Thursday, April 19, 2012

Deforesting the Paraguayan Forest for Beef Production


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South America’s Chaco forest has long been known for its violently hot temperatures and vast stretches of thorn trees and, as a result, it has remained undeveloped for centuries. The Chaco stretches across segments of Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil, covering an area about the size of Poland. It is home to several unique species that make it one of the most diverse areas of the world, like the largest living species of peccary, which are pig-like mammals, and guanacos, which resemble llamas. Hunter-gatherer indigenous groups have also traditionally lived in the Chaco.

Paraguay’s Chaco forest, however, has changed in recent years due to an increased global demand for beef. Ranchers have cleared approximately ten percent of the Chaco in the last five years to meet this demand. Satellite images show that at least 1.2 million acres of Chaco forest have been deforested over the last two years. The availability of cheap land in the Chaco made it attractive for ranchers to buy. Paraguayan law, which permits the deforestation of seventy-five percent of a plot of land, has also facilitated the transformation of the Chaco. Experts are concerned that if deforestation continues, the Chaco will be destroyed within thirty years.

The ranchers profiting from the increased beef production are mostly Brazilian immigrants and Mennonites who have lived in Paraguay for almost a century. In response to protests by conservationists that fear the destruction of the Chaco, its native species, and its native inhabitants, ranchers claim that they are contributing to the economic development of the region and making productive use of it. As a result of the cattle land rush, property prices in the region have risen almost fivefold in the last few years. The traditional Mennonite way of life has changed due to newfound prosperity. Mennonite teenagers, for example, are often seen driving new Nissan pickup trucks.

The deforestation has also impacted indigenous groups in the Chaco. Experts have classified a group of Ayoreos, one of the hunter-gatherer tribes living in the Paraguayan Chaco forest, as the last “un-contacted” tribe in South America outside the Amazon. However, many Ayoreos have been forced from their homeland to live and work near the boomtowns that have formed as a result of the cattle land rush. Some wait for ranchers to hire them for about $10 a day, living and sleeping on the side of the highway. Others live in small communities outside the Mennonite townships, where their quality of life is very poor. The men try to make a living producing charcoal from burning trees, and the women make crafts to sell. They fear that they will never live in the forest again and that their traditional way of life is over. Although the global demand for beef has led to economic prosperity for ranchers in Paraguay, it has not benefitted indigenous groups in the Chaco. The deforestation of the Chaco has displaced the Ayoreo from their native homeland, threatened their cultural heritage, and widened the economic gap between people of European ancestry and indigenous groups in Paraguay.

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