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Floods Months Argentine*

Flooding on Argentina's Pampas adds to economic woes

November 30, 2001 Posted: 6:05 PM EST (2305 GMT)

Oscar Alcaraz cleans freshly-netted carp on farming land where cattle once roamed and grain was grown.

CARLOS CASARES, Argentina (AP) -- Oscar Alcaraz used to mend fences out on the Pampas, where cattle have grazed for centuries. But months of unusually heavy rains have flooded millions of acres in the famed region, adding to Argentina's economic crisis.

For Alcaraz, 31, it is time to go fishing. Unable to do ranch work, he spends his days laying out lines and nets to catch carp and other fish swimming in what used to be fields where cattle roamed and grain grew.

"I used to eat beef everyday -- beef with a little salad. Fish was something we only ate occasionally," he said.

The Pampas -- a symbol of Argentina's ranching pride -- is under siege: With the region already hit by a drop in global commodity prices, the flooding has agriculture on the ropes in communities like Carlos Casares, about 200 miles west of Buenos Aires.

It's a further blow for a nation struggling to keep up with $132 billion in foreign debts after three years of a bruising recession that has pushed unemployment to more than 16 percent.

Many farmhands now hunt for otters and other wild game to survive.

The money-strapped government says it will have to spend more than $1.5 billion to help recovery from flooding that has damaged 12.4 million acres across the Pampas. The region is one of the country's most important economic sectors, exporting cattle, meat, dairy products, corn, wheat and sunflowers.

Argentine officials estimate 3 percent of this year's wheat crop has been lost, and 11,000 people have been forced from their homes. While there have been few cattle actually lost, trade in meat and animals has been disrupt choice.

"It has a very gamey flavor because it's an animal that spends all its time in the water," Ledesma said. "But when there's nothing else to eat, we just put on lots of salt and condiments."

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