Deforestation in Chaco Paraguay

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Deforestation in Chaco Paraguay

Wildlife and the environment could be at risk as Mennonites and others  could turn Chaco forest into prairie-style farmlands. Is this true or just a scare tactic to keep others away?

Hitler was said to have fled there, the Spanish conquistadors failed to penetrate it, and the only uncontacted tribe outside Amazonia lives within its borders. But now the vast Paraguayan wilderness of thorn trees, jaguars and snakes known as the Chaco is being transformed by a Christian fundamentalist sect and hundreds of Argentine and Brazilian ranchers.

Worldwide food shortages and rock-bottom land prices in Paraguay have made the Chaco the last agricultural frontier. Great swaths of the virgin thorn forest once dubbed Latin America’s “green hell”, are being turned into prairie-style grasslands to rear meat for Europe and grow bio-fuel crops for energy. Paraguay is now the 4th largest exporter of beef in the world surpassing Argentina.

Recent satellite imagery confirmed that over one million hectares, or 10% plus of the virgin, dry forest in northern Paraguay has been cleared in just few  years by ranchers using fire, chains and bulldozers to open up land. By comparison, Brazil claims to have nearly halted its deforestation of the Amazon.

Landowners in the Chaco, the second-largest South American forest outside the Amazon, must by law leave trees on 25%  to 50% depending on the zoning of their land but the region’s remoteness and the government’s lack of resources for monitoring or prosecuting law-breakers has encouraged illegal felling of the dense, slow-growing forest in the past.

The consequence, say some conservationists, including David Attenborough, is a possible ecological disaster with widespread erosion and desertification in one of the world’s most fragile and diverse environments.

“This is one of the last great wilderness areas left in the world. It is vital that we save the incredible biodiversity of these habitats,” said Attenborough, who made some of his earliest wildlife films in the region.

The barely populated expanse of almost impenetrable forest, twice the size of the UK, is home to about 3,400 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles, and 100 species of amphibians. Jaguars, pumas, giant anteaters and otters make it one of the most diverse in the world.

About 20,000 Indians lived in the area for centuries but the land was never colonised by western groups until the 1930s when fundamentalist Mennonite sects from Russia and eastern Europe were given large areas, to allow them to avoid communist persecution.

The Mennonites, who include the traditional Amish sect of Pennsylvania, believe in a strict interpretation of the bible and often seek isolation in remote areas. But the Chaco land rush, which has seen prices rise from under $20 a hectare to over $300 in a few years, has made the sect worth at least $700m.

The large Mennonite families and powerful co-operative farm groups have bought an estimated 2m hectares of land in the Chaco. What also used to be modest meat and dairy enterprises have grown into formidable agribusiness dominating Paraguayan livestock farming.

Mennonite communities, where an old German dialect is mostly spoken, now sport new pick-up trucks and have north American-style hypermarkets and restaurants.

“We intend to expand in the Chaco as much as the law allows. Not just physically but by making the land more productive,” said Heinrich Dyck, finance director of the Neuland co-operative of Mennonite farmers based in Filadelfia, the largest Mennonite community, of 4,000 people. The co-operative is one of Paraguay’s largest meat and milk exporters and owns the country’s biggest slaughterhouse.

Dyck added: “Religion is at the heart of everything we do. The Christian faith is fundamental to us. God made it clear in the bible that we should take care of the land and use it as a source of sustainability and production.”.

The Mennonites, who until recently paid no taxes, run their own schools and police. They have been joined in the Chaco by hundreds of Brazilian, Uruguayan and Argentine ranchers. These are mostly the descendants of German émigrés who established themselves in southern Brazil after the war. The Brazilians alone are now believed by government to own nearly 3 million hectares.

These groups, which  speak German, now control nearly a third of the Paraguayan Chaco and have rapidly developed a $150 million-a-year meat and dairy agribusiness which exports meat to Chile, Europe, Israel and Russia.

Mennonite and other large landowners this week defended the deforestation, arguing that it created jobs. “The Chaco was for sale a few years ago. No one wanted it. Why did not the conservationists buy it then?” said Massimo Coda, a spokesman for the Rural Association of Paraguay. “The reason why so much land is being cleared now is that we fear that more restrictions will be put on how much forest we can fell. We fear we will be stuck with a forest which pays nothing. We accept there can be  ecological damage, but we are prepared to leave more land forested.”

The Chaco has a history of surviving anything that man can throw at it, including war and a proposal that it become a global nuclear waste dump. During the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors tried to penetrate it but the vegetation, harsh climate, lack of water and indigenous tribes defeated them and the Chaco was largely ignored.

In 1932, following a rumored oil strike by Shell, Bolivian troops invaded the region but were defeated by a lack of water and searing temperatures. More than 2,000 people died in the three-year war and the outlines of trenches are still clear, with pieces of metal from tanks still littering the countryside.

The Chaco, which stretches over nearly 240,000 sq km, is similar topographically, and in places climatically, to the Australian outback. Covering parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, it is a mix of forest, palm woodland, shrubby steppe, and swamp. It is the second largest biome in South America after Amazonia.

Want to know more  about farming in this region.

Contact the Gateway to South America team to learn about the best investment opportunities in the region. The company is a benchmark for foreign investors wishing to invest in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay, providing expert advice on property acquisition and investment tours.

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