Investigation reveals illegal cattle ranching in Paraguay’s vanishing Chaco

  • In the buffer zone around the Defensores del Chaco National Park– the largest forest reserve in the country – new areas have been cleared to make way for livestock, while long-established cattle ranches are operating without environmental licenses.
  • According to official data from the Ministry of the Environment, more than a million hectares (10,000 square kilometers) were cleared in Paraguay’s Chaco ecosystem between January 2014 and January 2018.
  • The Ministry of the Environment has just 12 inspectors to deal with all the environmental complaints across the country.

South America’s Gran Chaco is a hot, semi-arid biome that stretches from eastern Bolivia down through western Paraguay into Argentina, barely touching Brazil on its way. It’s characterized by sparse forest – South America’s second-largest – and grasslands and has high levels of biodiversity, home to around 3,000 plant, 500 bird, 220 reptile and amphibian, and 150 mammal species.

It’s also a hotspot of deforestation as land is gobbled up and cleared for cattle ranches and cropland. Satellite data show that around 20 percent of the Gran Chaco has been converted into agricultural land since 1985.

Increasingly, Paraguay has become a hotspot within this hotspot, with cattle pasture displacing forest at a rapid pace – even in areas that are officially protected.

Satellite data visualized on the forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch (GFW) alerted Mongabay to the possibility that the edges of Defensores del Chaco National Park (DCHNP), Paraguay’s largest reserve and one of the few large areas of primary forest left in the country, are being targeted in a new wave of deforestation.

Mongabay’s Latin America bureau visited the area and confirmed that at least four tracts of protected land, each comprising around 100 hectares (1 square kilometer), have recently been cleared to make way for livestock. The clearing is happening within the park’s official buffer zone, which surrounds the park and, in doing so, forms part of it.

Defensores del Chaco National Park contains one of the last Intact Forest Landscapes of Paraguay, which are areas of primary forest that are undisturbed and connected enough to retain their original biodiversity levels. While the park itself has escaped much of the clearing that has taken place around it, the park’s buffer zone has been subject to significant conversion. Satellite data from the University of Maryland indicate there have been recent deforestation events within the buffer zone over the past few months.

Video of deforestation within the buffer zone of Defensores del Chaco National Park. 

“Nowadays, the park is becoming an island surrounded by clearing,” said park warden Silvino Gonzalez. Agricultural engineer Luis Reclade explained that the buffer zone, also called an impact zone, acts as a shield and is vital for protection of the forest in the national park.

“Its main purposes are to connect the park with other reserves further away and to reduce the island effect, which happens when the flora and fauna in the park become isolated,” Reclade said.

Buffer zones also act as biological corridors, connecting landscapes, ecosystems and habitats and, in doing so, help protect biodiversity along with ecological and evolutionary processes.

Drone video shows trees cut down within the buffer zone of Defensores del Chaco National Park.

According to the Ministry for the Environment and Sustainable Development (Ministerio del Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible – MADES) 1,057,888 hectares (10,578 square kilometers) were cleared between January 2014 and January 2018 in the western region of the country. Of this, 959,559 hectares (9,596 square kilometers) – more than 90 percent – were cleared in Alto Paraguay and Boqueron, two departments that border Defensores del Chaco National Park. Sources say that practically all of this area is destined to be absorbed into livestock production, which is the region’s primary commercial activity.

The register for the National Service for Animal Health and Quality (Servicio Nacional de Salud y Calidad Animal – SENACSA) shows that in this region, there is a total of 8,210 working livestock farms with a bovine population (cows, bulls, oxen) of 6,134,695. According to data from the institution, this figure represents 44 percent of Paraguay’s entire livestock population.

Paraguay is one of the top ten meat exporters in the world, most of which comes from farms carved out of the Chaco. These animals, which are transported in trucks to authorized abattoirs, provide the fodder for an industry that netted profits of $2.5 billion last year.

Silvino González, warden at Defensores del Chaco National Park. Image by Andrea Ferreira.

Silvino Gonzales has been the park warden at DCHNP for over 40 years. He was the first to occupy this position when it was first created in 1975. Since then, he has regularly trodden the footpaths and he knows the park like the back of his hand – the open routes in the middle of the forest that the Paraguayan soldiers used in the El Chaco War against Bolivia – and every farm owner nearby.

Gonzalez says that even if a large part of the livestock operations do comply with the regulations and maintain a percentage of forest on their land, the situation is still worrying; any moment, these farms could be taken over by new owners who have no intention of maintaining the forest reserves.

Defensores del Chaco National Park and its buffer zone are considered by environmental specialists as one of the country’s richest areas in terms of biodiversity. Of particular importance is Cerro Leon, an area consisting of mountainous formations that soar to a height of 630 meters. In 2017, studies revealed a wealth of diamonds and precious stones beneath the peaks. The fauna of the park is made up of animals like the Amazonian tapir, jaguars, giant lizards, pumas and macaws, among others.

Paraguay’s Chaco is also home to valuable woods like trebol or Palo Santo. This last species is greatly sought-after by the illegal timber trade, and is cut down shipped out to different regions of the world.

According to MADES, the Chaco lost 264,000 hectares per year to deforestation over the past four years. This situation was exacerbated by Presidential Decree 7,702, enacted in September 2017 by the previous government of Horacio Cartes, which relaxed environmental regulations. The decree has been questioned by environmentalists.

Defensores del Chaco National Park, view from Cerro León. Photo by Andrea Ferreira.

Forestry Law 422 from 1973 and the subsequent Decree 18,831 from 1986 state that each livestock establishment in the country must retain 25 percent of their land as forest. Furthermore, Law 4,241 from 2010 and its 2012 regulatory decree states that any operations located within the park’s buffer zone must keep 50 percent of their holdings as forest.

In issuing the 2017 decree, ex-president Horacio Cartes authorized farm owners and livestock farmers in the Chaco to clear 100 percent of their land, ignoring existing environmental laws. The decree was rescinded by current Head of State, Mario Abdo Benitez. But in the meantime, some livestock farming establishments had already cleared their entire properties.

Today, Defensores del Chao is surrounded by livestock farms that are isolating it even more and “putting biological corridors at risk,” says engineer Luis Recalde.

No environmental license

One of the livestock operations in the Defensores del Chaco buffer zone belongs to well-known businessman Benjamin Pivetta. According to the official register of the Ministry for the Environment, the Brazilian rancher owns at least 40,000 hectares, a large portion of which are located within the park’s buffer zone.

Drone footage of a cattle ranch operating without a license in the buffer zone of Defensores del Chaco National Park.

The National Service for Animal Health and Quality (Servicio Nacional de Salud y Calidad Animal – SENACSA) considers Pivetta to be “an exemplary farmer who works in an orderly fashion,” according to one of the institution’s representatives. However, Mongabay has confirmed that Pivetta does not have a current environmental license for his holdings in the buffer zone, which is required for operation.

The MADES records show the Pivetta’s last licence was valid in 2011. Subsequently, the farmer no longer had environmental authorization to continue with his livestock production. Law 294 from 1993 states that livestock establishments, above all those within the park’s impact zone, must have an environmental permit that allows them to work within the parameters of an established land use plan. This requirement affects all holdings, including those that were in use prior to 1993.

Pivetta’s property is situated in the northern parts of the buffer zone near the region known as Agua Dulce. Mongabay visited the area and confirmed that large tracts of land are still in production. However, no complaints have been logged, either with the inspectors or with MADES. Pivetta did not respond to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

State apathy

The administrative headquarters for the national park is located at the main entrance. They have just two chairs and three buildings, of which only two function. One of them has a couple of rooms with mattresses for visitors. The other houses the only bathroom with water, and that is where the forest wardens live. Having a computer seems a far-off dream for the staff, despite the fact that the area gets a passable internet signal. To travel around the park’s perimeter, the wardens have access to two vans and a motorbike.

As they have no electricity, the park wardens turn on the electric generator as the sun goes down, but only until midnight so as not to expend too much fuel. The allowance provided by MADES goes to pay salaries and provides somewhere to sleep for just three park guardians.

A coati searches for food in a tree in Defensores del Chaco National Park. Photo by Andrea Ferreira.

Thousands of stars decorate the night sky. As the sun comes up and before the heat of the day sets in, you can spot the footprints of tapir, wild hog or even a curious jaguar prowling around the patio. According to Jorge Sosa, one of the two park wardens, the jaguars often emerge from the park’s forest when it’s very dry or early in the morning when the mosquitoes become unbearable.

“I’ve been here for a year and I’ve come face-to-face with a jaguar and other animals. Here there are all sorts,” says 23-year-old Sosa. “It’s a beautiful area but you have to know how to survive.”

During the day, the patio of the administrative headquarters becomes a constant stage for birds, among them parrots that move around in groups. Further into the park, you can see blue and yellow macaws and many toucans.

Defensores del Chaco’s lack of wardens is not a unique situation; many of Paraguay’s protected areas are understaffed.

“You need at least 120 park wardens to try and manage our parks and national reserves. At the moment, we have 64,” says Carmelo Rodriguez, Director of the National Parks for the Ministry for the Environment. “For those with a contract, they can only pay minimum wage, but those of us who are permanent have a better salary.”

One of the buildings that make up the park’s administrative headquarters. Photo by Aldo Benítez.

Paraguay’s Ministry for the Environment is charged with dealing with all environmental complaints at a national level, but Rodriguez says it has just 12 inspectors across the entire country to take on this responsibility.

“The rural land register means that checks are carried out by topography in the field as well as satellite images together with the normal processes that we carry out to check a property and above all, determine what each owner’s management plan is to see if they comply [with forest cover retention requirements],” says Gustavo Casco Verna, head of MADES’s Environmental Analysis and Evaluation Department.

Rodriguez says that they are working on a plan to restructure the institution and to determine how to more effectively administer human and financial resources. The annual allowance from MADES is around $12.8 million. The aim is to increase this amount to improve control systems, increase park wardens’ salaries and hire more inspectors.

The transformation of the Chaco

In the 1980s and 1990s, Paraguay’s Chaco was inaccessible. There were no roads and there were few farmers willing to invest. Because of this, the place became the perfect hiding place for drug, arms and fur traffickers.

Because of the Chaco’s isolation, Brazilian drug cartel leaders of the 1990s headquartered their operations in the high areas of the region in the department of Alto Paraguay. Luis Carlos Da Rocha, aka “Cabeza Branca,” known in Brazil as the “ambassador for Paraguayan drugs,” was one of those who had a ranch in this area at the time. After him came Fernandinho Beira Mar, none other than the leader of some of the biggest and most dangerous cartels in Brazil, Comando Vermelho. Jarvis Chimenes Pavoa himself, a well-known mafia chief who was ultimately extradited to Brazil, also owned property in the Chaco.

A colorful inhabitant of Defensores del Chaco National Park. Photo by Andrea Ferreira.

These traffickers used their properties as landing strips to transport marijuana – the top product in the 1990s – as well as move weapons from Bolivia to Rio de Janeiro.

But things began to change in the late 1990s. Farmers who already had lands in the eastern region began to see Alto Paraguay as a place that could be profitable. Shortly after that, ranches stared becoming acquired by families with farming traditions.

In 2005, the government published a decree prohibiting foreigners from owning land farther than 50 kilometers from the Paraguayan border. This measure incited Brazilian owners to sell their lands in the border regions, accelerating the process of converting the Chaco into a land dedicated almost entirely to livestock farming.

Today there are still farms linked to drug trafficking. In 2014, a cocaine laboratory was discovered in a district known as Toro Pochy, some six kilometers from the Bolivian border. However, by and large, most land holdings are focused on agriculture.

Sustainable farming

The Agua Dulce Producers Association (Asociación de Productores Agua Dulce – APAD) brings together 34 of the 122 ranches that operate in the buffer zones around Defensores del Chaco.

Celso Muxfeldt is an agricultural engineer and the current president of APAD. He is very clear about the organization’s ideas on caring for the forest and, above all, the national park: “We are the first people interested in caring for the National Park; it’s a heritage site for the country and for humanity.”

Land deforested for livestock near Defensores del Chaco National Park. Photo by Aldo Benítez.

Muxfeldt states that it is possible to work while respecting current environmental laws.

“In APAD, all our members retain the 50 percent [of forest] that the Law asks us to keep on our lands. We understand the value of this land is in its flora and fauna and the right way of working it,” he said.

APAD started to function formally in 2017. The goal of the Association is to increase awareness of sustainable farming and respect for native forest, incentivize reforestation, and promote care for the park. APAD also pays the salary of one of the park’s guardians, who operates in a control post near Agua Dulce. The building was recently reinstated thanks to an agreement between MADES and APAD last November.

The union is involved in other projects in El Chaco, such as the Plan Ara Chaco that manages the roads in Alto Chaco. It is also a member of the Pro-electrification Commission in El Chaco, a project that’s planned to be completed by the end of 2019 and will provide the area of Agua Dulce with electricity.

“When we talk about deforestation, we’re all in the same boat. Through the Association, we are showing we are working differently,” Muxfeldt said. He added that through participation of APAD members, they have assurances that 175,000 hectares of forest will be retained intact within the park’s buffer zone.

Muxfeldt said he expects that number to grow.

“Among the members of the Association, our aim is to reach one million hectares in 10 years’ time, of which 500 thousand will be protected,’ he said..

A need for political will and specialized judges

Lucy Aquino, director of WWF Paraguay, says “we urgently need the government to have a real political will to make things better.”

For the Chaco in particular, Aquino says the situation is “worrying.” She says the initiative to correct this problem “has to come from the Paraguayan state itself,” explaining that one of the main problems is the nonexistence of a reliable database shared among the state institutions working in the environmental sector.

“One thing we see in the satellite images is deforestation,” she said. “But it is impossible to tell what is legal or not or even who is the rightful owner.”

District attorney Augusto Zayas, who is attached to the specialist unit in the fight against environmental crimes, agrees with Aquino that there is a lack of unity in legal judgements and data, adding “the judges don’t interpret the environmental laws well.”

For this reason, Zayas says we need judges who are specialized in the environmental sector, something that he says is currently lacking in the judicial system. According to Zayas, this lack of specialists means that decisions made by the Judicial Powers do not have a sense of “justice” within an environmental framework.

As an example of impunity, according to MADES themselves, 12,000 hectares are cleared every year in the eastern region of Paraguay, where there is a law of zero deforestation that was implemented in 2005. In accordance with this law, illegal deforestation is punished with eight years in jail.

However, until last year, nobody had spent a single day behind bars.


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published in Spanish on December 21, 2018.


Cover image: Road to Cerro León, inside Defensores del Chaco National Park. Photo by Andrea Ferreira.

Editor’s Note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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Article published by Morgan Erickson-Davis

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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