Argentina, Hard

Where there’s smoke, there’s tofu burgers

Friday, April 18, 2008  

One morning last week I first noticed the smell of a campfire. Then the other afternoon as I set out to walk with my dog Clyde there was a thick smoky haze in the air and a strong smell of fire. Enough to irritate my eyes and lungs. I asked a neighbor on the street where the fire was and he said it was to the north, a couple hundred kilometers. This week, the city of Buenos Aires is shrouded in smoke quite a bit, all depending on which way the wind blows.

I don’t know how big big fires are. They say that this one is 70,000 hectares, which is 173,000 acres. That sounds like a lot to me, though it may not measure up to some of the biggest wildfires historically. It is said to be contained within that area, but within the contained area it is very difficult to fight because it is in the delta area and there are lots of islands, plus the smoke is so bad that helicopters cannot get close to drop water. In addition to that I know that in Argentina there are not so many fire fighters. In the cities and towns all the buildings are made of cement and masonry so house fires are rare, and the overall population is relatively small. It is not a danger unless you are driving, and the police have closed some important highways due to visibility problems.

Well there are other menaces. When the smoke is over Buenos Aires, it is strong. Not only is the smell a nuisance, but it’s heavy pollution, like a bad day in LA in the 1970′s. Or like New York City in September 2001. I stay inside with the windows closed when the smoke is bad, and outside sometimes I can feel the burn on my eyes. They say that yesterday the carbon monoxide levels were fairly high (and lower today). Still not a grave danger, like I said, probably like a bad day in LA in the 70′s. And at least it is trees burning, not chemicals. My friend Pato was diagnosed recently with asthma, so I am sure it bothers him more. And fortunately most of the daytime yesterday was smoke-free. But it was back last night and is still here this morning.

In Colonia, Uruguay, it is worse, with burnt leaves raining down. And in Montevideo they can also smell the odor. Ironically, in Argentina there has been a hot political conflict for a few years against Uruguay for constructing paper mills that would be big polluters of the river between the two countries, but now it is Argentina who is polluting Uruguay.

This morning I picked up the newspaper. I thought it was a joke when a headline blamed the smoke on the soy farmers. But I learned that what is burning is not a single fire, but an amalgamation of 292 fires! They are lit by farmers. The farmers admit this. And they claim that the fires are a routine every year, and in a way they are, and that they got a little out of control this time. Some make the following analogy: that these fires are the cheapest way for the farmers to clear the land for agricultural purposes. The connection to soy is that since so much pasture land has been converted to soy production, that they are now clearing land to reclaim more space for cattle.

Sounds believable to me, and some of these farmers are friends of former president Carlos Menem, who I see as the Dick Cheney of Argentina. Menem helped out his powerful business associates to the doom of the entire country. And this resulted in the economic crash of 2001, and huge foreign debts than continue today. So you have to look at them skeptically.

In Rosario, the second largest city in Argentina, people are content with these events. Though this time the fires are much worse, these fires have affected them each year going back 10 years. Argentina has a peculiarity because though is a large country, but many things only matter if they happen in Buenos Aires. The Rosarians are content because since this fire affects the city of Buenos Aires this time, finally everyone is taking notice.

I think for people who have lived in Argentina their whole lives, what is happening now is just another one of those things that happens from time to time. Whether it be an economic crash, an agricultural strike, or a natural disaster. People here roll their eyes at these things.

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One comment for “Where there’s smoke, there’s tofu burgers”

  1. peep.org/words » Tying recent events together says:

    [...] « Where there’s smoke, there’s fire [...]