Nearly a quarter of Chaco deforestation potentially illegal, says Paraguay enforcement agency


The Gran Chaco contains the second largest expanse of forest in South America, behind only the Amazon rainforest. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecostorm via Mighty Earth

New data released by Paraguay’s environment enforcement agency, INFONA, reveals that nearly a quarter of all deforestation that took place in the Gran Chaco between August 2017 and August 2018 may have been illegal.

The Gran Chaco is a diverse biome of humid and semi-arid ecosystems of riverine forests, wetlands and savannas. It is home to several endangered species, including ant-eaters, giant armadillos, crowned eagles and jaguars, as well as several indigenous communities. 

The Gran Chaco contains the second largest expanse of forest in South America, behind only the Amazon rainforest.

According to INFONA, deforestation in the Chaco between August 2017 and August 2018 reached 255,000 hectares (ha), of which 194,000ha were authorised by land-use change permits.

The remaining 61,000 ha, or 24% of the total, were possibly cleared illegally as INFONA had not been able to confirm its legality. The agency said it had been analysing the data to determine the precise extent of illegality.

If confirmed, this level of illegal deforestation in the Chaco would be a significant increase from 2017 levels, when INFONA could only detect 10,000ha of illegal clearings.

Most of this deforestation is the result of cattle ranching, according to the agency.

Paraguayan law stipulates that any property in the Chaco larger than 20 ha must preserve between 40% and 45% of its native vegetation. But illegalities abound.

In January alone, INFONA, in joint enforcement operations with the public prosecutor’s office and the police, detected over 10,000ha of illegal deforestation at the SolitarioEl Dorado and other farms in the departments of Boquerón and Alto Paraguay. In some cases, the authorities seized illegal fire arms at the properties.

INFONA seems to be taking a more proactive role in uncovering illegal deforestation since its new president, Cristina Goralewski, took over the agency in August last year, when Mario Abdo Benítez became Paraguay’s new president.

Upon taking office, one of Mario Abdo’s first acts as president was to abolish decree 7702. The decree, issued by previous president Horacio Cartes in 2017, allowed farmers in the Chaco to clear all the forest on their properties.

The decree was potentially illegal as it contradicted conservation laws without the approval of congress. Cartes was accused of putting Chaco’s forests in danger to be able to expand his own cattle ranch – San Francisco farm – in the biome.

But this apparent new impetus for conservation faces obstacles. In January, the Paraguayan congress denied a request by a congressman to hold an extraordinary session to debate a zero-deforestation bill for the Gran Chaco. The proposal is scheduled to be debated once congress returns from its recess in March.

Likewise, congress refused to declare an emergency situation in the eastern region’s Atlantic Forest – which has been protected by a zero-deforestation law since 2003 – where more than 10,000ha were illegally cleared between 2017 and 2018.

The Gran Chaco, which extends from northern Argentina through Paraguay’s western regions and into southern Bolivia, has lost over eight million hectares of forest in the past 12 years, mostly to soybean cultivation and cattle ranching. The biome has experienced some of the world’s highest rates of conversion to agriculture.

In 2017 Earthsight traced charcoal produced from the clearing of forests in the Paraguayan Chaco to supermarkets in the EU and US, including major chains Lidl, Aldi and Carrefour. 

Our analysis showed that the equivalent of up to 30 football pitches of the biome’s forests were being cleared every day to supply Europe, the largest export destination, with charcoal.

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