PUTAENDO, Chile – Hundreds of cows, horses and sheep are dying of thirst and starvation due to a severe drought affecting central Chile’s Putaendo Valley, where ranchers have become resigned to their fate.
Rainfall amounts have plunged by more than 70 percent in this valley in the region of Valparaiso, an area that has been declared a state of catastrophe and is facing the threat of desertification.
Corpses of animals are no longer a rare sight on the plains and hillsides of this region, with flies and scavengers the only beneficiaries of the drought.
Area ranchers – such as Fernando Enriquez, who formerly owned nearly 200 head of beef cattle and more than 10 horses – have been unable to find a solution and been forced to bury their animals in mass graves.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Enriquez told EFE as he stood over a grave containing 15 cows and three mares.
“There’s no going back. In the countryside there’s no more water, much less grass. There’s nothing. There’s nothing to be done and we’re in very bad shape,” the 82-year-old rancher said.
His few remaining cows are famished and reduced to chewing dried vine shoots and even rocks. Their hip and rib bones are clearly visible and they are losing hair and unable to produce milk to feed their calves, which barely have the strength to stand.
Enriquez recalled that he was once able to sell a cow for nearly a dollar a kilogram and in some cases could earn $500 for a single animal, but now his livestock are badly underweight and he can barely sell them at any price.
Hillsides and streams had been a source of feed and water relied upon in Putaendo by small ranchers, whose animals would roam free and return well-fed at the end of the summer.
But now they release them to die, knowing there is no food but also aware that if the animals perish on their properties they will need to incur the cost of burying the corpses.
That has been the strategy of another local resident, 59-year-old Luis Manzano, who still has some cows on his ranch even though they barely have enough grass and water for nourishment.
Manzano cares for the few head of cattle he thinks he can save, while the rest have been released to the hillsides where they once grazed from the Southern Hemisphere winter to the summer and always found sufficient grass.
“We were hit with another dry year, and here all the livestock are dying,” he told EFE, lamenting that he is powerless to prevent a lifetime’s work from slipping through his hands.
The central zone – including the Santiago metropolitan region – and a portion of northern Chile are in 2019 facing their biggest rain shortfall of the past 60 years, a drought that the Agriculture Ministry says is affecting 34,000 animals between the northern region of Atacama and the central region of Maule.
The phenomenon has intensified over the past 10 years, with rainfall amounts dropping by around 38 percent relative to the historical average.
Both cattle ranchers and goat farmers agree it will be virtually impossible for them to continue supporting their families from those activities in the Valley of Putaendo.
“The (animals) are taken up there (to the hillsides), but in the case of this year it’s a bit left to fate. For those that survive, that’s good, and as for those that die, well we’re prepared for that. It could be that they all die and ... when we go to bring them down we might be coming down with nothing,” Manzano said.