- Protected areas in eastern Paraguay are beset by illegal marijuana cultivation and logging. Government interventions have had limited success, with clearing resuming shortly after agents leave an area.
- Park rangers tasked with monitoring the country’s reserves and parks say they routinely encounter hostile criminal groups when on patrol. These encounters can take a violent turn – several rangers have been murdered over the past decade while patrolling protected areas for illegal activity.
- According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the ideal number of park rangers is one for every 1,000 hectares. However, in Paraguay, there is just one park ranger for more than 38,000 hectares.
- Rangers say they need more resources and support to do their job safely and effectively.
This story is a collaboration between La Nación and Mongabay Latam. It is the fifth installment of a five-part series on illegal deforestation for marijuana production in eastern Paraguay. Read the first, second, third and fourth parts.
SAN JOSÉ CRISTAL, Paraguay — On February 17, 2013, park ranger Bruno Chevugi was shot and killed in Paraguay’s Mbaracayú Natural Reserve. Chevugi was with other rangers performing their daily monitoring duties when assailants opened fire on the group. His body was found two days later in the Jejuimi River. Investigations to determine who murdered Chevugi have been unsuccessful.
Five years later on August 18, 2018, rangers Rumildo Toledo and Artemio Villalba were shot and killed inside Tapytá Natural Reserve. On March 4, brothers Braulio, Robert and Arnaldo Alcaráz González were arrested and charged with their murder. The brothers have alleged links to poaching and drug trafficking; the investigation of the case is ongoing.
These killings have reverberated throughout eastern Paraguay’s protected areas, which are beset by deforestation due in part to an expanding illicit marijuana industry. The rangers tasked with their protection say they routinely encounter hostile criminal groups when on patrol – and worry they may have to choose between doing their jobs or keeping their lives.
An impossible situation
“Last Friday, right on this path, we were approached,” said a park ranger from San Rafael Proposed National Reserve (also known as San Rafael National Park). “There were about eight people. They were tough-looking men and were known to us. I was with my partner and they took my shotgun. They told me to stop bothering them.”
Due to its expansive reach and biodiversity – comprising both tropical forests and savannas – San Rafael is one of the most important natural areas in eastern Paraguay. For biologists and scientists, this territory also has enormous research potential. Seven rangers are tasked with monitoring San Rafael Reserve’s 73,000 hectares, which those who work there say is not nearly enough.
Due to the risks these park rangers face, rangers’ identities are withheld from this story.
Logging for timber and to clear forest to grow marijuana are two of the biggest threats to eastern Paraguay’s protected areas. Mongabay and La Nación reporters saw 10 logging sites while walking less than a kilometer along a trail in San Rafael. The preferred tree species for timber traffickers are Tabebuia lapacho and Peltophorum dubium.
Sources say systemic poverty and a lack of opportunities is forcing residents of rural communities to illegally harvest wood protected areas and grow marijuana in protected areas.
“Dozens of families who live in the settlements around the national parks have no other option for making a living other than using what nature gives them,” one ranger said. “The situation is that these people really have no other options. If it’s not the wood, it’s marijuana, and if it’s not being involved with marijuana directly, then it’s helping traffickers by guarding [marijuana] plantations.”
One ranger said he felt afraid on the job and without enough support from the government, but that their job is necessary.
“We shouldn’t let them win,” he said.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MADES), Paraguay’s parks and reserves should be staffed by 500 park rangers, forest monitors and guides. However, the reality on the ground is very different. In total, just 64 people are tasked with monitoring all 2.45 million hectares (6 million acres).
This translates to one park ranger for more than 38,000 hectares. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the ideal number of park rangers is one for every 1,000 hectares.
Caazapá National Park is one of the most understaffed protected areas in Paraguay. Six park rangers officially take care of this 16,000-hectare park; however, in practice, five work at a time while one takes a day off. To help them monitor the expansive reserve, park rangers are provided with a couple of motorcycles. They also have access to a truck, which, during a February visit, was out of operation.
“It’s almost impossible to cover the entire area at once. You have to do it in segments,” one ranger said. He added that they wear bulletproof vests when doing their rounds.
In May 2019, an operation carried out by Paraguay’s National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD) and MADES in Caazapá National Park resulted in the destruction of 13,500 kilograms of marijuana. In Morombí Reserve, SENAD agents destroyed 600 tons of marijuana in February 2020 in 202 plots carved illegally out of the reserve’s forest.
In both cases, government intervention did not prove to be much of a deterrent. Satellite data and imagery show clearing resumed shortly afterward in both protected areas.
In Morombí, park rangers discovered 32 new charcoal ovens in an area that had been cleared by government agents just two weeks prior. Charcoal is a common byproduct of marijuana cultivation in Paraguay, and is made by slowly burning wood from deforested areas that isn’t valuable enough to be sold at timber markets.
‘It’s hard to live like this’
Park rangers say they fear for their safety even when they’re off the clock.
“I don’t go anywhere anymore,” said one Mbaracayú ranger who lives in a community right outside the reserve. “This year I didn’t even go to the town’s San Juan festival because I was afraid. It’s hard to live like this.”
Another ranger said even the police in his community can’t be trusted.
“After we discovered a new marijuana plot, we filed a report at the local police station,” the ranger said. “Incredibly, just five minutes after we left, I received a message from an unknown number on my cell phone. This was something that no one else knew, except my partner who was always with me and, of course, the police officers who were at the station at the time.”
Chief Commissioner Oscar Brítez, who heads the National Police Department of Forestry and Environmental Affairs (DEBOA) downplayed the accusation and said park rangers may also not be trustworthy. He said joint effort between police forces and park rangers is needed.
DEBOA, which is headquartered in the city of Capiatá, has 60 officers and three patrol vans for handling complaints about deforestation and trespassing in Paraguay’s protected areas.
“We do what we can,” Brítez said. “We rely on what the Public Prosecutor’s Office does, and based on their complaints, support them with their operations.”
In June 2019, after several years of insistence and complaints, Paraguay’s government enacted a regulation known as the “Park Ranger Law” that added five articles to Law No. 352/94. The regulation resulted in the creation of the National Park Ranger Corps, as well as measures meant to improve ranger working conditions and increase their pay and retirement savings.
So far, however, park rangers claim that these amendments have not been applied. MADES representatives said the agency does not yet have the financial resources to implement the new administrative measures, such as payment of bonuses, either for overtime or exposure to risks.
“Our funding is not enough, especially for hiring more park rangers and considering the new conditions of the law,” said Dario Mandelburger, director of MADES. “We are planning to increase our budget for 2021, but we will surely suffer from cuts as is the case every year.”
José Gaspar Insaurralde, president of the Paraguayan Park Rangers Association, said that only area leaders have received bonuses, which is the only benefit that has been provided so far.
“It’s really very sad, but at least we have the law, which we struggled to achieve for four years,” Insaurralde said.
This is a translated and adapted version of a story that was first published by Mongabay Latam on May 29, 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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