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The lost forests of the Argentine Gran Chaco

Greenpeace comprobó el avance de las topadoras en un área protegida que fue recategorizada de manera irregular por el Gobierno de Chaco; la ubicación del desmonte pone en peligro a un Parque Nacional.

  • Data from Argentina’s environment ministry show that Argentina’s section of the Gran Chaco, a dry forest in South America that’s about twice the size of California, has lost around 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) of native forest in the past two decades.
  • Scientists and environmentalists say that administrative irregularities and noncompliance with regulations have allowed the constant expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier into the Chaco.
  • These incursions impact biodiversity, poverty and the frequency of droughts and floods.

By March 25, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic had already crossed much of the world, leaving a trail of death and despair in its wake. Argentina was no exception: Five days earlier, the country’s government had declared a mandatory social isolation period to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The public health crisis, however, did not stop loggers from continuing to cut down trees in the Argentine Gran Chaco.

Images captured by the Landsat 8 and Sentinel-2 satellites leave little room for doubt. In northern Argentina’s Formosa province, which borders Paraguay, a bulldozer operated in violation of the quarantine order took advantage of the solitude of the forest to open picadas, or shortcut trails, of 10 meters (33 feet) wide.

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The yellow rectangles in this photo mark the exact locations of the picadas, or shortcut trails, that were opened at La Fidelidad Ranch in March 2020 during Argentina’s mandated national COVID-19 quarantine. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

The felled trees were about 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) from the Bermejo River, directly in front of El Impenetrable National Park. They were in an area that functions as the national park’s buffer zone but that receives little active protection, according to the Territorial Regulation of Native Forests (OTBN) plan.

“What they are doing is clearly illegal,” said Riccardo Tiddi, an Italian physicist who has lived in the Argentine Gran Chaco for many years and is a member of a citizen platform called Somos Monte — Spanish for “We are the forest.” Somos Monte’s mission is to defend the ecosystems and residents of the forests in the Gran Chaco. “Not only does this [logging] fail to comply with the obligation to stay at home due to the coronavirus, but also — according to Provincial Law 1660 — any activity that involves a change in land use must go through a prior public hearing, which would have been impossible with the country paralyzed for health reasons,” Tiddi said.

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Four picadas, or shortcut trails, of 4 km (2.5 mi) in length and 7 km (4 mi) in width were opened at La Fidelidad Ranch in Formosa province. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

The land makes up part of La Fidelidad, an enormous ranch that, until the murder of its former owner in 2011, occupied a total of 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) on both sides of the Bermejo River. La Fidelidad boasts a high level of biodiversity, and the efforts of several environmental organizations have turned 128,000 hectares (316,000 acres) of its southern sector, which falls within Chaco province, into a national park. The 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) of its northern sector, however, has been left unprotected. As a consequence, the area has been subjected to the bulldozers that are now common there.

In December 2019, Franco Del Rosso, the former director of neighboring Formosa province’s Department of Natural Resources, said, “The ranch is still in the probate hearing process. We have news that it could become a private reserve in the future.” His statement seems to suggest the ecological value of La Fidelidad. However, according to Tiddi, “The type of picada that they have opened does not seem to fit in that sense.”

The recently opened trails inside La Fidelidad run a combined 40 km (25 mi) in an area of about 7,000 to 8,000 hectares (17,300 to 19,800 acres) of native forest, based on aerial estimates. This forest will likely be transformed into land for livestock, soybeans or corn, based on observations and regional trends in recent years.

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A truck transporting recently cut logs loses some of its cargo on one of the dusty roads of the Gran Chaco. Image courtesy of Riccardo Tiddi.

Mongabay Latam attempted to contact authorities from the Department of Natural Resources of Formosa but did not receive a response. However, the area’s residents say that the events of March 2020 violated the regulation that requires a public hearing prior to the clearing of any land.

A history of dismantled farms

Bulldozers are a common sight under the current circumstances. In the Argentine Gran Chaco, deforestation has eaten away relentlessly at the native forests, including areas that should be protected under the country’s 2007 forest law. According to Argentina’s Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, the Gran Chaco — South America’s largest forest after the Amazon — accounts for 87% of total deforestation in Argentina. About 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) was destroyed in the first two decades of the 21st century.

On May 20 this year, NASA two before-and-after photos of the Gran Chaco in Salta province, one from December 2000 and one from December 2019, as its “Images of the Day,” showing the magnitude of the devastation during that period.

Left side of sliding image: Deforestation in Argentina’s Gran Chaco, Dec. 18, 2000. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory. Right side of sliding image: Deforestation in Argentina’s Gran Chaco. Dec. 24, 2019. Image courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

In Formosa province, 99,522 hectares (245,924 acres) of forest have been cleared by machinery in the last four years. And deforestation in the other provinces that make up the remainder of the eco-region are not far behind.

On March 13, only a few days before the clearing on La Fidelidad, authorities stopped three illegal clearings happening in different areas in the western part of Chaco province. The three clearings spanned a combined 185 hectares (457 acres).

In late January 2020, Greenpeace Argentina captured photos from the air of deforestation at six farms in Chaco province. “The idea is not only to denounce it, but also to alert the local government so that they can act if necessary,” Hernán Giardini, the coordinator of the organization’s forests campaign, said at the time.

Authorities from Chaco province confirmed that, in one of the six locations, the deforestation is happening without permission, so authorities have initiated a procedure to deal with the infraction.

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Trucks wait to be loaded in an area near Copo National Park that is being cleared. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

In the five remaining cases, the deforested areas were near Copo National Park and Loro Hablador Provincial Natural Park. Although environmental organizations have demanded immediate sanctions in these cases, authorities say the deforesters had the necessary authorization. The affected areas will be turned into agricultural land or livestock pasture.

Satellite images revealed the clearing of land for two farms to the west in Salta province between September and October 2019. One clearing had an area of 300 hectares (740 acres) in Anta district, and the other, in General San Martín district, covered 530 hectares (1,310 acres). “They were authorized,” said Silvina Borelli, the director of the control and auditing program within the Ministry of Production and Sustainable Development of Salta.

Argentina’s COVID-19 quarantine has not improved this situation. The latest report released by Greenpeace indicates that in the first month of the quarantine, 6,565 hectares (16,222 acres) of deforestation occurred throughout the Gran Chaco. About half of that deforested area is in Santiago del Estero province.

“In the provinces, there exists a network of power — economic, political and judicial — that makes any type of legal application difficult and facilitates clearing [of forests],” said Matías Mastrángelo, a research biologist at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina (CONICET). Mastrángelo is also an expert on the commercial interests present in the forests of the Chaco.

Daily reality bears out his explanation. Logging within the Gran Chaco, driven by the industries that, just like in the Amazon, seek to acquire land for agricultural and livestock activities has decreased somewhat in recent years, but is far from stopping.

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A moment of rest for a bulldozer after felling two trees. The image shows an area of native forest that was cleared in 2019. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

Argentina’s forest law is applied unevenly because its implementation, supervision and any resulting sanctions depend on Argentina’s provincial administrations — “and corruption flourishes in them,” said Micaela Camino, a biologist and member of Somos Monte.

Juan Cabandié, the new minister of environment and sustainable development, surprised listeners during a May 15 interview with the Argentine media outlet Red/Acción. “Evidently, there are things to modify in the [forest] law because it could be said that the law is supporting deforestation. Where there is no territorial ordering, [deforestation] is not illegal, and where there is category three (areas that allow productive activities), it is not illegal either, but they are important native forest basins,” Cabandié said. His statement could spark a debate, but it also acknowledges the truth on the ground: The Chaco continues to lose forest by the hectare.

“If a national law says one thing, another provincial law cannot say another thing. That is why everything happening in the forests of the Chaco is illegal,” Camino said.

“Provinces do not feel incentivized to comply with what the law says, and they succumb to pressure from local powers,” Mastrángelo said.

Events periodically unfold that do not follow the legal steps. For example, in areas in the green category, where farming and ranching are permitted, prior public hearings are not always conducted, and environmental impact studies are often useless. “They are copied from one file to another, only changing the data on the farms,” Mastrángelo said.

In the yellow category, the areas with native forests are often not protected, even though the law requires that the trees must remain standing to begin any type of farming or ranching activity. Finally, the protected areas, or red zones, are considered safe from indiscriminate logging but are slowly turning into forested islands in the middle of a sea of pastures for livestock, posing a serious threat to biodiversity.

The continuing expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier

The Argentine Gran Chaco suffers from a wide variety of issues, but deforestation is considered its most severe problem. The risks of its deforestation include the destruction of habitats, changes to the natural characteristics of the soil, alterations in the forest’s hydrological and climatic dynamics, and even the social and economic collapse of communities around the forest. Current trends suggest that these risks to ecosystems will continue as the agricultural and livestock frontier expands.

In early 2020, Jorge Capitanich, the governor of Chaco province, announced the Livestock Development Plan 2020-2030. Its goal is to significantly expand pastures to increase the number of cattle in Chaco province by 700,000 in the next 10 years. “This will happen whether we like it or not. What we should try to do is improve the relationship between what is said by the forest law and the private sector so that our productive exploitation is as sustainable as possible,” said Alejandro Brown, the president of the ProYungas Foundation.

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A bulldozer holds a carob tree that it has just cut down. The photo was taken in January 2020 in western Chaco province. Image courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina.

A ranch called La Media Legua sits a few kilometers from the town of Juan José Castelli in Chaco province, along the road to El Impenetrable National Park. Its 3,350 hectares (about 8,278 acres) belong to the Poncio family, and conservation organizations often cite it as an example of sustainable practices.

“We are committed to silvopastoral production,” said Pablo Poncio, one of the members of the ranch, as he drove his truck down a dirt road. Silvopasture involves combining livestock and trees on the same land. According to the law, 120 trees per hectare must be left standing to qualify as silvopasture. “About half of the land is used to create pastures for the animals, but we do that while maintaining a good amount of the forest cover. To us, it seems more profitable than traditional farming, and we believe that it is the way to utilize resources in harmony with the environment,” Poncio said, as he pointed out the shaded areas where cows and steers try to escape the Gran Chaco’s intense heat.

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Two people help a cow and her calf. According to the forest law, vegetation should exist in any area that falls within the law’s intermediate category. Image by Rodolfo Chisleanschi.

La Media Legua ranch falls within the yellow zone of the OTBN plan, which requires the original forest to be maintained on 50% of the land. Poncio stopped his truck at the exact point where the land use is divided. The difference was clear: On one side was a forest with a mixture of vegetation. On the other side was a shady forest that was easy to walk through without many obstacles. “If we put camera traps in the silvopastoral sector, we would see animals that live in the forest pass from one side to the other,” Poncio said.

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Cows protect themselves from the heat under trees at La Media Legua, a ranch that practices silvopastoral production. Image by Rodolfo Chisleanschi.

This case could be the norm, but it is almost the opposite. Not far from La Media Legua, there is a large grain farm with three or four trees appearing on the horizon. There are no cattle, and there is no shade or forest. The landscape could easily be confused with that of the largely treeless Pampas plains, located hundreds of kilometers to the south, where the climate and soil conditions are vastly different . However, the owners of the grain farm also claim to use silvopastoral production.

According to locals, it’s common for producers to claim that they had no role in destroying the forest for their crops or herds.

“As soon as permission is obtained, the most common procedure is to report that a fire occurred spontaneously during the dry season. Later, when most of the forest has been burned, a change of land use is requested. They always grant them to large producers,” said Claudio, a resident of Juan José Castelli who is the son of smallholder farmers and asked that his name be withheld out of concern for his family’s privacy.

Droughts and floods: A deadly combination

One way or another, deforestation continues to tear through the Gran Chaco. The consequences of the devastation have been rigorously studied. In addition to the environmental impacts, Indigenous people lose the land that holds their cultural heritage. Agronomic engineer Ana Álvarez likens the loss of knowledge that occurs as a result of deforestation to the destruction of great museums or libraries.

Other consequences of deforestation, such as wind erosion and pesticide pollution, are continuously being discovered.

“We are not experts, but we can see the advancement of the [forest] clearing that has been happening in the last 15 or 20 years,” said Daniel Liberatti, a resident of El Impenetrable National Park and a member of a national farmers’ group. Liberatti and his family live inside the forest, 10 km (6 mi) from Villa Río Bermejito, a village in the northwestern part of Chaco province, and he is a firsthand witness to the changes. “Before, there could be a maximum of six months without rain. Today, a year and a half can go by without a drop of rain. But when it rains, it rains a lot, and the water used to remain in the ponds, but now the earth does not absorb it,” Liberatti said.

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A man standing next to a felled tree demonstrates the scale of the trunk of a red quebracho. Image courtesy of Riccardo Tiddi.

Scientific studies support these observations. A comparative study conducted by the National Agricultural Technology Institute in 2016 indicates that a hectare of high-quality forest in the Gran Chaco can absorb up to 300 millimeters (12 inches) of rain in one hour. The same surface area absorbs 100 millimeters (4 inches) of water an hour when it’s covered with grass, and only 30 millimeters (1.2 inches) per hour when planted with soybeans.

Droughts in the area have become longer, and in turn, floods have become more violent. The last flood, in February 2020, was in an area of soybean crops in the southwestern part of the Chaco. “The heavy machinery used for direct sowing compacts the soil, forming very hard blocks that affect the infiltration of rainwater,” said Julieta Rojas, an agronomist at the National Agricultural Technology Institute’s (INTA) Sáenz Peña experimental station.

“In the Chaco region, a productive system was reproduced that was not suitable for that area,” Álvarez said. “Agriculture cannot be considered the same way in the Pampean region, where the temperatures are mild and humidity is abundant, as in the Chaco, where it is 40 degrees [Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit] and no rain falls for a good part of the year.”

The effects of the application of agrochemicals are the final sip of a dark cocktail. “The law establishes that it is obligatory to leave curtains of trees around the limits of the fields,” Álvarez said. “But in practice, they become affected by the aerial application of agrochemicals, and those trees die between three and five years after being planted.”

An environmental and social catastrophe

Flora, fauna and people all suffer from the impact of deforestation. Liberatti painted a bleak picture: “In the Villa Bermejito area, where we live, you can no longer see rhea [birds] or Andean hairy armadillos. The black howler monkeys are dying because they cut down the carob trees where they lived, and the plants they ate are decreasing. Pumas are hunting goats and foals because they need to seek refuge in the few areas where there was no deforestation.” The near extinction of the jaguar, which is often used as a symbol of the entire ecosystem, in Argentina is perhaps one of the best demonstrations of the environmental disaster that has been created.

A camera trap captured this photo of an adult male jaguar prowling inside El Impenetrable National Park. Image courtesy of the Jaguar Project (Proyecto Yaguareté) and the Conservation Land Trust.

“Without forests, there is no life,” said Sofía Núñez, a member of the Qom Indigenous community in Laguna Patos.

“For those in rural areas, the forest is the source of food, raw material, timber, fruit to feed their livestock [and] medicine,” said Lucas Giraudo, who participates in initiatives related to the interaction between native forests and those who inhabit them.

“There are people who do not leave the forest unless it is for a party or to go to a health care center. They do not know urban life, and they manage themselves with their own codes, very different from ours,” said Walter González, the owner of a small restaurant in Villa Río Bermejito. For several years, González lived in Misión Nueva Pompeya, a town in Chaco province located inside El Impenetrable National Park.

From a social perspective, the main consequence is the abandonment of their forests. “The possibilities of survival are less and less,” Álvarez said. “People are displaced and cornered in strongholds of 1,000 or 2,000 hectares [about 2,500 to 5,000 acres), with few options to raise their animals, and they become dependent on the pensions or payments they receive from the government.” Surrounded by barbed wire, they often also have serious problems with their access to water.

When there is no other solution, the destination is often the suburbs of towns and cities, where many Indigenous and Creole people arrive after having lost their rural property, customs, forests and pieces of their culture. In general, they face a difficult adaptation to a societal system that tends to marginalize them. The most prevalent emotion of all those produced by the continuous and permanent clearing of the Argentine Gran Chaco is always sadness.

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A truck full of timber in Chaco province. The thickness of the trunks indicates these were old-growth trees, likely taken from primary forest. Image courtesy of Riccardo Tiddi.

Banner image of bulldozer activity in a protected area, courtesy of Greenpeace.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on May 28, 2020.

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