Bolivia's Pilcomayo River: Millions of Stranded Fish May Die
(Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia)
2 June 2011 Pilcomayo River near Villamontes, Tarija, Bolivia
2 June 2011 Sabalo is grilled at roadside restaurants in Villamontes
2 June 2011 Sabalo is served to travelers and truckers in Villamontes
2 June 2011 Innards are grilled too (chicharrón de menudencia)
A yellow machine works against time to try to revive a 17-kilometer stretch of the Pilcomayo River (Tarija, Bolivia) that may already be dead. At 170 km from the Bolivian border, in Argentina's Formosa Province, the riverbed has become a pantheon of sand where no fish or water can be found. The river provides 12,000 members of 120 indigenous communities in Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina with sábalo (shad or tarpon) to kill their hunger, and 40,000 residents of Villamontes (Tarija) sustain their economy by fishing.
The Pilcomayo is a river which begins in the hills of Potosi and empties into the Paraguay River, after traveling 2,400 kilometers along a route through rugged mountains and plains. But something bad is happening to a large portion of this body of water. Like gangrene, a 17-mile stretch of natural sediment and toxic wasteland, attributed to the mining industry in the upper basin, is choking the river on its way through Argentina.
The effect is so devastating that the regional government authorities of Villamontes have called it a biological disaster. This assertion is supported by clear evidence. The sábalo, which is the star of the Pilcomayo fish species and supports the survival of Bolivia's Weenhayek people, has its days numbered because the fish are trapped in pools near the marshes of La Estrella in Argentina (where they are raised for three years) and they can not migrate from there to Bolivia (where they come to lay their eggs).
The fish ran into the 'wall' of sediment that is 17 miles long and two meters tall. For this reason, the fishing season, which should have begun in April, is in a 'coma' because the shad have not arrived to Villamontes, the area considered the epicenter of indigenous fishing in Bolivia's Chaco region.
Video posted on YouTube 23 May 2011
To resurrect the now dead portion of the Pilcomayo, the Argentine government (under pressure from a blockade staged two weeks ago by the Weenhayeks on the international highway that links Bolivia with Argentina between Villamontes and Yacuiba) has launched a bulldozer to remove river sediment and open a channel to allow standing water to run once again through the Pilcomayo.
The equipment began its task on 27 May and the indigenous population were given some hope, as were traders, transporters and other sectors of society who make their living from the fishing industry.
But there is a problem. Given the magnitude of the case, the yellow bulldozer is working at a snail's pace. Projections on the progress of this dredging operation are not being met and are not at even 50% of what the Argentine authorities had committed to.
El Deber (Santa Cruz, Bolivia newspaper) sent reporters to the location of the emergency operation and discovered that the excavator is removing about 300 meters of sediment from the river per day; not the 1000 meters per day that had been announced. At this rate, the 'unplugging' of the Pilcomayo would end in a month and a half, too late to save the fish that are stranded in the pools of Formosa and are losing water daily.
This 2009 video shows what the Pilcomayo used to look like
Ramiro Antelo, General Counsel of the Autonomous Regional Government of Villamontes, anticipates a disaster. "If water does not run again in a month, thousands or perhaps millions of fish, will begin to die and all hope for the indigenous fishermen will be lost."
The dead part of the river is 170 km from Bolivian territory, but in order to reach it, one must travel over remote dusty roads lost in the immensity of the Chaco Boreal region.
In the fading sunlight, the El Deber press team arrived at the epicenter of operations last Thursday where the excavator works under a sky filled with thick clouds.
There it found the excavator, a yellow 'animal', nine meters long by four meters wide, with a long steel arm, working in the middle of a river that no longer exists.
Inside was Horacio Medina, an Argentine engineer who works a 12-hour shift each day opening a channel that is 10 meters wide and two meters deep where the fish, at least in theory, should be able to continue their migration upstream to Bolivian waters.
In seven days, Medina had dredged two kilometers. Half of the unit belonging to the Martín Fierro company is stable on the sand while the other half is submerged in water that leaks away as the channel grows.
The sediment removed from the surface is piled up on one side of the channel, which for now is the only hope to satisfy the hunger of indigenous people and ensure the life cycle of the species. The fish are stranded and unable to reach spawning waters near Villamontes (Tarija, Bolivia) for the fishing season that would last for the upcoming months.
Horace and his comrade, who relieves him when his shift is over, work in solitude. The Pilcomayo, which has become a desert, is there deep within the vastness of flat land, as are two or three alligators trying to survive by dipping their feet in a tiny stream of water that remains as the only reminder that there ever was a river in the area.
Once in a while indigenous people arrive, attracted by the noise of the motor of the machine that consumes 25 liters of diesel per hour, to observe the operation on the river.
Carlos Zamora, a native Weenhayek (known in Argentina as the Wi Chi) was there on Thursday contemplating the excavator and the size of the disaster as a bitter wind blew around it.
The machine's arm crumbled the earth and Zamora, dark and stout, knew that the driver was working against time to remove 100 million tons of mud and thus try to resurrect the Pilcomayo.
Every indigenous fisherman loses U.S. $ 8,000 per fishing season
This 2009 video shows how the fishing is done
Martha Sanchez had it all planned out. With the money she would earn by fishing she was going to knock down her adobe house and build another of bricks and cement. Now that dream is almost impossible, and she sits every evening on the banks of the Pilcomayo remembering the good times when the sábalo could be scooped from the river by hand.
Martha Sanchez heads the Weenhayek fishermen in what is known as the 'railway bridge pool' near Villamontes. About 30 to 40 people work under her. Some are responsible for redirecting the boat where the nets are loaded, while others extend them in the water to form a sort of cage in which the fish are caught.
In one fishing season, (in the five months of activity, from May to September) the Weenhayek each earn approximately U.S. $ 8000. That money serves as a financial cushion to cover the cost of food and healthcare during the rest of the year.
Now the fish are so few that a fisherman may earn just 5-10 bolivianos per 24-hour day. Although the fishing season is mortally wounded, the nets are being thrown into the river once an hour nevertheless.
One of them blows a whistle and people appear from under their plastic huts to jump into the river. They proceed with the bitter task of fishing, knowing full well that among the 40 of them, just one, two or possibly 4 fish will be caught.