A far-reaching investigation by Earthsight in South America has revealed how a football pitch-sized area of forest is cleared every two minutes in Paraguay. The clearances are driven by the need to generate space for cattle ranchers to supply the global auto industry with leather and the insatiable international meat industry with provision.
In the past year, deforestation has continued to be a global issue, fueling the climate crisis and habitat loss for endangered species. The majority of illegal forest fires and clearances have been reported in Brazil and other South American countries, where farmers use it as a tool to clear the land for pastures. One of the fastest vanishing areas in the region is the Paraguayan side of the Gran Chaco forest. The continent’s second-largest forest, Chaco covers more than 800,000 square kilometers across Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. It serves as a habitat for rare species that include jaguars, giant anteaters, hairy armadillos, as well as one of the last undisturbed homes of the rhea, the biggest bird in South America, and a distant cousin of ostrich and emu. Additionally, the region is also home to a quarter of a million indigenous people, split between twenty ethnicities and six language groups. Among them remain one of the few voluntarily isolated communities outside of the Amazon.
Satellite analysis by NASA has shown how the small nation lost a Switzerland-sized equivalent of forest area to farmlands and pastures. “In Paraguay, in recent years we have been experiencing deforestation rates of between 2,000-3,000 sq km per year, and in all the Gran Chaco we are looking at 5,000-6,000 sq km of forest in total,” said Alberto Yanosky, a conservationist, and director of Guyra, a Paraguayan Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). The deforestation rates estimate that Paraguay’s natural forests are disappearing faster than any other woodlands on Earth. Internationally, only Malaysia has higher deforestation rates.
In January, Earthsight, a nonprofit organization, teamed up with influential local NGOs and a member of the European Parliament to write an open letter to the Paraguayan government, asking them to address the environmental and human rights issues in the agronomic business. The letter also urges the government to investigate several cases of illegal deforestation and see it as a breach of the international commitments made to fight climate change.
The unequal land distribution in Paraguay put the majority of the land at the hands of the few large property owners and brought corruption into the politics of the small South American country. “What we have detected, with all our analysis, is that a minimum of 20 percent of the deforestation in the Paraguayan Chaco is illegal. That’s at least 360-370 sq km of illegal deforestation every year,” says Ezequiel Santagada, the head of Paraguay’s independent Environmental Law Institute (IDEA), who recently led a year-long investigation into deforestation. Paraguay’s Forestry law requires farmers to leave 25 percent of natural forests on their property as a “forest reserve,” but the regulators frequently bypass it, turning a blind eye to unauthorized deforestation since 610 sq km of natural forests has been cleared illegally between 2017 and 2018 as reported by Paraguay’s own environment enforcement agency.
This complete disregard of the governmental regulations severely affects Ayoreo Totobiegosode, the last “uncontacted” people in the Americas outside of the Amazon, voluntarily living in isolation. After a lengthy legal fight that involved the UN and several NGOs, the Paraguayan government recognized a 5,500 sq km ancestral area to be off-limits for any land management projects. Paraguay’s constitution states that the indigenous people are entitled to land areas “sufficient both in terms of size and quality for them to preserve and develop their lifestyles,” and asserts that they cannot be displaced without their explicit consent. However, more than 530 sq km have been illegally bulldozed since 2005.
The cleared land serves as pastures for Paraguay’s most profitable commodity, beef, and leather. Fueled by demand, which brings the country around USD$1 billion annually, treated cowhides were traced to the largest specialized tanneries in Italy. From there they turn into furniture, shoes, handbags, and most importantly, car interiors. Based on the statistics acquired from the International Council of Tanners, a fifth of the world’s leather is used to make the interior lining of high-end cars like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes which have stayed in demand even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activists are urging the EU governments to impose regulations on companies. “None of the car firms surveyed had a policy on deforestation or indigenous rights or could trace all their leather back to the ranch,” Earthsight cited in the report.
Deforestation and climate change are major threats to the lives and wellbeing of millions of people around the world, with high impact events and structural climate change already affecting communities globally. What happens in countries like Paraguay is no longer simply a local event, but a defining case study which continues to propel society towards environmental crisis.
For Times Media Mexico – Rixlie Fozilova in Michigan
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