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Patagonian shepherds fear Chile ash disaster
by Staff Writers
Bariloche, Argentina (AFP) June 23, 2011

While air passengers from Argentina to Australia suffer travel misery from Chile's volcanic ash cloud, Patagonian farmers have a graver problem: what to do with 1.5 million sheep.

Since the Puyehue volcano erupted June 4, thousands of tons of ash and volcanic debris, which quickly turns to sludge, has rained down on pastures in the southern Argentine provinces of Neuquen, Rio Negro and Chubut.

From the Chilean border to the Atlantic Ocean, sheep and cattle farmers are fearful that fields of ash are doing irreparable damage to their flocks and herds and are struggling to face up to the grim economic consequences.

"Farmers have only two possibilities: shut the animals in pens and feed them there or move them away from the area," Eduardo Arroyo from the Rural Society of Bariloche told AFP.

In the small settlement of Tequel Malal, which means "wooden pen" in the indigenous Mapuche language, Nestor Perello, 58, is confronting exactly this dilemma.

Dressed in gaucho clothing with leather boots and a knife in his belt, Perello is worried his 320 sheep and 400 cows could go blind or develop digestive problems because of the ash.

Nearby, clouds of volcanic dust rose from shaggy-looking sheep, while cows and horses dug through the gray pasture with their hooves, looking to turn up some unsoiled sustenance.

"We decided to round up the grazing cattle into pens and give them fodder," said Perello, foreman for 20 years on this 3,800-hectare (15 square miles) property in Neuquen province, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the volcano.

"It was founded in 1889 by Jarred Jones, an American from Texas who arrived here first," said Perello, pointing to a wooden cabin where the pioneer once lived that is now, like everything else, shrouded in ash.

Putting the animals in pens is not an option for larger ranches like one just 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Bariloche, where 6,000 sheep and 1,000 cows graze on 23,000 hectares (90 square miles) of once pristine land.

"In my 22 years here I've never seen anything like this," a ranch manager who did not want to be identified told AFP.

At great expense, the ranch's European owners have moved the animals some 800 kilometers (500 miles) away, where it will take five months of grazing for them to reach their normal weight.

"Two weeks after the eruption, the consequences on the animals were already visible," said the ranch manager who, like the farm laborers helping him, wore a face-mask to protect himself from the ash.

"The cows ought to weigh 180 kilograms (400 pounds) on average, and instead they weigh barely 125 kilograms (275 pounds)," he said.

Across the border in Chile, the Puyehue volcano continued to spew out lava and geologists voiced fears of another explosion -- more bad news for farmers fearful of losing their livelihoods.

The volcano has also taken its toll on local wildlife, including the deer that are hunted from March and have long been a lucrative draw for tourists.

"We have seen them blinded and stumbling about because of the ash," the rancher said. "When you come across them, instead of running away, they stay there, their eyes in a complete fog."

If the ash continues to fall for weeks and months to come, farmers in a region home to some 1.5 million sheep and tens of thousands of cattle fear a real agricultural disaster.

Argentina has the world's highest consumption of beef and is the third largest beef exporter after Brazil and Australia.

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Experts warn Chile volcano could explode again
Santiago (AFP) June 22, 2011
Chilean experts warned Wednesday that a "cork" of lava could lead to another explosion at the Puyehue volcano, which has caused major flight disruptions from Argentina to Australia. Seismic activity has declined, with two tremors of a magnitude of around 2.5 recorded every hour on Tuesday, compared with several hundred of a magnitude of four or five in the hours preceding the initial June 4 ... read more

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