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Paraguay’s drought hits biodiversity, Indigenous communities the hardest

  • Record-breaking heat waves in Paraguay have led to water shortages and forest fires that threaten local biodiversity and many of the Indigenous communities who steward it.
  • Indigenous groups like the Aché and Ava Guaraní have lost their crops and likely face food insecurity should the drought continue throughout 2022.
  • Turtles, aquatic mammals and fish that usually occupy now-dried-up wetlands have been forced into the major rivers, where they face a greater threat from overfishing.

The ongoing drought in Paraguay, now moving into its third year, has put increasing pressure on conservation efforts throughout the country to support local communities and protect wildlife.

Record-breaking heat waves in the South American nation have lasted longer than expected, resulting in water shortages and forest fires that threaten local biodiversity and many of the Indigenous communities who steward it.

“It’s extreme,” said Luis Recalde of Paraguay’s Organization for Conservation and Sustainable Development. “It’s so extreme that even wells have started drying up.”

Signs of the drought started to appear in Brazil as early as 2018, according to NASA. But it didn’t reach Paraguay until 2020, with temperatures reaching historic highs in many parts of the country by 2021 and into this year, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

The country has experienced droughts in the past, but it’s rare that they extend for so long, Recalde said. The culprit is likely climate change and could continue to be a problem in the decades to come, according to WWF and the U.N.

Some Indigenous communities have lost as much as 70-80% of their crops, including corn, brown pinto beans, sesame and rice, among other crops. Photo via Bjarne Fostervold.

Wildlife take the heat

Local ecosystems, which in Paraguay include grasslands, savannas and tropical and subtropical forests, are struggling against high temperatures, lack of rainfall and rising numbers of fires.

The fire season in Paraguay usually lasts between August and September. But during the drought, fires have hit forests at all times of the year, sometimes catching repeatedly in the same areas and making it increasingly difficult for wildlife to recuperate.

“We are probably seeing, maybe not the extinction of species, but the rarefication of even some common species,” Recalde said.

Last month, local media reported that nearly all firefighting personnel had been deployed to fight fires raging in multiple departments across the country, stretching resources thin at a time when neighboring firefighting units can usually come to each other’s assistance.

“Some forests can recuperate quickly,” Recalde said. “From one fire, sure. But after the second or third fire in a row over the course of one or two years, it’s a lot harder for the area to recover at that speed.”

Recalde said turtles, aquatic mammals and fish that usually occupy drying-up wetlands have been forced into the major rivers, where they face a greater threat from overfishing. The threat is especially high because even the major rivers are suffering from record-low water levels in some parts of the country. Water levels in the Paraná River, a 4,880-kilometer (3,030-mile) waterway flowing south from Brazil, dropped by 3 meters (nearly 10 feet) below average.

Larger land-based species that can’t flee to remaining water bodies have died or migrated to protected reserves, according to Simon Oviedo, supervisor of the Ava Guaraní Indigenous group in Itakyry. He said that rabbits, peccaries and other animals that used to be common in his community have all but vanished over the last several years.

“There just aren’t that many trees around here to help fight this heat,” Oviedo said. “A lot of mammals are dying and disappearing.”

Overfishing is becoming a problem as aquatic species retreat to major rivers. Photo via mariano-mantel/Flickr.

Local communities in the hot seat

Some Indigenous communities have lost as much as 70-80% of their crops, including corn, brown pinto beans, sesame and rice, among other crops that they grow both for sale and self-consumption, according to Indigenous leaders who spoke to Mongabay.

Germino Chachugi, a member of the Aché community in Arroyo Bandera, said he planted 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of manioc this year, but virtually none of it survived due to the lack of precipitation.

He said his son is studying in a school in the city of Curuguaty, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, but that the family won’t be able to afford it without income from the manioc and other crops. It’s a similar struggle faced by virtually everyone in Chachugi’s 240-person Indigenous community, which used to hunt and gather before facing mass extinction when they emerged from the forest in the 1970s.

A Chacoan peccary in Teniente Enciso National Park. Photo via Wikimedia.

“The community is greatly affected,” he said, “because many of us also depend on production for self-consumption … There was very little corn, sesame and beans because there’s no rain.”

Chachugi said the neighboring Ava Guaraní community planted similar crops and faced the same struggles.

“We all still have water to drink, at least,” he said.

Lacking lines of credit, as well as access to and knowledge of commercial agricultural machinery, many Paraguayan Indigenous groups have to make ends meet by renting out their land to local farmers. As crops fail, the farmers are unable to repay debts, leaving the Indigenous communities without a primary revenue source.

The small landholdings that Indigenous communities keep for themselves are often used for raising livestock like chickens, ducks and cattle. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to feed them due to diminished crop production.

“There has to be some kind of debt relief or supplemental food for the Indigenous communities,” said Bjarne Fostervold, an Indigenous advocate in Puerto Barra. “There will be real hunger knocking at their door.” He added that a crop seed program would go a long way for many Indigenous groups.

Government response

President Mario Abdo announced preliminary measures to address producers suffering from crop losses. Photo via Agencia de Información Paraguaya.

So far, aid has mostly come from departmental and municipal governments. However, the reach and effectiveness of the aid has varied greatly from place to place, including digging a few new wells and delivering drinking water. It’s left many communities frustrated.

“The government hasn’t assisted Indigenous communities with any part of the drought,” Oviedo said. “We haven’t received any support. When the pandemic started, we received some help with that. But with the drought? No.”

Nearly $7 million of the firefighting budget was still unused at the end of January, prompting Fernando Silva Facetti, an opposition senator, to accuse some government institutions of mismanaging basic resources that could be saving forests throughout the country.

“Resources for purchasing much-needed equipment for firefighters is an urgent matter,” he said, “as the combination of heat, drought and wind worsen fires.”

An Ava Guaraní woman stands outside of her house in Canindeyú, Paraguay. Photo via Bjarne Fostervold.

President Mario Abdo announced at the start of January a series of debt and tax relief measures for small agricultural producers, as well as extending special lines of credit.

Later that month, Paraguay’s Congress indefinitely postponed voting on a bill that would have declared a state of emergency in response to the drought. The bill would have authorized the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and National Emergency Secretariat to dip into special funds for providing subsidies, credit and other forms of assistance to local communities and producers struggling to get by.

Some officials said that although the declaration was suspended indefinitely, it’s only because more time is needed to study how to best use the funds.

Conservationists say they hope the government can do it quickly.

“We are bordering on catastrophe,” Recalde said. “This thing is really serious and, if it keeps spreading, it really will enter into catastrophe.”

Banner image: Aché leader Jose Anegi in Puerto Barra kneels on a barren field where crops should be growing. Photo via Bjarne Fostervold.

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