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ARGENTINA: Guardians of the River

Marcela Valente

PUERTO RECONQUISTA, Argentina, Oct 2 2008 (IPS) - "There is no water…there are no fish," says Olga Ledesma, her skin weathered from 40 years of small-scale fishing, as the boat slowly winds its way along a branch of the Paraná river, South America’s second-longest river.

 Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Proteger

Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Proteger

Ledesma’s summary of the situation is in line with the results of scientific studies. The water level in the river has dropped because of the huge hydroelectric dams on the upper Paraná river, which accumulate water in their reservoirs and leave lakes and branches of the river empty.

The Paraná river begins in southern Brazil at the junction of the Paranaiba and Grande rivers. It then flows southwest to form part of the border between Brazil and Paraguay and then Paraguay and Argentina, before flowing south through Argentina for more than 3,600 km and emptying into the Río de la Plata (River Plate) estuary between Argentina and Uruguay.

The river’s fish stocks have been depleted downstream by the frenzied activity of frozen fish companies that catch huge volumes of young fish for export. The market demands fish small enough to fit on a plate, which implies the wholesale capture of fish that have not yet reached breeding age, and will eventually lead to the depletion of stocks and the collapse of the industry.

Ledesma lives on the banks of the river in the fishing community of Puerto Reconquista in the northeastern province of Santa Fe, 480 km north of Buenos Aires.

The "national surubí fishing contest", billed as "the world’s largest" fishing competition, is held every year in Puerto Reconquista.

In its first edition, in 1987, the contestants fished in water that was 4.8 metres deep, but 20 years later they fish in water only 2.5 metres deep, according to the organisers. The largest surubí (a kind of giant catfish) in the history of the contest was caught in1994, and weighed 19 kgs.

Although she has never been able to participate in the competition, because the registration fee is 130 dollars, which effectively excludes poor local residents, Ledesma remembers catching a 50-kg surubí when she was young. The fish was so big, she tells IPS, that she had to drag it home in a net tied to the back of her canoe. She was eight and a half months pregnant at the time, and the huge fish actually pulled her over into the water when she caught it, she recalls.

Some 500 boats usually gather in the port for the contest, and 30,000 to 40,000 people show up. The fish that are hauled in are returned to the river, but small-scale fisherfolk say that the surubí puts up so hard a fight that by the time it is thrown back in, it is already dying, and will merely be eaten by predators.

"The world’s largest fishing contest is held here, but it doesn't leave us a single can of paint for our chapel," José Luis López, president of the Fisherfolk Association of the North, which groups 700 small-scale fisherpeople from seven communities in the region and is based in Puerto Reconquista, told IPS.

The secretary of the Association, Patricia Ferragut, agrees that the contest has no positive impact on local residents. Ten days before the competition, they must stop fishing to guarantee that there are plenty of fish for the contestants to catch. As meagre compensation, the organisers offer local women the task of cleaning the bathrooms, an unpaid job for which they receive tips.

"When the whole thing is over, no one even shows up to clean up the trash they leave behind," an indignant Ferragut tells IPS during a boat tour along the Paraná with local fishers, through dense mats of water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), which float almost imperceptibly down the river. Every so often, a caiman (a relative of the alligator) quietly slides into the water from the river bank.


Some 3,000 people live in the isolated port community, which has no public transport connecting it to the nearest town, Reconquista. Because of occasional flooding, the ramshackle houses are built high up, some even on stilts, with the bedrooms and bathroom upstairs and only the kitchen down below.

The families get their water from wells, and there is no sewage system. Ledesma says she frequently has to walk half a kilometre to get clean water.

There is a local health post, but it lacks medicines, and the doctor only visits three times a week. Most of the cases he treats involve ailments related to the poor living conditions, like malnutrition, diarrhea and respiratory infections. Dogs wander among the houses, alongside chickens and other barnyard animals.

The Fundación Proteger (Protect Foundation), an environmental foundation based in Santa Fe, has been working with local residents for some time now with the aim of drawing up a census and study showing the conditions in which the community lives, and obtaining information on the number of people involved in small-scale fishing activity, the size of local fish stocks, the frequency of capture, fishing techniques and other aspects.

The group is also advising the local fisherfolk on how to carry out their own study on the state of each species, for which they take notes and measurements.

A few months ago, some 50 families of small-scale fishers moved into the port community from the neighbouring province of Corrientes, which is bordered on the west by the Paraná river. The families left their homes after the authorities created a recreational fishing preserve, which left them without a livelihood.

The people of Puerto Reconquista, like other communities that depend on small-scale fishing, have a clear understanding of the threats to their way of life: the hydroelectric dams, industrial fishing, and even recreational fishing, a sector that often blames the impoverished local fishing families for leaving them without fish for their past-time.

Biologist Julieta Peteán, head of Proteger’s Water, Wetlands and Fishing Programme, told IPS that in the province there are species that are off-limits year-round, like the sábalo, dorado, pacú and manguruyú. There is also a 90-day ban on surubí, the most widely sought-after species because of its taste and the high price it brings.

"The main cause of the crisis facing the fishing industry is the lack of a management plan, which aggravates the impact of the dams and industrial-scale fishing," said the expert, who is working to facilitate contact among small riverbank fishing communities and is active in programmes that add value to their work, such as small businesses in which local women produce traditional fish preserves for sale.

The governments of the provinces through which the Paraná runs "tend to adopt isolated measures, which include no proposals for broadly managing the river," says Peteán. She complained, for example, that the hydroelectric dams should be obliged to modify flows in order to reflect natural water levels in the river, which is not currently the case.

According to a study by biologist Norberto Oldani, the Brazilian-Paraguayan Itaipú dam and the Argentine-Paraguayan Yacyretá dam, both of which are on the upper stretch of the Paraná river, have destroyed 44 percent of the breeding grounds of the surubí.

The capture of enormous volumes of fish by frozen fish companies has also had a negative impact on the fisheries.

"The Paraná cannot handle industrial fishing," says Peteán. "The river plays a social role: to feed the people living along its banks."

Proteger has warned that industrial-scale fishing, which began in the region 10 years ago, has experienced exponential growth over the last five years and is driving fish stocks to unsustainably low levels. The sábalo, a fish that plays a key role in the food chain, as a number of species eat its larvae, is being fished to exhaustion for export.

The provincial government has responded with longer and longer bans for certain vulnerable species, and by confiscating the catch and fishing gear of local fishers from riverbank communities. It has also limited the number of fishing licences issued. Ledesma’s sons, who are grown now and have their own families to support, have been fishing since they were little, but have no licence because no more applications are being accepted.

"They have to come out with me, because if they are caught, everything will be confiscated," she says.

Meanwhile, trucks full of young sábalo circulate without any problems on the highways, carrying their product towards international markets. "The few times that a truck has been stopped, searched and fined, the case has gotten caught up in red tape and the fines are never even paid," says Jorge Cappato, of Proteger.


Farther north along the Paraná, in Puerto Antequera, a riverbank community in the province of Chaco, members of the Chaco Fishers Association meet with IPS in the group’s offices.

The Association is concerned about legal action brought by recreational fishermen in an attempt to curb commercial fishing by local communities.

The recreational fishermen blame the small-scale fishers for shrinking fish stocks, and are asking the courts to, if necessary, "declare a definitive ban" in the area on catching fish to sell at market. What really cut deep, said the members of the Association, was that those who brought the lawsuit pointed to the "low cultural level of the majority of the local fisherpeople."

The Association members believe the legal action is discriminatory. Without the help of lawyers, they responded to the lawsuit, defending the sustainability of their fishing practices.

"For us, size has always been sacred," the president of the Association, Roberto Flores, told IPS. Because he and his colleagues are aware that only the largest fish, which are reaching the end of their reproductive lives, must be caught, they use nets with large holes in order to allow the smaller, younger fish to escape.

"We don't want subsidies or assistance to help us through the periods during which fishing is banned," said Flores. "We want to work year-round, respecting the size of the fish."

The Association’s proposal is to not fish on weekends or holidays, which would be equivalent to a 90-day ban, but spread out through the entire year.

The Association represents seven local communities, one of which is Puerto Vilela, a town of 12,000 people. "Every month, three or four new families move in from the countryside," a local fisherman comments to IPS.

The families are farmers fleeing drought and the expansion of large-scale soy cultivation – Argentina’s chief export crop – who turn to fishing to survive.

Víctor López, from Puerto Vilela, is worried, but not because there are more fishing families. His anxiety arises from the shrinking water levels and fish stocks, and because he knows it will be the poor local families who are hit hardest.

"There used to be outlets on the Paraná up to 40 metres long, but now they’re not even five metres long," he says, explaining that many fish breed in these small outlets. The current in the Paraná has also slowed down, he adds: "Since the water hardly flows anymore, the heavy sediments build up and form sand banks that modify the river channel."

Realising that they need to understand these changes, the members of the Chaco Fishers Association, the main group in a network of similar local associations called Redepesca, have been trying to get their hands on scientific studies on fish stocks in the Paraná river, and are pressing for courses and training that can help them determine the best course of action, in order to avoid losing their livelihoods.

For that reason they get upset when they are blamed for the shrinking fish stocks, and are dismissed as ignorant, uneducated people who are incapable of understanding the issues at stake. On the contrary, they see themselves as the true guardians of the Paraná, those who need it the most and can take the best care of its rich, but endangered, biodiversity.

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