Chaco forest converted to cattle pasture in Mariscal Estigarribia, near the site of President Cartes's ranch
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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
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
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
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
Even before the Cartes revelations emerged, environmental
groups had warned that decree 7702/17 was incompatible with Paraguay’s existing
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
Development Plan, National
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
“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
Jaguars are one of the species threatened by the deforestation of the Chaco
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
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
Wood sourced from the clearance of natural forest piled outside Bricapar's charcoal ovens in the Paraguayan Chaco