Monday, October 18, 2010

Crocodiles, Caimans, and Capybaras (The Pampas Are Burning)

Ho hum, another crocodile. Is there anything else interesting to see? That’s what the Pampas experience in Rurrenabaque, Bolivia is like. As you float down the river in a canoe, you are surrounded by alligators, capybaras, cranes, herons, a wide variety of birds, and the occasional caiman crocodile. If you’re lucky, you might also spot monkeys, piranhas, buceo dolphins, and even an anaconda. At first the experience of spotting a like alligator less than ten feet away from you is terrifying. They look like wooden statues with glass eyes that stare into your soul. After a while though, you get used to it. The Pampas is truly a phenomenal place.

The problem is the environmental and ethical destruction being wrought on the Pampas. Most tour agencies allow you to fish for piranhas, swim with the dolphins, hold monkeys, and catch anacondas. Let’s just say that these practices are not the best for the animals. I chose one of the few companies that do not condone these practices. The problem is that few tourists would do the same either because of the thrill of playing with/hunting animals or the added costs of an ecologically-sound tour package.

The other problem does not derive from the tourists’ presence, but rather the farmers’. Unlike Parque Nacional Madidi, the jungle, most of the Pampas is unprotected, privately-owned land. In the jungle, farmers rely on organic methods, such as the recycling of crop wastes as compost and animal feed, instead of chemicals pesticides to cultivate their crops. Their plantains, corn, sugarcane, etc. grow well because of the climate and fertile soil. In spite of these same natural advantages, the majority of farmers in the Pampas practice scorch-and-burn agriculture. That means that the Pampas is burning. Every year farmers set fire to the grass they use to aliment their cows, in hopes that they can destroy weeds and encourage better plant growth, despite the fact that burning grass destroys soil fertility over time. This year, the fires have gone out of control. Not only grass, but animals are burning.

It’s hard for the government to exert control since the Pampas are privately-owned. The private ownership of the Pampas derives from the colonial era. Most of the owners have latifundios, defined by Wikipedia as ‘an agrarian exploitation of large dimensions, characterized by an inefficient use of available resources.’ Even though the law only allows for maximum ownership by an individual of 20,000 hectares, some of these farmers own up to 30,000 hectares; this in an area where the majority of farmers only own up to 5 or 6 hectares.

I think it’s time for the government to step in. The ecological balance of the Pampas is at risk. It would be a shame for the government to let political concerns lead to the destruction of such a wonderful and unique environmental gem like they have in the Paraguayan Bosque Atlántico de Alto Parana and the Brazilian Amazon.

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