By: Elliott A. Winter
Gran Chaco – near the brink of destruction.
The Gran Chaco is a hot and semiarid lowland area with one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet. Every month, an area over 133 square miles is lost. Projections point to a loss of millions of additional acres of native vegetation by 2030. The biome extends over Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, bringing together more than 50 different ecosystems united by the same pattern of vegetation and climate. It also provides an environmental and bioclimatic balance for the continent.
In my third year of Peace Corps in Paraguay, I found myself on a 3-day boat ride up the Paraguay River to a remote conservation outpost named Tres Gigantes (Three Giants, named after the 3 megafauna species, that inhabited the region). The two-story boat left the city of Conception and set out north through the Chaco, a uniquely stunning eco-region dotted by isolated communities and filled with incredible biodiversity endemic to the region. Chances are, you have never heard of the Chaco. The second-largest forest in South America, the Chaco stretches from southwest Brazil, through Western Paraguay and eastern Bolivia, to northern Argentina. Despite being home to jaguars, thousands of bird species, and endemic plants and animals, the Chaco is overshadowed by the Amazon Forest. As the world has focused on deforestation in the Amazon over the past 30+ years, the Paraguayan Chaco has been experiencing deforestation on a cataclysmic scale. At points, the Chaco was losing an area equal to 2500 football fields every day and is currently an area with one of the highest (if not the highest) rates of deforestation in the world. This unparalleled deforestation is fueled by soy and beef production meant for exportation to the US, Brazil, Argentina, and other countries.
The Chaco not only contains a number of endemic species threatened by extinction but also holds some of the last uncontacted indigenous tribes in the world. Stories of Mennonite and Brazilian landowners bulldozing swaths of land and displacing indigenous communities have been flying under the outside world’s radar for decades. Indigenous communities in Paraguay have few rights and are often discarded to increase the domestic production of soy and beef. Indigenous communities that do own land are often taken advantage of by foreign landowners who write lease contracts in English or Portuguese, leasing the land for decades and stripping any profits and rights away from the indigenous signatories.
Based on current and past trends, Paraguay’s Chaco region may be lost to deforestation by as soon as 2025. Would the world even notice, or would we continue to be blind to the devastating loss of species in this region of the world? Paraguay’s Chaco region is on a knife’s edge, with the last wild spaces experiencing pressure from soy and cattle encroaching deeper into these biological islands. The time to act is now if we want to save the last remnants of a once vast and unique ecosystem.