat meals, and my oldest daughter has respiratory problems,” Cendra says.

Empty glyphosate containers are found lying next to a farm in the province of Chaco. Image courtesy of Martín Katz/Greenpeace.

There are several factors for the contamination of water sources in Argentina’s Gran Chaco. First, spraying with agrochemicals is a direct consequence of deforestation, which has cleared 5 million hectares (12 million acres) in the past two decades. This deforestation opens the way for the expansion of intensive agriculture and livestock ranching. Second, pollutants are introduced from industrial waste and oil extraction. Third, heavy metals wash downdescend from the upper Pilcomayo Basin. And fourth, diluted arsenic is found in the deeper ground layers. These four sources generate an explosive mix and affect all areas of life.

This article is the second part of Mongabay Latam’s series on the struggle for water in the Argentina’s Gran Chaco, including the impact of water pollution on the environment, biodiversity, protected areas and people. The effects exacerbate existing problems caused by the loss of the forest and the alteration of the soils, key elements that help explain the increasingly extreme cycles of floods and droughts that Mongabay looked at in the first article of this series.

There is no national agrochemical law

Ramón Ríos, who goes by Moncho, heads the Federation of Small Farmers of Chaco. He tells of another farmer, Jorge Goujón, from the town of Colonia Elisa, who grows sorghum, corn and soybeans. The Negro River passes through Goujón’s land.

“About seven years ago they dismantled everything, including the riverbanks,” Ríos says. He adds the family used agrochemicals, testing them on their own farm and teaching other farmers how to use them. At the time, he says, one of Jorge Goujón’s sons, Martín, was the director of the Argentine Association of Direct Sowing Farmers (Aapresid). “Everything they threw went to the river. Nobody ever told them anything. They only slowed down a bit after we made several protests,” Ríos says.

Ríos has seen one of the two worst scourges the Gran Chaco has faced, the other being deforestation. He lists what he considers to be the four parts that make up the problem: economic power, excessive ambition, collusion with the authorities, and a total lack of respect for the health of the environment.

Martín Goujón says the reality is different. “We follow good agricultural practices,” he says. “We use authorized products, we keep the containers so that the company in charge of their collection can take them. We take into account the speed and direction of the wind on the days of application. We also regulate our machines to make sure the drops are the right size and fall on the leaves of our crops and don’t end up on our neighbor’s field.” Goujón, an agricultural engineer, says the family’s farm was already 50% deforested when his father bought it: “Later we cleared the other half but left a forest strip to protect the river.”

“The fact that no national law exists to regulate fumigation is a serious problem,” says Mariana Schmidt, a sociologist and researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) and co-author of a study on the environmental impacts and conflicts due to the use of agrochemicals in northern Argentina.

The only law that applies nationwide is aimed at managing empty containers, although in some areas its implementation and control are practically impossible. “In Salta province in the Chaco, there are many places that are far from paved roads and the access is difficult. There are complaints about rolling to channels, of containers being thrown on the side of the road or on the side of a watercourse. Who can control what is happening there?” Schmidt says.

Regulating agrochemical use is left to provincial authorities, but with inherent shortcomings. The regulations in the provinces of Santiago del Estero and Santa Fe, for instance, date from the last decade of the last century, before the expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier began. In 2012, Chaco province approved an update to its law on pesticides and herbicides, and a year later Salta province released a similar legal framework. In all the cases, however, the results have fallen short, and the implementation, according to experts and community members, has been inconsistent with the letter of the law.

Spraying of herbicides with tractors called “mosquitoes” is considered less harmful to human health than aerial spraying. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

The Pampas region in the Gran Chaco, the prime part of the country for growing soybeans and grains, doesn’t regulate the use of products that increase agricultural yield. Weather conditions exacerbate the situation. “The agronomic recipes provided by the companies that sell and spray are designed for the meteorological conditions that occur in the humid Pampa,” Schmidt says. “But in the north, it is much hotter. The product evaporates faster, and instead of spraying 5 to 10 liters [1.3-2.6 gallons], you have to use 15 to 20 liters [4-5.3 gallons] for the same extension. The impact is greater.”

Darío Pegoraro, president of the Chaco provincial water administration, says he’s aware of the serious situation they are in. “We are aware that the Negro River is the most affected of our rivers and we are intensifying the monitoring and control of industrial effluents,” he says. “We have a laboratory that is a model in the region,” he adds, referring to the analysis center the province now has.

Bees: the first victims

The NGO Rights of Nature, which campaigns for the right to a healthy environment, cites its own data and a study by the consultancy Pampa Group and Sector Economic Investigations showing that in 2018, 525 million liters/kilo of pesticides were used in the country. This means 45 million more liters/kilo of pesticides were used in 2018 than in 2017 and 160 million more than in 2014, the year in which CASAFE, the Chamber of Agricultural Health and Fertilizers —which brings together 80% of the companies in the sector— provided the latest official data available.

A farmer spraying land in Mexico, one of a growing number of countries that has banned the import of the herbicide glyphosate. Image courtesy of SEMARNAT.

Fernando Cabaleiro, a lawyer from Rights of Nature, describes agribusiness as “ecocidal.” “Thousands of biological components are disappearing. In Europe, people are on alert due to the decline in insects,” Cabaleiro said in an article published in June 2019. Bees, whose decline has been notable in recent years, appear to be the first victims in Argentina. Between 2010 and 2018, the number of beehives in the country decreased by 44%, during a period in which the use of agrochemicals grew by 60%, according to Rights of Nature.

“Herbicides and other agrochemicals kill bees. For me, however, it is a conceptual error to hold the farmer responsible if that happens,” says Pablo Chipulina, a producer of organic honey and coordinator of the Chaco Provincial Beekeeping Plan. “There are technological tools to make both activities coexist without problems. The government should provide them though.”

Chipulina, who manages beehives in Güemes department in the north of Chaco province, says those spraying agrochemicals should keep maps of existing hives to avoid spraying areas with bees. This usually doesn’t happen, however, and the damage done is a one-two blow, Chipulina says. “There’s the direct and visible act of killing the bees, and the indirect impact, which is the appearance of glyphosate residues in the honey,” he says.

There appears to be little prospect of tighter regulation of agrochemical use. The 2030 Agricultural Prospective, prepared by the National Undersecretariat of Agriculture and based on the Strategic Agri-Food Plan 2020, foresees an increase in the land area dedicated to crops over the next decade, especially for cereals and oilseeds.

Moments after a bulldozer demolished two trees. The photo was taken in an area of native forest that was cleared in 2019. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

Glyphosate, atrazine, AMPA, 2,4-D and other products, which are banned in much of the world but permitted in Argentina, have harmful effects on soils. Glyphosate-resistant weeds have begun to appear with increasing frequency throughout the entire Gran Chaco region. “This forces famers to increase the doses [of glyphosate] and to combine their use with other herbicides,” says Ana Álvarez, an agricultural engineer and member of the Chaco Argentina Agroforestry Network (REDAF).

“Overall, there was an abuse of technology and glyphosate,” says Martín Goujón, whose family championed the use of agrochemicals. “On the other hand, the necessary crop rotation was not carried out.”

“There are around 107 products in the Argentine agricultural market whose interactions are not known,” says Rafael Lajmanovich, a professor of ecotoxicology at Argentina’s National University of Litoral.

National parks are also suffering

Grasslands, palm groves and riverside forests characterize Chaco National Park. When it was established in 1954, the area represented exactly what the native Chaco vegetation looked like, which was not too different from the surrounding landscape. Sixty-six years later, however, it has become a virtual island amid a sea of farmland.

The water flowing through the Negro River, which runs across the park, has slowed to a trickle. “Many years of drought and the channeling in its upper course have clogged it,” says Leonardo Juber, the current head of El Impenetrable National Park and previously a ranger at Chaco National Park. “We don’t have concrete studies, but with all certainty, it carries agrochemicals from further north and also receives those used in the surroundings of the park itself.”

A similar scenario plays out in Copo National Park, in the northeast corner of Santiago del Estero province. At the time of its establishment in 2000, it was already different. Deforestation had begun to accelerate in an uncontrollable manner. This deforestation cleared 2 million hectares (5 million acres) over the following decade. The area is now a patch of semi-arid forest saved just in time, but like the rest of the Gran Chaco, it hasn’t been able to escape the agrochemical contamination from all around it.

Water is the scarcest resource here. There are no aboveground waterways, only some reservoirs where water accumulates after the summer rains. “In 2017, the clearing began in the east of the park,” says Matías Mastrángelo, a conservation biologist who focuses his studies in Copo National Park. “The province of Chaco recategorized those lands and allowed logging. Thus, between 2016 and 2018, 50,000 hectares [124,000 acres] were deforested, forming an arc on two of the sides of the park that should be a buffer zone.”

An aerial view shows the thickness of the forest in Copo National Park. Image courtesy of the National Parks Administration of Argentina (APN).

The use of agrochemicals came next. Wildlife such as giant anteaters (Myrmecophaga tridactyla), giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus) and the three species of peccaries that live in Copo depend on the little rainfall that the park has. It’s very likely that that water also contains herbicide residues. A study carried out by scientists from the National University of La Plata showed glyphosate and atrazine were present in 80% of precipitation samples from the Chaco-Pampas plain, and AMPA traces in 34% of samples. The study concludes that the active compounds of the pesticides sprayed over the fields dissipate into the atmosphere, where they can linger for days or weeks until rain precipitates them to the ground.

Authorities diminish the impacts of pollution

Dr. María del Carmen Seveso is a medical examiner at the 4 de Junio de Sáenz Peña Hospital in Chaco. Among her many titles she is a member of the Argentine Doctor Network of Fumigated Towns and of the Dr. Ramón Carrillo Health Network. She is one of the few experts who understands the effects that agrochemicals have on the human body.

“In 2012 we did an investigation in the towns of Campo Largo, Napenay and Avia Terai,” Seveso says. “We asked people if in the past 10 years they had had family members who died of cancer. We did not take into account the patients who had recovered or were under treatment. In Napenay, 39% answered yes; in Avia Terai, 31%; and in Campo Largo, 29%.”

Seveso, also the former head of intensive care at Perrondo Hospital, the main hospital in Chaco province, describes the effects that glyphosate and other toxins can have in the body, from miscarriages to congenital malformations, to intestinal inflammations, or neurological injuries that generate learning difficulties in childhood. “These products and this planting model affect the immune system and, therefore, are at the origin of all diseases. These are not unknown pathologies, they already existed, but they did not start at such early ages, nor did they evolve so quickly and negatively,” Seveso says.

For Argentine farmers, the herbicide Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto/Bayer, is synonymous with glyphosate. The product dominates the market, accounting for 34% of sales. Image courtesy of Greenpeace.

Industrial effluents also affect people’s health and the environment. They end up contaminating the waters that run through the Argentine Gran Chaco. “In the Pilcomayo River, at the border with Paraguay, the presence of heavy metals has been detected from the Bolivian mines,” says Schmidt, the sociologist. “Crude oil spills from wells and pipelines are frequent in the hydrocarbon basin of the Salta Chaco, the most important in the north of the country, and affect soils, flora, fauna, underground waters and rivers.”

Roberto Segnala, a geologist with the Formosa provincial water coordinating unit, and Julio Romero, the secretary of water resources in Salta province, dismiss these impacts. “Heavy metals are found in Bolivia; the levels measured in the lower basin are not significant,” says Segnala, who attributes recent mass deaths of tarpon fish (Prochilodus lineatus) to the decrease in the water flow, which raises salinity levels. Tarpon represents the main food resource for many inhabitants of this area.

Tarpon breed in the upper basin of the Pilcomayo River in Bolivia and travel downstream to Argentina. Image by Soraya Barrera.

“We haven’t had spills that have affected the rivers in the oil zone,” says Romero of the situation in Salta. “And if any appear they are immediately treated with the usual procedures of the industry.” He says there have been no complaints about spills, although Schmidt says “informal complaints do not take legal form in most cases due to the difficulty of farmers and indigenous people to access complaint and participation channels.” As an example, in January this year, a group of indigenous representatives sent a letter to the NGO Doctors Without Borders reporting on the contamination of the water tables on their lands due to oil spills and crop spraying.

From arsenic in underground water to tons of agrochemicals sprayed from the air, including heavy metals and pollutants of all kinds, the water of the Gran Chaco is under constant attack that endangers its standing as a natural resource of basic necessity.

“We are going to improve the control and sanction system: we want to be stricter so that people come to their senses and stop polluting,” says Darío Pegoraro, head of water management in Chaco province.

“We cannot deny the irresponsibility that has been committed, it is public knowledge,” says farmer Martín Goujón. “There are always people who do not do things well, but today the farmers feel more monitored so most of them comply with the laws and good practices.”

“The environmental and health impacts of the current production model are beginning to become visible,” says Mariana Scmidt, “not only for the communities affected by agrochemical spraying but also for the urban populations that consume what is produced.

“Many times change depends on social mobilization, collective action, and lawsuits,” she adds. “Perhaps with that, national laws that start regulating what is happening in Argentina will be achieved.”


Banner image: Spraying of crops with agrochemicals is part of the farming system in the Argentine Gran Chaco. Image courtesy of Daniel Beltrá/Greenpeace.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on July 21, 2020.