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No choice: Why communities in Paraguay are cutting down forests to survive

  • Illegal deforestation for marijuana cultivation is a growing problem for eastern Paraguay’s protected areas.
  • Sources say much of the clearing is done by indigenous community members and small farmers who are beset by poverty and have no other options.
  • A joint project between the Paraguayan government and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations seeks to provide more opportunities for rural communities, but has been stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This story is a collaboration between La Nación and Mongabay Latam. It is the fourth installment of a five-part series on illegal deforestation for marijuana production in eastern Paraguay. Read the first, second, third and fifth parts.


SAN JOSÉ CRISTAL, Paraguay — Claro Morel Domínguez lives in San José Cristal near Caazapá National Park in the Caazapá Department of eastern Paraguay. Morel is 64 years old and remembers how in the 1970s the region was almost entirely covered with impenetrable forest. But as time passed, the forest disappeared to make room for agricultural land like soybean fields.

Morel said many residents also left the area and the few that remain have no legal alternative but to rent their land to Brazilian landowners for soybean cultivation.

“Why lie about it?” Morel said. “I have 16 hectares next to the park and I rent them out like everyone does. They pay us 15,000,000 Paraguayan guaraní [$2,160] per harvest, while if we planted any other crop we’d barely get 1,500,000 guaraní [$216].”

Poverty characterizes most rural communities in eastern Paraguay. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

Morel said his children, all adults, are among those who have left the area “to seek better opportunities.” But Morel hopes one day they will return to the land where they grew up.

Lack of opportunities

Morel’s is a common story in this part of Paraguay. Data from the General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses (Dirección General de Encuestas, Estadísticas y Censos) report 56% of the country’s population lived in rural areas in 1972; by 2002, that number had declined to 43.3%. According to the Center for Documentation and Studies (Centro de Documentación y Estudios), these changes are due to the significant expansion of agroindustry over the last 30 years and state abandonment of small growers in rural areas.

Morel came to San José Cristal in 1974. He had left San Pedro del Paraná in Itapúa Department because he could not find work. At that time, the land that is now the park had not yet been declared a protected area by the government. “I purchased these hectares for 30 thousand guaraní,” Morel said. With inflation, that amount is roughly equivalent to three McDonalds combo meals in Paraguay’s capital city of Asconión.

In addition to soybeans, illegal marijuana cultivation has become an increasingly common crop in the region. Morel said that that now the only things profitable in this part of Paraguay are soybeans and marijuana. In both cases, those purchasing the product have the machinery and trucks for transportation. Morel says that small farmers, however, “don’t have a way to move our harvest. The roads are a disaster and when it rains it’s impossible. There is no help from anyone. We have to have the capital for transport [to buy a truck, for example], but it is impossible to obtain credit if you are a small grower.”

Morel said that even when he tried to use his land as collateral, the banks offered him loans of 5,000,000 guaraní ($773). “What am I supposed to be able to do with that amount?”

Extensive soybean fields surround Mbaracayú Reserve and other protected areas in eastern Paraguay. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

Morel spoke of a neighbor who managed, with difficulty, to move 20 bags of cassava to Abai, a more populated district located 35 kilometers from San José Cristal. But the payment he netted for the cassava barely covered the cost of traveling there and back. “After that, he abandoned that idea,” he says. “Here nothing is worth it now except mechanized soybean.”

As large-scale agricultural activity began in the 1980s, it was accompanied by massive deforestation in the country’s eastern region. According to a study by the School of Agriculture of the National University of Asunción, of the 5.7 million hectares of forest in eastern Paraguay in 1984, only 2.7 million remain today. In other words, the region has lost more than half of its forest cover in 36 years.

According to data from 2015 from the General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses, the Caazapá Department has the second highest level of poverty in the country. Meanwhile, a report from the Center for Analysis and Dissemination of the Paraguayan Economy (Centro de Análisis y Difusión de la Economía Paraguaya) states Caazapá has Paraguay’s lowest level of development.

Deforestation in eastern Paraguay has been prohibited by law since 2004. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

The report indicates 90% of the workforce in the department is informal.  That is, they do not have medical or social insurance. In addition, in a 2017 report the Ministry of Public Health stated that 22% of children under the age of two in Caazapá are at risk of malnutrition, while 6.8% suffer from severe malnutrition. The numbers are the highest in the country.

For this reason, when Morel thinks about the people in his community who destroy the forest to produce charcoal, sell lumber, or plant marijuana, he says, “How can I blame families that don’t have hectares to rent to the Brazilians like I do? What can you say to them, if you see how they live.”

Trees that can’t be sold on the timber market are burned in earthen ovens to remove water and produce charcoal. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

Cirilo González is a 62-year-old small farmer, or “campesino,” who has lived in the small community of Arroyo Moroti ever since he can remember. About 27 families live in the community, which is located on the edge of Caazapá National Park. González is concerned by fires that are set to plant marijuana and soybeans.

“It’s a disgrace that there’s cultivation in our park, but it’s not something we can prevent,” he said.

González has six children who he provides for thanks to his small kokue, which in Guarani means “small farm.” It consists of 10 hectares where he plants corn and some cassava and has an area for animals: pigs and chickens, which walk around freely. “Everything is for our personal consumption. This is what we live off of,” he said.

González said the community needs improved infrastructure. “We at least need a road, that’s basic,” he said. According to the Ministry of Public Works and Communications (Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Comunicaciones), 90% of Caazapá Department’s road network is comprised of dirt roads. González said that when it rains, these dirt roads turn to mud.

“We help ourselves as we can,” González said. “We’re poor, but we’re working hand in hand.”

The ‘bad plant’

“It’s a no person’s land,” said one of the leaders of the Association of Indigenous Communities of Itapúa (Asociación de Comunidades Indígenas de Itapúa or ACII), who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. “We work with communities, and many families are leaving the area out of fear. Everything has turned very violent ever since the planta vai [ugly plant] arrived here. I have a family, I have my people to look after.”

The “ugly plant” the ACII leader referred to is marijuana. The crop began to gain ground in early 2000 and is expanding at an increasing rate in eastern Paraguay’s protected areas. Since 2015, agents of the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (Secretaría Nacional Antidrogas) have destroyed 834 hectares of marijuana crops and 81,982 kilograms of the drug in Caaguazú, Canindeyú, Caazapá and Itapúa protected areas.

In October 2012, unidentified arsonists set fire to property belonging to Guyrá Paraguay, an NGO that operates community development and conservation projects in San Rafael Reserve. The attack occurred days after the organization made public complaints regarding deforestation in the reserve.

A sawmill in eastern Paraguay. According to the Ministry of the Environment, sawmills are not permitted near protected areas. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

Some 12,000 hectares in San Rafael Reserve belong to the Mby’a Guaraní Indigenous group. They call their land the “Tekoha Guasú,” which means “the great land where we are who we are.” The ACII leader elaborated further: “For us it is the land of our ancestors, of the animals we hunt to eat, of the plants we use for our remedies.”

According to data from the Paraguayan Institute of Indigenous Peoples (Instituto Nacional del Indígena), some 1,500 indigenous families from different communities live in eastern Paraguay’s Upper Parana of the Atlantic Forest, a once-sprawling ecoregion that has been reduced to less than 10% of its native distribution. Research shows these families and the communities they belong to are characterized by extreme poverty, lack of medical services and the use of their land by outsiders to grow crops on a large-scale – mainly soybeans, but also increasingly marijuana.

In recent years, the small farmer and indigenous populations in rural Paraguay have been experiencing higher rates of poverty due to abandonment by state authorities and loss of opportunity, said Rodrigo Zárate of Guyrá Paraguay. This, Zárate says, forces many families who live in the Upper Parana of the Atlantic Forest to illegally log, produce charcoal, and cultivate marijuana in protected areas to survive.

Campesino settlements have expanded over the years in and around protected areas in eastern Paraguay. Image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

Juan Martes holds a doctorate in criminology and is a researcher at the National University of Pilar. He believes that marijuana cultivation has become almost the sole economic livelihood available to many families. He said that, in the end, they are not the beneficiaries of the huge sums of profit generated by trafficking, but only earn money by working the land and looking after the plantations.

The National Institute for Rural Development and Land (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Rural y de la Tierra) has recorded 1,018 campesino communities across Paraguay. There are at least 100 such communities in the areas of influence of the San Rafael, Morombí, and Mbaracayú reserves and Caazapá National Park. In Paraguay about 1.6 million people – 23% of the country’s population – live in poverty and 335 thousand live in extreme poverty, according to the General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses. The majority of those in poverty reside in rural areas.

“How could I go and talk to the people living in the Atlantic Forest about the importance of the biosphere, of caring for the natural resources and the birds, when they don’t even have enough to eat that day?” Zárate said.

Óscar Rodas is director of WWF Paraguay, which works with indigenous and campesino communities living around the Atlantic Forest. He said the government urgently needs to be present in these impoverished areas and that helping residents improve their quality of life and access opportunities in work, health, and education will also help save the region’s forests.

In September 2019, the government signed an agreement with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations to implement the Poverty, Reforestation, Energy and Climate Change (PROEZA) Project, which seeks to improve the lives of approximately 17,000 families living in areas vulnerable to climate change, including those in the Atlantic Forest.

Rafael González, National Coordinator for the PROEZA Project, said that the plan is a significant move in the right direction for the country. Though the project, affected families are slated to receive technical assistance to create a forestry model on their own lands to help them manage their existing forests or reforest areas that have been cleared.

“They will receive a monetary incentive to care for and maintain the trees,” González said.

He says that the preliminary field work has already been completed and families have been identified in 66 districts in the departments of Concepción, San Pedro, Canindeyú, Caaguazú, Guairá, Caazapá, Itapúa, and Alto Paraná. All are located in eastern Paraguay’s Upper Parana of the Atlantic Forest.

González adds that the project has not been able to move forward due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but “it will resume once it ends.”


This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was  first published by Mongabay Latam on May 28, 2020.

Banner image by Pánfilo Leguizamón.

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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