I was born in a country characterized by the exuberance of its natural environment, where lush green scenery accompanies you everywhere you go; the kind of place where in less than one hour’s drive out of the city – in any direction – you find yourself surrounded by forest. Unfortunately, all of that is quickly changing and Paraguay is increasingly losing its green landscape to give place to large-scale agriculture, mainly soybean farms and cattle ranches. We now have one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.
The immunity of the Chaco region in the western half of Paraguay, a region that for centuries remained untouched by human settlements and which is commonly referred to among locals as the ‘green hell’, might be coming to an end. The Dantesque sound of bulldozers constantly clearing the forest and images of thick clouds of smoke covering the sky as the trees are burnt have become part of the daily landscape. According to WWF, a leading organization in wildlife conservation and endangered species, the Atlantic forest – located in Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina – is one of the world’s most ecologically important regions, containing fauna and flora found nowhere else on earth. At the same time, the region is one of the world’s most endangered tropical rainforests, with just 7 percent of its original surface cover remaining.
A google image of deforestation in the Chaco, published by Rhettt Butler on mongabay.com. Images published by Hansen, Potapov et al on aaas.org
Guyra Paraguay, a local NGO working on the protection of the biodiversity, has been monitoring the deforestation of the main eco-regions in Paraguay. Their findings are sufficiently dramatic to shock to the most apathetic observer. In December 2013 alone, over 57,192 hectares of forest disappeared compared to 46,015 hectares logged the previous month. Their calculations indicate that the minimum estimated rate of deforestation is between 200,000 and 300,000 hectares per year. The University of Maryland also released a comprehensive global deforestation map highlighting the alarming trend of forest’s loss in tropical regions, the study reports that “Paraguay’s Chaco woodlands …are experiencing rapid deforestation in the development of cattle ranches. The result is the highest rate of deforestation in the world.”
The high rates of deforestation not only pose a threat to the country’s rich biodiversity but now also threaten Paraguay’s uncontacted Ayoreo Natives who depend on the forest for their survival. They are being forced to be constantly on the run from cattle ranchers’ bulldozers, which they call eapajocacade or ‘attackers of the world’. The Ayoreo community feel they have no one to turn to, least of all the government. Last year the decision by the Ministry of Environment to grant Brazilian-owned ranching companies Yaguarete Pora S.A. and Carlos Casado S.A. (a subsidiary of Spanish construction company Grupo San José) licenses to clear the Ayoreo’s forest, despite its location within a UNESCO biosphere reserve, caused public uproar and highlighted how low environmental protection ranks among the priorities of the government.
According to Alberto Yanosky, executive director of Guyra Paraguay, the current situation is the result of decades of government policies, which have provided incentives to deforestation and lacked any measures to prevent logging for farming and agriculture. The situation has been exacerbated by the growing presence of Brazilian ranchers and the booming Mennonite communities expanding into the Chaco region. The country’s policies of promoting cattle ranching are not helping the situation either. The Minister of Industry and Trade, Gustavo Leite, recently announced the country’s plan to climb from eighth to fifth in the world ranking of beef exporting countries by 2018—which will further increase the pressure to clear the forest for ‘productive’ land.
In September last year, the Paraguayan government basked in the approval of international environmental organisations after it extended the Land Conversion Moratorium for the Atlantic Forest of Paraguay, also known as the ‘Zero Deforestation Law’, for another five years. The law prohibits “the transformation and conversion of forested areas in Paraguay’s eastern region.” However, the regulation only covers the eastern part of the country, while most of the Chaco forest is in the west. Furthermore, Paraguay’s President Horacio Cartes last month passed Decree No. 453 of the Environmental Impact Evaluation, which environmentalists said would clear the way for unchecked deforestation. The decree, publicly applauded by the Paraguayan Federation of Timber Workers, relieves landowners of the obligation to provide environmental impact reports on properties up to 500 hectares in the eastern region, and up to 2,000 hectares in the Chaco region.
At the current rates of deforestation, Paraguay risks losing all of its forest by 2030. Borrowing the words of Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, “the government must stop ranchers from destroying its people’s heritage before it’s too late for the Chaco, and too late for the Ayoreo.”
Survival International’s warning about the threat to the Ayoreo tribe can be read here.