Satellite monitoring by the environmental organisation Guyra Paraguay has revealed that deforestation in the Gran Chaco biome in South America increased last October after Paraguay’s President issued a potentially illegal decree allowing cattle ranchers to evade restrictions on deforestation.
According to the organisation, 40,343 hectares were cleared in the Gran Chaco region – which falls within Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil – last October, compared to 35,191 hectares cleared in the previous month. Paraguay accounted for 71 per cent of the total deforested area in October. Just one Paraguayan district, Mariscal Estigarribia, accounted for more than a quarter of deforestation.
This significant increase in deforestation in the Paraguayan Chaco in October followed decree 7702/17 issued by the country’s President, Horacio Cartes, on 14 September allowing landowners to clear all the forest on their property, circumventing a long-standing requirement that they conserve a quarter to protect the environment.
The daily rate of deforestation in Paraguay in October was 916 hectares, the highest in the year and well above the average rate of Argentina for the same month, at 239 hectares per day. In contrast, Argentina and Bolivia saw reductions in their rates of deforestation in October compared to the previous month.
Introduced in 1973, Paraguay’s Forestry Law requires landowners to maintain 25 per cent of the natural forest on their land as a “forest reserve”. The new decree allows for areas within this reserve to be replaced with fast-growing monocultures for commercial use. It also permits landowners to clear the reserve entirely by “acquiring environmental services licenses”.
Environmental groups have warned that decree 7702/17 was incompatible with Paraguay’s existing legal framework. The Institute for Environmental Law said that it contradicted a 2006 regulation prohibiting landowners from purchasing licenses to compensate for future clearances. WWF Paraguay argued that it was incompatible with a law establishing “a prison term of three to eight years” for “those who exploit forests declared special or protected.”
A week after the decree was passed, the Environment Ministry approved a management plan for a cattle ranch in Paraguay’s western Chaco region. The ranch is owned by President Cartes, and the plan allows him to convert all its remaining forest into cattle pasture. This has led to allegations that the President passed the decree to benefit his own cattle ranch and without consideration for the environmental consequences.
Analysis by Earthsight using Global Forest Watch indicates that the rule change will affect between 36,000 and 90,000 square kilometres of forest which was previously protected: an area between one and three times the size of Belgium. By comparison, in the decade to 2016, the Brazilian Amazon lost 75,000 square kilometres of tropical forest.
Forests in the Chaco are already under intense pressure. A 2013 study by the University of Maryland found that the Chaco forests are disappearing more rapidly than any other tropical forests on earth.
“The Paraguayan Chaco is in an extremely fragile state,” Miguel Angel Alarcon, from the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie, told Earthsight. The Chaco’s forests are home to the last uncontacted indigenous peoples in the Americas outside of the Brazilian Amazon. “For isolated communities, who live in a state of interdependence with the natural world, deforestation generates conditions similar to those you would see in a war,” Alarcon explained.
In 2016, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged the Paraguayan government to act on deforestation in order to protect indigenous communities. However, a few days after the passage of decree 7702/17, Paraguay’s vice-minister for livestock said he expected four million hectares of forest to be cleared in the Paraguayan Chaco over the next ten years – a doubling of the deforestation rate seen over the preceding decade. The vice-minister welcomed the projected deforestation on the basis that it would provide more pasture to support cattle-rearing for beef.
Beef is the primary direct driver of deforestation in Paraguay, which is the world’s seventh largest exporter of the commodity. Charcoal production, which is produced using timber from forests cleared for ranches, also provides a further economic incentive, reducing the up-front costs of establishing ranches.
In July 2017, two months before the Presidential decree, Earthsight published the results of a detailed investigation exposing the role of one of Paraguay’s most powerful Ministers as a leading player in the charcoal industry. The supply chain from the company owned by the scandal-ridden Minister, Ramón Jiménez Gaona, was traced from the remote Chaco to supermarket shelves in Europe and the US.
After the scandal made front-page news in Paraguay, a congressional committee launched an investigation into deforestation in the Chaco, ordering the environment ministry to release documentation on permits and prosecutions.