“Illegal” decree strips protection from forest area size of Belgium, used by Paraguayan President to authorise clearance on own ranch


Chaco forest converted to cattle pasture in Mariscal Estigarribia, near the site of President Cartes's ranch Photo: Michael Edwards / Alamy Stock Photo

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The President of Paraguay issued a potentially illegal decree freeing cattle ranchers to accelerate the already catastrophically high rate of deforestation in the country’s Chaco region, then used it to clear forest on his own ranch, an investigation has revealed.

Decree 7702/17 allows landowners to clear all the forest on their property, circumventing a long-standing requirement that they conserve a quarter to protect the environment. The move puts at risk an area of forest at least the size of Belgium.

“Decree 7702/17 is absolutely against the national constitution and several international agreements to which our government is committed,” a coalition of six environmental organisations said in a statement.

The decree was passed by executive order on 14 September. A week later, 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.

A newspaper investigation, published on 24 October, concluded that Cartes had “passed a decree to benefit his own cattle ranch.”

“In order to make more money, the President is willing to destroy our forests,” the newspaper ABC Color said. President Cartes has not responded to the allegations.

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”, an option immediately made use of by Cartes’s firm.

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.

Shortly after the decree was passed, the head of Paraguay’s Forestry Institute was unexpectedly removed from his post while representing Paraguay in Honduras. Sources cited by the newspaper Ultima Hora said that his dismissal was directly related to concerns he had raised about the new decree. He was replaced by Fredis Estigarribia, a vet with no previous forestry experience and a close ally of President Cartes.

Deforestation in the Paraguayan Chaco, 2006-2015 Photo: Global Forest Watch

Even before the Cartes revelations emerged, environmental groups had 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.” Contradictions were also highlighted with Paraguay’s National Development PlanNational Environment Plan, and constitution.

“Paraguay’s forests are on the point of disappearing, but this is apparently insufficient to motivate us to step up our efforts to protect them,” said Ricardo Merlo, Paraguay’s deputy head of human rights and former state environment prosecutor. “Instead, I am forced to provide an analysis of the illegality of the proposals contained in this decree.”

Cattle cluster beneath the shade of a samu'u tree on deforested land in the Paraguayan Chaco

Forests in the Chaco are already under intense pressure. A 2013 study by the University of Maryland found that the Chaco forests (which also extend across Bolivia and Argentina) are disappearing more rapidly than any other tropical forests on earth. Over 300,000 hectares are projected to be cleared in 2017 in Paraguay alone, according to a report by the NGO BASE-IS, which draws on satellite monitoring by Guyra Paraguay.

“The Paraguayan Chaco is in an extremely fragile state,” Miguel Angel Alarcon, from the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie, told Earthsight. “The climatic and environmental conditions that gave rise to this ecoregion have changed and are no longer capable of reproducing the forests we have today. We are facing the possibility of totally losing the Chaco as we know it.”

Jaguars are one of the species threatened by the deforestation of the Chaco Photo: Hugo Santa Cruz and Fundación Yaguareté

The Chaco’s forests are home to the last uncontacted indigenous peoples in the Americas outside of the Brazilian Amazon. Iniciativa Amotocodie documents signs of their presence and campaigns for their right to remain in isolation.

“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. “Their habitat is invaded, occupied and destroyed. This produces refugees, illness, starvation, and death. A man from a contacted indigenous community, on seeing bulldozers clearing forest for the first time, described them to me as ‘weapons of mass destruction’.”

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.

As this suggests, beef is the primary driving force for deforestation in Paraguay, which is the world’s seventh largest exporter of the commodity. Pressure on Paraguay’s forests is likely to increase in the coming months, as the US Department of Agriculture is set to lift an embargo on imports of Paraguayan beef.

As well as beef, Chaco clearances fuel a thriving charcoal industry. A recent investigation by Earthsight documented a facility run by the country’s largest charcoal firm, Bricapar, found to be consuming ten football pitches of forest a day. Bricapar is part-owned by a former Olympic discus thrower named Ramon Jimenez Gaona, who now serves as Minister of Public Works in the cabinet of President Cartes.

Wood sourced from the clearance of natural forest piled outside Bricapar's charcoal ovens in the Paraguayan Chaco Photo: Earthsight

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