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In Argentina, a movement to save the Chaco forest hits the COVID-19 wall

  • Civil society groups calling for better protection of the Chaco, the largest forest ecosystem in South America after the Amazon, say their efforts have been set back by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown measures.
  • Reports show that deforestation in Argentina increased in the first six months of this year compared to last, and that most of the deforestation of the past 20 years occurred in the Chaco.
  • Activists say a major obstacle is the lack of funding for enforcement of the forestry law; since it was enacted in 2007, it has received less than 10% of its prescribed budget.
  • Argentina’s environment minister has acknowledged the need for revisions to the law, but activists and lawmakers say he must follow up the rhetoric with action.

Argentina lost an area of native forest 320 times the size of its capital city, Buenos Aires, between 1998 and 2018, according to a report issued July 29 by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development.

The Chaco forest accounted for 87% of the 6.5 million hectares (16 million acres) lost, with expanding farmland the main factor for deforestation in the provinces of Santiago del Estero, Salta, Chaco and Formosa that make up this region of the country.

These figures represent official acknowledgement of a crisis that has been evident for a long time in the region. In October last year, 55 Argentine civil society organizations joined forces to launch the Argentine Gran Chaco 2030 Commitment. The initiative seeks to involve citizens, the government and the private sector in stopping the degradation of the Chaco, the largest forested eco-region in South America after the Amazon.

A truck loaded with wood in Chaco province. The thickness of the trunks indicates these are old-growth trees, likely from primary forest. Image by Ricardo Tiddi.

Each signatory to the commitment called for changing the economic model of the region that currently relies on the extractives industries. Among their demands is greater compliance with a 2007 law on native forests that regulates land use and promotes conservation but whose implementation has been criticized as being far from ideal. According to the ministry’s report, 2.8 million hectares of forest were deforested after the law’s enactment.

The report notes that although the law contributed to a reduction in the deforestation rate in its initial years (from 0.94% in 2007 to 0.34% in 2015), since 2016 the rate has risen, reaching 0.42% in 2018, representing a loss of 180,000 hectares (445,000 acres) that year.

To date, 108 organizations have signed the commitment, ranging from foundations and NGOs, to scientific and academic institutions.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has stifled progress in promoting the cause. “The quarantine measures did not allow fluid communication between the actors,” says biologist Cristian Schneider, a member of the Coordinator in Defense of the Native Forest (known by its Spanish acronym, Codebona), one of the first groups to join the effort. “Some of those involved had virtual informal meetings outside the framework of the pact. It was difficult to give continuity to the steps that we proposed.”

At the same time, extractive activities in the Gran Chaco haven’t stopped during the pandemic. According to Schneider, the deforestation and the burning of grasslands detected during the months of lockdown are signs of a continuing crisis. “Political and business-related decisions have turned their backs on the pillars of the commitment. It is very discouraging and hopeless that the environmental agenda continues to be the last,” he says.

Moments after a bulldozer demolished two trees. The photo was taken in an area of native forest that was cleared in 2019. Image by Greenpeace Argentina.

Gabriel Seghezzo from Fundapaz, an organization that works with rural communities in the Chaco forest on access to land, calls the commitment “an opportunity to generate the basic conditions on how economic activity should develop in the region.”

Echoing Schneider, he says he hopes to resume coordination with other stakeholders soon, a task that was halted by the lockdown measures. However, he says prospects for the immediate future are bleak. “If we analyze the nation’s agriculture and food plan, we see that it is very likely that after the pandemic, deforestation of the Chaco will be promoted to generate income for the country. There will be an increase in conflict,” Seghezzo says.

Forest loss continues

The latest Greenpeace satellite monitoring report suggests that despite the quarantine, there was more logging in the Chaco forest during the first half of this year than in the same period in 2019. The monitoring covers the provinces of Santiago del Estero, Salta, Formosa and Chaco. It shows that about 39,000 hectares (96,400 acres) of native forests were razed, around 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) more than during the first half of last year.

“The quarantine complicated the tasks of citizen control,” says Riccardo Tiddi, an Italian physicist living in the Gran Chaco and an active member of the Somos Monte collective. “For environmental groups, it is impossible to reach rural areas. Access to information is complicated because administrative tasks do not function the same now. It was difficult to know if the clearings [deforestation] that occurred were old or new.”

Tiddi says he maintains close contact with locals, who have expressed concern about the continuation of business activities that could help spread the coronavirus in the region.

The yellow rectangles mark the areas cleared on La Fidelidad, a farm, in March this year, during the COVID-19 quarantine. Image by Greenpeace Argentina.

Emanuel Carrocino, director of the Chaco provincial forestry department, says the Greenpeace study indicates that the situation is less serious in his jurisdiction. “Last year in the province we had about 10,000 hectares [25,000 acres] deforested in the first six months. Greenpeace now states that only in Chaco there are around 6,000 [hectares, or 15,000 acres]. That would indicate a significant reduction.”

Carrocino says that during the quarantine the province didn’t authorize new changes in land use. “Authorized clearings that were approved in advance continued. Of course, they were only able to enter with their bulldozers in mid-May. During the first two months of quarantine it was prohibited. Besides, we have illegal clearings, which we try to reach as soon as possible” to penalize those responsible.

Since the quarantine began in Argentina on March 20, the Chaco provincial government detected 189 changes in forest cover affecting a total area of 3,317 hectares (8,196 acres) in the province. Based on these alerts, the forest department generated 158 notices for violations of forest laws. In some cases, the interventions ended with officers confiscating bulldozers.

Carrocino says it’s necessary to strengthen the campaign for forest conservation.

For every law, there’s a loophole

Compliance with the 2007 forest law is one of the main goals of the Gran Chaco commitment. To this end, the Fundación Vida Silvestre (an NGO promoting the project) and the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation (known by its Spanish acronym FARN) presented a report in June that identifies problems that have arisen in the past 13 years. The report is meant to help guide the correct implementation of the law, its authors say.

“We brought the report to five provinces that make up the Gran Chaco (Santiago del Estero, Salta, Formosa, Tucumán and Chaco). To deputies and senators as well,” says Daniela Gomel, coordinator of public policies and governance at Fundación Vida Silvestre. “We tried to find common agenda points to improve law enforcement.”

Natalia Morales, a deputy, or member of congress, from Jujuy province, says she recognizes the guidelines of the commitment but warns it will be challenging to make headway in the political sphere. “From our bench, at the national level, we are raising the need for the wetlands law. But many times what is proposed in laws, such as [the 2007 forest law] or proposals by civil organizations, is difficult to execute because it implies going against business sectors that are linked to the political power in office,” she says.

Images by NASA from December 2000, left, and December 2019 show how the same area in Argentine’s Chaco forest was cleared during this period. Images by Lauren Dauphin/NASA Earth Observatory.

Among the shortcomings in the 2007 law identified in the study by Fundación Vida Silvestre and FARN are flaws in the processes of the Territorial Regulation of Native Forests (known by its Spanish acronym, OTBN) and the systematic underfinancing of law enforcement.

According to the norm, provinces are in charge of dividing forested areas into red, yellow or green zones depending on the permitted land use. Through technical studies and public hearings, each jurisdiction must determine the areas of low conservation value that may be cleared for economic activity (green), those that can be used sustainably (yellow), and those that cannot be touched (red). Given the changing reality of the ecosystem, the law stipulates that these regulations be updated every five years. However, this has not happened in all provinces.

Chaco has not updated its Regulation of Native Forests for 10 years. Tiddi says the decline in forest cover during this decade should be considered before categorizing a territory. “Due to the advance of deforestation, the fields that before perhaps were not so important, today they are and should not be cleared.”

Tiddi and other environmentalists have called for areas that have already been declared red or yellow to be exempt from downgrading. “Through lobbying and legal gimmicks, the producers achieved property recategorization,” Tiddi says. “In the entire Chaco forest area between 2013 and 2018, 53 permits were converted from yellow to green zones.”

Fundación Vida Silvestre and FARN also note that some jurisdictions allow for recategorization, including via online forms without further requirements or on-the-ground verification.

A bulldozer grips a hundred-year-old carob tree in this picture taken in January in the western Chaco. Image by Greenpeace Argentina.

This point was addressed by the minister of environment and sustainable development, Juan Cabandié, in an interview with the Red/Action portal in May. He said he intended to modify the norm, since the current figure of “green” areas suggests “that the forest law is supporting deforestation.”

On July 25, he reiterated his intention. Cabandié noted that the province of Salta had initiated 36 administrative proceedings for illegal land use changes and said that “we need to modify the forest law and advance a federal policy for its protection, management and conservation.” To this end, the environment ministry plans to send congress a bill to amend the 2007 law on native forests.

Congresswoman Natalia Morales says these statements by Cabandié must be transformed into actions. “They are intentions, but there is still nothing guaranteed. The ministry bears the responsibility for thousands of hectares cleared during quarantine,” she says.

Chaco congresswoman Gladis Cristaldo says she’s also keeping track of Cabandié’s statements and calling for changes. She says she hopes the Chaco congress can start debating reforms that will transfer the functions of control and supervision from the production sector to the environment sector. “General control is important. The tasks of inspection of the clearings must have a forest conservation perspective. Currently, they are in the production sector and they do not have that angle,” she says.

Mongabay contacted the environment ministry to ask about revisions to the forest law, but did not receive any response by the time this article was published.

Insufficient resources

The Chaco forest department says the Ministry of Production and the environment secretary have been working on areas of forestry development to receive a prompt update on the land use management plan, a move that has been postponed for many years. “They are working on a new participatory process, which will come out in the future,” Carrocino says. “Due to the current conditions I don’t know if this year, but by early 2021 we hope to have the plan already approved.”

He adds that Cabandié’s mooted changes to the forest law are not considered urgent, saying he’s more concerned about ensuring greater financial resources. “The forest law is a tool that brought many advances to the fight against deforestation. Of course, deforestation continued, but I don’t think it needs to be changed, we must improve fundamental aspects such as the National Fund for the Enrichment and Conservation of Native Forests,” Carrocino says.

The Fundación Vida Silvestre and FARN report notes that lack of financing has always been an impediment to implementing the forest law. It’s supposed to get 0.3% of the national budget each year, but this has never happened in the 13 years since the law was passed. In fact, funding has never exceeded 10% of the prescribed amount, according to the report. For 2020, funds for implementing the law represent less than 5% of the amount that should have been received.

Trunks of red quebracho and carob are piled up in an area destined for agricultural activity. Image by Fundación Vida Silvestre/@YawarFilms.

The money goes both to the owners of native forests — to compensate them for not carrying out agricultural activity — and to provincial authorities to fight deforestation. “Currently in Chaco, and in other provinces of the region, the budget is not enough to cover these tasks,” says Carrocino, the Chaco provincial forestry official.

The report also shows that, although the forest law gradually brought down the annual rate of deforestation in Argentina, the levels of control and sanctions by the relevant authorities have been insufficient. In 2018, 50% of deforestation occurred in red or yellow areas, showing that a significant part of the loss of native forests is due to illegal practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the dynamics and work plans of the environmental organizations that signed the Gran Chaco 2030 Commitment. With little possibility of action on the ground — making field visits, fieldwork and training — and with the bureaucracy at a standstill, activists paint a complex immediate future for conservation. “The productive matrix that impacts the forest and slowed down due to quarantine will not want to have more losses,” says Schneider from Codebona. “They will intensify their activities.”

An inhabitant of small caves, the Chacoan mara (Dolichotis salinicola) is one of the most abundant rodents in the area. Image by Argentina National Parks Administration.

Daniela Gomel from Fundación Vida Silvestre says “the signs of intensifying production are there,” pointing to “announcements about exports of commodities, ranging from soybeans to livestock.”

Concerns about economic recovery dominate the current public discourse in Argentina. While the government meets with businesses and trade unions, it is going ahead with the creation of an economic and social council. The question for watchers of the Chaco is how to include an environmental approach into the post-pandemic planning. “We have notified the [environment] minister about the need to incorporate the environmental approach,” Gomel says, “an angle that includes the conservation of forests and management for a sustainable life.

“Without incorporating this dimension, we will have a very short-term solution. We will be mortgaging our future.”

Banner image: Greenpeace visited El Impenetrable Chaco by air and detected seven bulldozers deforesting six farms. The environmental organization warned that deforestation accelerates climate change and increases the risk of floods. Image by Greenpeace.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Aug. 11, 2020.