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Automakers fuelling deforestation, dispossession in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco: report

  • Major European automakers including Jaguar Land Rover and BMW use leather linked to illegal deforestation in Paraguay forests home to one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes.
  • A report by London-based NGO Earthsight released last week following a years-long undercover investigation revealed links to illegal clearances of forest in the Chaco region of Paraguay.
  • The forests of the Gran Chaco, a lowland region straddling Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, are home to at-risk fauna such as jaguars and giant anteaters, whose populations have been devastated by cattle ranching and soybean cultivation.

Major European automakers including Jaguar Land Rover and BMW are using leather linked to illegal deforestation in South American forests home to one of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, according to new research.

In a report by London-based NGO Earthsight released last week, titled Grand Theft Chaco, the group said undercover investigations of the automakers’ supply chains had revealed links to illegal clearances of forest in the Chaco region of Paraguay.

Earthsight said its findings were likely to be just the “very dirty tip of a much larger iceberg” as none of Europe’s 10 largest makers of leather-clad cars were able to fully identify the source of the raw materials used in their vehicles.

“No car owner is going to feel comfortable in their plush leather seat knowing that the last forest refuge of an uncontacted tribe was illegally cleared to make it,” Sam Lawson, Earthsight director, said in a statement.

“This simply should not be allowed to happen. And this is far from an isolated case. Europe is awash with the products of deforestation and human rights abuses. Corporations have utterly failed to do the right thing. It is high time governments made them.”

The forests of the Gran Chaco, a lowland region straddling Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, are home to at-risk fauna such as jaguars and giant anteaters, whose populations have been devastated by cattle ranching and soybean cultivation. Between 1987 and 2012, Paraguay destroyed almost 4.4 million hectares (16,988 square miles) of forest, mainly to expand cattle ranches in the western part of the country.

Deforestation has escalated since 2012, driven by consumer demand for Paraguayan beef and leather. This boom prompted the Paraguayan government, ranchers and meat processors to expand their footprint in the European Union.

Paraguay ranks among the world’s top 10 cattle-dependant countries, exporting nearly nine million pounds of leather in 2018 to EU car companies including BMW, Citroën, Peugeot, Renault, Porsche and Ferrari — who use leather from the Chaco for their car interiors.

But those luxury designs come at a high cost to nature. The region has one of world’s highest deforestation rates, losing nearly 250,000 hectares (617,764 acres) of forest cover annually between 2001 and 2014.

According to the Earthsight report, cattle ranchers in the Chaco region illegally cleared land inhabited by the Ayoreo Totobiegosode, an indigenous group living in voluntary isolation and the only group to do so outside of the Amazon biome.

Slaughterhouses that bought cattle from these ranchers sold hides to tanneries supplying the auto manufacturers, company executives told Earthsight during its undercover investigation, including those sourced from the illegally cleared Totobiegosode forest.

The executives reportedly told Earthsight researchers the leather was used in Jaguar Land Rover’s Range Rover Evoque series, a claim the company did not deny.

In response to a separate claim, that two slaughterhouses identified by Earthsight as supplying BMW were guilty of illegal logging in Totobiegosode, the German multinational said it had “no information” that its leather supply chains in Latin America were “affected by the problems” exposed in the report.

Both firms are customers of Pasubio, an Italian tannery that is a leading international supplier of leather to the automotive industry and the biggest buyer of Paraguayan leather, Earthsight said.

Paraguay’s alleged failure to safeguard the Totobiegosode protected area (PNCAT) has been condemned by the United Nations, and in February 2018 the country’s forestry institute suspended land management plans in the region, effectively declaring land clearance there illegal.

Yet despite the prohibition on logging in the PNCAT, Earthsight said it found evidence that between April 2018 and July 2020 more than 2,600 hectares (6,424 acres) of land was cleared.

When asked about their traceability systems, none of the 10 automakers contacted by Earthsight and supplied by leather vendor Pasubio said they were able to fully trace the goods to source.

In response to media queries, Jaguar Land Rover said its leather supplier “verifies with each raw material supplier that no rural property that directly supplies it is involved in illegal deforestation.”

However, Earthsight said the Jaguar Land Rover statement was “simply untrue.”

“We know because we interviewed the Paraguayan raw material suppliers, who admitted that they could not currently trace their hides back to the ranches they come from. If they don’t know which rural properties their materials are coming from they cannot possibly carry out checks on the legality of the conversion taking place within them,” the group said in a statement.

It added that one of those suppliers, Cencoprod, told its investigators that a lack of demand from customers for more traceability due to the increased costs had stymied plans for greater transparency.

“It is possible that what Jaguar claims is true for the Brazilian Amazon, but it certainly isn’t true for Paraguay,” Earthsight said in a statement.

“It is possible that they are passing on false and misleading information they themselves have been receiving from their European suppliers. But if so it just goes to show that even when presented with detailed evidence of wrongdoing, their level of due diligence is pitiful.”

 

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Banner image: A giant anteater in the Gran Chaco. Cattle ranching and soy cultivation have pushed at-risk species in the biome to the brink. Photo courtesy of the Argentine Wildlife Foundation – @YawarFilms.