© 2022



TEXT Yingbi Lee
Arana Project by Rocío Ricagno
San Fernando Islands, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina

Research on the Gob. Arana Canal and testimonials courtesy of Rocío Ricagno.

Once up to 50, the buildings that remain inhabited in the Gobernador Arana Canal now number a mere 15. Speaking to the residents and mapping the area, Rocío Ricagno illuminates a community and its ties to a complex, evolving and increasingly hostile environment.

The Gob. Arana Canal was built in the late 20th century, an 8 kilometre-long waterway connecting the Paraná Miní River and Barca Grande River in the Lower Paraná Delta—more specifically, the town of San Fernando in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. The Paraná Delta is a unique mosaic of wetlands encompassing both deltaic and estuarine features, and one of the most significant hydrological systems to South America. Around the canal, the landscape is one of jungles and forested areas, populated by incredibly diverse biodiversity: reeds and cattails in flood zones, water hyacinths sailing with the current, capybaras, otters and the rare surviving marshdeer,

“There are numerous species of birds, such as the thrush, sparrow, neotropic cormorant, kingfisher, great kiskadee, chalk-browed mockingbird, solitary cacique, dusky-legged guan, and plumbeous rail. Some reptiles and amphibians are also quite common, such as snakes, toads, and frogs. The most typical species of fish are dorado, surubí, catfish, patí, tararira, boga, streaked prochilod, mojarras, red-bellied piranha, and ‘viejas del agua’.”—Rocío Ricagno

Amidst this lush landscape, its human inhabitants face unemployment, declining productivity, and devaluation of agricultural produce, as well as extreme environmental events such as fumigation, floods, fires and droughts. As the surrounding vegetation reclaims abandoned buildings in the neighbourhood, the riverine species are gradually disappearing at the hands of trawling, infrastructural projects, and agricultural waste. Over the years, many have left the canal in search of better opportunities in the city.

The situation around the Gob. Arana Canal is part of a broader phenomenon in the Paraná Delta. In extensive studies of the Delta, Verónica Zagare characterises the region—especially the islands of the Lower Paraná Delta—by precarity and socio-spatial and polarisation, where luxury gated communities sit in stark contrast to vulnerable settlements in floodplains.

Most families in the area tell Rocío that they trace their presence back 3 or 4 generations, to European immigrants with largely agricultural backgrounds who arrived toward the end of the 19th century. European immigrants, primarily from Italy, Poland, Spain, Ukraine and Portugal, were dispersed informally across the islands, including San Fernando—unlike the population of continental areas of the Delta. With their arrival, the immigrants introduced foreign species as a source of work: poplars and willows for timber, peach and citrus trees for the cultivation of fruit, alongside the New Zealand flax, osier, and pecan trees. Zagare writes that in the 1930s, the population of the Delta’s islands was an estimated 40,000, one of the highest in its history, largely supported by small family agricultural units producing fruit. However, as the land area of San Fernando and neighbouring municipality Tigre grow due to the accumulation of silt, the population of San Fernando falls.

In the Gob. Arana Canal, residents identify several chains of events that prompted many to move elsewhere:

“It started in 1976 when a coup d'état ousted María Estela Martinez de Perón's government. The commanders of the three armed forces, Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Massera, and Orlando Agosti (the Military Board) promoted massive imports, which devastated the economy of local producers and the people in general. The labour reforms implemented during that time were notoriously detrimental to workers, lowering the standard of living of the population.

Additionally, with the return of democracy in 1983, there was a flood that lasted several months over the fields, and ruined fruit plantations. As if that were not enough, in the 90s, Carlos Saul Menen's government carried out a neoliberal economic policy that continued to devalue regional products, increasing unemployment, economic inequality, and poverty.

Throughout those decades, the new generations decided to move to nearby cities in search of work and other comforts. Several houses along with their land were abandoned. Those who left and were fortunate enough to do so, kept them as vacation homes to visit them from time to time and avoid uprooting.”—Rocío Ricagno

Today, the families in the canal earn income from wood from the poplar tree, honey, and wicker basketry, while others rely on retirement funds, subsidies, or subsistence farming. Outsized by larger commercial fruit agricultural enterprises in Argentina that emerged in the 1950s, the islands of the Delta no longer profit from the sale of fruit. Neither is fishing a viable source of income or subsistence—several testified to Rocío that “there are not as many fish as before”. Above all, they blame illegal trawling, and agrochemicals dumped on the soybean fields of the Entre Ríos province, which borders Buenos Aires, which enter the river water when it rises up to the fields. Rocío writes, “Lately, fish have been found floating dead.”

In a territory shaped by capital, the socioeconomic and spatial division of the islands is attributed in large part to the privatisation of land and the unregulated infrastructural projects guided by private interests. Such projects, particularly in the coastal areas of the Delta, promote radical changes in land use in a show of disregard for the wetlands. Rocío notes that in the Gob. Arana Canal, casuarina trees were placed in a row bordering the shore to contain the force of the water and thus avoid the rapid erosion of the coast. Elsewhere, research finds that the natural biodiversity of the Lower Paraná Delta also contributes to shoreline stabilisation. Rather than protecting the coast itself, however, water management practices like dykes or levees, ditches, and polders serve to keep seasonal flooding out of farmlands and gated communities, while fire has been used to expand grazing pastures for cattle. The result is an undermining of the wetland ecosystem—disappearing coastal vegetation, loss of freshwater marshes, degraded grasslands and more.

As the natural environment encroaches on empty buildings in the Gob. Arana Canal, what grows in the wake of human activity is undoubtedly different from what was there before they arrived. Much like the trees they brought with them and the settlements they formed, the original immigrants to the islands were sent to work the land and populate the territory, and, as new generations took root, were forgotten. All the same, families customs persist, community projects carry on in school and at church, and neighbours become family through their companionship in the face of the inhospitable environment.

Arana Project tells the story of a community who has, over generations, evolved with the land through both natural processes and economic transformation. Despite living in a tense coexistence with the environment, there is a desire to see the ebbs and flows of wetlands not as a threat, but as a feature to live alongside, and more than that, a source of pride. The community is unwilling to shed affective relations with the land, which has become part of their identity and selfhood. As Gladys Ciancio tells Rocío, "My nieces ask me, how am I going to stay here alone if there is nothing here? I tell them to leave me, I have my life here. If I go there (to the city), I'll die. I'll die there.”

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