Paraguay: “Pause” Farming Expansion in Gran Chaco, Say Activists

Mother and child in the Gran Chaco. photo: Langelle/GJEP-GFC

The following is of great interest to Global Justice Ecology Project.  GJEP is the North American Focal Point for Global Forest Coalition.  GFC thas it’s southern hemisphere office in Asuncion.  After the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil last year, GJEP’s Anne Petermann and Orin Langelle visited the Asuncion office.  While in Paraguay, Langelle was invited to the Gran Chaco region by the Ayoreo for a photo project entitled “Sharing the Eye .”

“Pause” Farming Expansion in Gran Chaco, Say Activists
By Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Jun 17, 2010 (Tierramérica) – Extensive cattle farming in northwestern Paraguay is the leading cause of deforestation in the Gran Chaco, one of the world’s leading regions in biodiversity and South America’s second largest forested area, after the Amazon.

The non-governmental Guyra Paraguay Association reported to the Secretariat (ministry) of Environment (SEAM) that deforestation last year totalled 267,000 hectares, 17 percent more than in 2008, just in the northern provinces of Boquerón and Alto Paraguay.

The association’s study also found that in the first quarter of this year, 18,000 hectares of forested land disappeared from this rich ecosystem, located in the centre of South America, with 80 percent of that loss occurring inside Paraguayan territory.

The Gran Chaco is a semi-arid expanse of dense thorn scrubland that covers more than one million square kilometres: 25 percent in Paraguay, 62 percent in Argentina, 12 percent in Bolivia, and the remaining one percent in Brazil.

Eladio García, director of integrated environmental monitoring at SEAM, told Tierramérica that government regulation of the area is difficult due to the lack of resources.

“There is a complete lack of awareness about respect for natural resources,” said García, who noted the private landowners’ violations of the country’s existing land-use and land management laws.

Forestry Law 422/73, which regulates management and use of renewable natural resources, establishes that 50 percent of forests must be maintained on farms that are in preservation zones, and 25 percent on farms that are not.

The Pojoauju Association, an umbrella of dozens of non-governmental organisations, issued a statement earlier this month urging an “ecological pause” to logging in the area in order to establish a balance between economic production and forest preservation.

The association’s argument is that “the landowners and the agro-export companies are deforesting areas of the Chaco to transform the land towards livestock production and genetically modified soybean cultivation.”

“They are carrying out a process of grid-mapping the Chaco for a system that already destroyed the natural resources in the eastern region” of Paraguay, Víctor Benítez, an expert with the organisation Alter Vida, told Tierramérica.

The farmers in this process fail to take into account the location of fragile areas of biodiversity, protected areas or “uncontacted” indigenous groups, he added.

According to SEAM figures, there are just one million hectares remaining of the 3.5 million hectares of forest that existed in the 1970s in the eastern region, which encompasses 14 of the country’s 17 provinces, and where 97 percent of the 6.2 million Paraguayans live.

“It isn’t a call for a zero-deforestation law, but rather for the government, through its institutions, to declare an ecological pause,” said Benítez, though he did not specify how long the moratorium should last.

Law 2524 was enacted in 2004, prohibiting activities that transformed or converted forest-covered areas in the eastern region. The policy remained in force until 2006, and was then extended to 2013.

With that legislative tool, Paraguay was able to reduce logging 85 percent in that area, but it pushed farm expansion to the Chaco, as part of the development dream for that region.

A SEAM investigation found that most of the rural landowners of deforested areas are Brazilian, and are located in ancestral indigenous territory, in the extreme north of the Chaco.

Benítez believes there must be dialogue between the farmers and ranchers and the institutions representing the indigenous communities’ social, environmental and cultural interests.

About 51 percent of the national indigenous population — some 108,000 people — lives in the Chaco or western region, which covers 60 percent of the 406,752 square km of Paraguayan territory.

The Ayoreo community is one of the principal indigenous groups of the Gran Chaco, numbering about 5,600, with 2,600 in Paraguay and the rest in Bolivia.

The 2009 report “Paraguay: The Ayoreo Case,” prepared by the Amotocodie Initiative and the Native Ayoreo Union of Paraguay, indicates that about 100 of these indigenous peoples still live in the Chaco forests, outside of contact with the rest of Paraguayan society.

“In the Chaco there are areas that are clearly for livestock, to which we have no objection at all, and that is why we are calling for an end to land-use changes in the indigenous zone,” said Benítez.

The 2008 Agricultural Census found that in the western region there were about 3.9 million head of cattle, 37 percent of the national total.

The environmentalists say the responsibility for saving the Paraguayan Chaco lies with the authorities and depends on a commitment from society.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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