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Charcoal and cattle ranching tearing apart the Gran Chaco

  • The year-long probe of Paraguay’s charcoal exports by the NGO Earthsight revealed that much of the product was coming from the Chaco, the world’s fastest-disappearing tropical forest.
  • Suppliers appear to have reassured international supermarket chains that it was sustainable and that they had certification from international groups such as FSC and PEFC.
  • But further digging by Earthsight revealed that the charcoal production methods used may not fit with the intent of certification.
  • Several grocery store chains mentioned in the report have said they’ll take a closer look at their supply chains, and the certification body PEFC is reexamining how its own standards are applied.

Trees from one of South America’s fastest-disappearing landscapes are ending up as charcoal on the shelves of European supermarkets, according to a report by the NGO Earthsight.

The London-based watchdog group claims international grocery store chains in Spain and Germany – and ultimately, the restaurants and barbecue chefs who buy the charcoal – are connected to the unsustainable destruction of the dry tropical forests of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay.

“The clearance of the Chaco forest is one of the largest and fastest losses of natural forest ever seen,” said Sam Lawson, who directs Earthsight, in a statement. “It is absolutely outrageous that major European supermarkets should have a hand in this.”

A map using data from the University of Maryland and visualized on Global Forest Watch shows the extent of intact forest landscape and its loss on the IRASA lease location in the Gran Chaco from Sep 2011 to June 2016. Bricapar produces charcoal on the IRASA lease in Paraguay.

In an investigation that spanned an entire year involving multiple forays into the Paraguayan Chaco, Earthsight reported on July 6 that, at current deforestation rates, 200,000 hectares could disappear from the Chaco’s forest this year – an area the size of Manhattan every two weeks. The cleared land will ultimately become cattle pasture, but in the meantime, charcoal “helps cover the up-front costs of clearing forest for cattle,” write the authors of the Earthsight report.

They traced the charcoal from Bricapar, Paraguay’s largest seller, to Spain, where much of its charcoal is marketed by a company called Ibecosol. From there, they found that the supermarket chains Carrefour, with headquarters in France, and Lidl, based in Germany, were stocking their stores with bags of Ibecosol charcoal. Several other companies also serve as distributors for Bricapar’s charcoal in the EU, supplying such chains as Germany-based Aldi.

Many of these companies claim that their supply chains are sustainable, often based on the certifications of their suppliers. On Ibecosol’s website, for example, the company points to its certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as evidence of its commitment to the environment. But in its report, Earthsight questions whether the source of the charcoal could really be sustainable.

Over the past two decades, the bargain-basement price of land in the Chaco has lured ranchers from neighboring Brazil and Argentina and nearby Uruguay. It’s also helped make Paraguay the world’s seventh-largest beef exporter, even though it has a population of fewer than 6.8 million people, and at 406,752 square kilometers (157,048 square miles) it’s less than 5 percent the size of Brazil.

Deforestation too has escalated in step with the rise of beef production as a lynchpin of the country’s economy. Paraguay ranks fifth in the amount of tropical forest it has lost. Only the much more forest-rich countries of Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have lost more.

“[Paraguay’s] importance in terms of area of deforestation and the production of the commodities that are driving deforestation is out of all proportion to the size of the country,” Lawson said in an interview. “They’re like the kings of ‘bad ag’ as we call it.”

A comparison of forest next to cleared land in the Gran Chaco. Photo courtesy of Earthsight.

A company called IRASA holds a lease for 200,000 hectares (772 square miles) and has a contract with Bricapar allowing charcoal production, according to Earthsight’s research. IRASA’s land sits in what used to be an intact forest landscape, a designation that signifies the area’s importance for biodiversity, carbon storage and the cycling of water through the environment. According to an analysis of data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch, the intact forest where IRASA is situated was lost between 2000 and 2013.

Deforestation behind the scenes

And yet, the issue of deforestation in Paraguay, especially in the Chaco, isn’t widely known.

“Paraguay’s deforestation has been hugely underreported compared to a lot of other countries,” Lawson said.

That’s particularly true of the Gran Chaco, which might have something to do with the diversity of landscapes that the Chaco contains, said conservation biologist Anthony Giordano, the founder and director of the Society for the Protection of Endangered Carnivores and their International Ecological Study (SPECIES).

Giordano has been working in the Chaco since 2005. He said that while it’s possible to explain what the Amazon rainforest looks like to someone who’s never been there, an adequate description of the Chaco is harder to pin down.

“It is such a complex and rich ecoregion,” Giordano said. “At one extreme, you have this thick scrub and thorn forest, this seasonal dry forest. At the other extreme of the spectrum, you have a semi-open flooded palm savanna.”

It comprises an area of 100 million hectares (386,102 square miles) and covers parts of Argentina and Bolivia, as well as 60 percent of Paraguay’s land.

Giordano lauded Earthsight’s move to expose what’s happening in Paraguay, adding, “This report echoes what I’ve known for a while” about the speed and extent of land clearing and conversion to agriculture in the Chaco.

And that’s creating problems for the long-time inhabitants of the Chaco. The area is home to the Ayoreo, a nomadic group that is one of the last to live in voluntary isolation from the outside world. Earthsight warned that their way of life could be in jeopardy as the Chaco recedes.

The Chaco is also home to thousands of plant species and hundreds of different birds, mammals and reptiles, and its unique habitats house a bevy of unusual species.

A taguá (Catagonus wagneri) photographed by a camera trap in 2013, Defensores del Chaco National Park, Paraguay. Photo by Silvia Saldívar and Anthony Giordano.

“It has one of the highest levels of mammal endemism in the Neotropics,” Giordano said.

Perhaps the largest mammal in terms of body size that’s found nowhere else but the Chaco is an IUCN-listed Endangered, pig-like peccary known as the taguá (Catagonus wagneri). The taguá has carved a singular existence out of the thorny forests of the Chaco, and it plays a critical role as an “ecosystem engineer” as it roots around in the dirt for their food and breaks up the packed earth with its hooves.

But as taguá’s environs have been razed to accommodate cattle and agriculture and hunting has increased, numbers have dwindled to no more than a few thousand.

“A lot of research has suggested that it is particularly sensitive to habitat disturbance,” Giordano said.

The effect of the taguá’s disappearance from many parts of the region can ripple through the food chain. Jaguars are another important species in the Chaco. Removing one of their primary food sources and carving up its habitat combined with the incursion of herds of cattle is a recipe for conflict between animals and people, Giordano said.

“Because they range over these large areas, it’s very easy to disturb and disrupt populations,” he added.

Fragmented forest

Part of the problem is the haphazard way in which humans are changing the landscape of the Chaco. Until recently, it’s been something of a no-go zone for most people, largely because its conditions are too harsh for most agriculture.

Eastern Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest was much more hospitable to soybean farming and ranching. But by the early 2000s, nearly all of the Atlantic Forest had been cleared, so the government passed a law in 2004 to protect the remaining 5 to 10 percent. One of the unintended consequences of the law was a rise in deforestation in the western part of Paraguay where the Chaco lies, Lawson said.

“All it did was shift everything to the west,” he said. Ranchers could find new pastures in the Chaco.

Another law in Paraguay stipulates that landowners must protect 25 percent of their property. But, Giordano explained, “There is no real law about how to do that [or] what the configuration can be.”

Jaguars (Panthera onca) also inhabit the Chaco and are particularly susceptible to fragmentation because of their large home ranges. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

As a result, the swift deforestation of the Chaco in the past 20 years has left “these isolated patches,” Giordano explained.

“There’s no coordination across properties among landowners for the sake of connectivity,” he added. “Nobody’s really thinking like that.”

Finding a way to hold landowners accountable is a major issue, he said.

“There’s no effective mechanism for enforcement,” Giordano said. “Penalties, if they come, might take a really long time to arrive, and they might be small in proportion to the profits being earned.”

Beef production is big business in Paraguay, providing 10 percent of the country’s exports, Earthsight found. And it’s not uncommon for the interests of the industry to bleed into politics, he said.

“It’s not unusual to have high-ranking politicians that have some sort of tie to cattle ranching … if they’re not involved in it themselves,” Giordano added.

Lawson and his colleagues unearthed an unusually close relationship between Bricapar and Ramón Jiménez Gaona, Paraguay’s Minister of Public Works. Based on records obtained by Earthsight, Gaona holds a 25-percent stake in the company, and though he stepped down from his position as a board member, his brother is the chairman.

More broadly, charcoal is a valuable income stream for the country. Some 21 million euros ($24 million) worth of Paraguayan product ended up in the EU in 2016. Between January and March of 2017, imports from Paraguay totaled 7 million euros ($8.1 million).

Better oversight within Paraguay alone won’t stop the trade of such a valuable commodity, and that’s led Lawson to advocate for better adherence to environmental best practices by the companies and countries sourcing their charcoal from the Gran Chaco.

The dry Chaco, pictured here in Argentina. Photo by Valerie Pillar (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Chaco charcoal on supermarket shelves

Earthsight found that Aldi, Lidl, and Carrefour were selling charcoal from Bricapar. All three are multinational companies with storefronts around Europe and in other parts of the world.

When Earthsight confronted these corporations, they received a range of responses. The Spanish arm of Lidl said that “it demands ‘strict sustainability standards in all areas of our business activity,’” according to the Earthsight report.

Aldi Sud, which covers parts of Germany, said that “the clearance is only done partially.”

Carrefour said that it stopped buying charcoal from Ibecosol for the time being pending its own investigation into the source of the charcoal.

Only Aldi Nord in Germany responded substantively to Mongabay’s requests for comment.

“The conditions Earthsight describes of the sourcing of timber for charcoal products are of course not at all compliant with our understanding of socially and ecologically responsible forestry,” said Matthias Kräling, an Aldi-Nord spokesperson, in an email.

Kräling said that, until recently, Aldi has purchased its charcoal from a company called Boomex, which in turn subcontracts with Bricapar. Boomex told Aldi that Bricapar was in compliance with Paraguayan law. Nevertheless, the last shipment that Aldi received from Boomex was in 2016.

He added, “we are not going to be receiving any charcoal products from the Boomex company in 2017.”

A satellite image of the Bricapar charcoal facility in Paraguay. Photo courtesy of Earthsight.

What does certification mean?

Aldi Nord also told Mongabay, “We … accept the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC).”

Similarly, Aldi Sud and Lidl both pointed to Ibecosol’s PEFC certification, and Earthsight found that Ibecosol and Bricapar hold “chain of custody” certifications.

“That’s what had given them the reassurance,” Lawson said.

But Earthsight contends that the PEFC certificates don’t cover the range of charcoal products.

“That whole excuse only applies to the briquettes,” he said. The briquettes are made from the dust and small pieces left over after the wood is turned into lumpwood charcoal in the ovens, which is sold in Lidl’s stores in Spain.

A supplier’s certification by PEFC is “meaningless in terms of that particular product,” Lawson added.

Additionally, briquettes can be classified as recycled material under current PEFC standards since they’re regarded as waste. This distinction obviates the need for certified suppliers – in this case, Bricapar and Ibecosol – to provide information about where the charcoal came from.

PEFC’s CEO remarked on that point in a press release on July 11. “I consider this to be against the spirit of the standard,” Ben Gunneberg said. “Earthsight is absolutely correct in pointing out that we consider the conversion of forest to other vegetation type (sic) as a ‘controversial source’ and as exactly the kind of thing which certification is supposed to exclude.”

One possible solution for enhanced sustainability would be to add charcoal to the list of wood products that must come from legal harvests under what’s known as the EU Timber Regulation.

“If charcoal was included in the EU Timber Regulation, which it is not at present,” Lawson said, “then I think companies sourcing from Paraguay would take more care about where their products come from.”

Currently, regulators are considering just such an inclusion for charcoal, he said.

The problem with charcoal isn’t limited to charcoal coming from Paraguay, he added. Earthsight noted a WWF report from 2008 that found as much as 20 percent of charcoal entering the EU was coming from illegal sources, often in countries that face sustainability and enforcement hurdles similar Paraguay.

In fact, the effects of the EUTR may extend beyond just the legal questions surrounding the products they’re buying, Lawson said.

“It forces companies to explore their supply chains,” he added. “Once they do, they may make decisions that have nothing to do with illegality,” which could translate into better protection of places like Paraguay’s Gran Chaco.


Banner image of a jaguar (Panthera onca), pictured in Colombia, by Rhett A. Butler.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the requirements of the EUTR. It requires only that timber and timber products come from legal sources, not necessarily sustainable ones. The previous version also neglected to mention the issue regarding the classification of charcoal briquettes as recycled under PEFC standards.

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