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Paraguay whistleblowers allege illegal deforestation cover up

  • Senior officials at Paraguay’s Environment Ministry are allegedly helping cover up illegal deforestation by the country’s cattle industry.
  • Last month, London-based NGO Earthsight reported that major European automakers, including Jaguar Land Rover and BMW, were using leather linked to illegal deforestation in Paraguay.
  • Damning new testimony by current and former ministry employees suggests that in many cases environmental impact assessment applications are made long after the land in question has been cleared.

Senior officials with Paraguay’s Environment Ministry are helping cover up illegal deforestation by the country’s cattle industry, according to damning new testimony by current and former ministry employees.

A landlocked country in the heart of South America, Paraguay has experienced some of the highest rates of deforestation anywhere in the world. Over the last three decades, forests covering more than one-tenth of the country’s landmass have been cleared, driven largely by a drive to create more cattle pasture.

Last month, London-based NGO Earthsight reported that major European automakers, including Jaguar Land Rover and BMW, were using leather linked to illegal deforestation in Paraguay.

Paraguayan law requires ranchers to submit an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to the Environment Ministry in order to obtain a permit to clear forested land prior to felling any trees. However, the reality in many cases is that such applications are made long after the land in question has been cleared, according to whistleblowers who spoke with Earthsight.

In 2011, Karen Colman joined the Environment Ministry’s Biodiversity Department, where her job was to appraise the EIAs submitted by businesses wishing to clear forests on their land. Shortly after Colman was hired, conservation NGO Guyra Paraguay released software enabling Colman and her colleagues to monitor deforestation in real-time.

Checking the EIAs that passed across Colman’s desk against the software revealed that many of them were fraudulent.

“We found that lots of these properties were already cleared of forest,” Colman told Earthsight. “They were illegal deforestations. The landowners were asking for licenses to regularise what they’d already cut down.”

Colman and her supervisor escalated their findings to the Environment Ministry’s legal counsel, who ignored them. Next, they took the fraudulent documents to the public prosecutor’s office, where they were also not addressed.

About a month later, Colman was summoned to the office of the head of the Department for Environmental Quality Control, the body responsible for giving final approval to logging permits. According to Colman, her diversion of the allegedly fraudulent EIAs to the prosecutor’s office meant they had not been forwarded to the quality control department for final approval.

Colman said the department head told her “in very fuzzy words” to drop her complaints and allow the permit applications to be approved. When she persisted, the department head became angry. Going forward, he said, applications would bypass Colman and her colleagues in the Biodiversity Department. Not a single application for a logging permit has been reviewed by a trained biologist since, Colman claims.

The confrontation had personal consequences for Colman, too. Shortly afterward, she was transferred to work in animal rescue – a tiring and dangerous role paying minimum wage. Following a series of injuries, Colman resigned having spent five years with the Environment Ministry.

“I started with the idea of wanting to conserve the environment, but I did absolutely none of that in the five years I was there,” Colman told Earthsight.

Colman’s testimony was supported by Igancio Avila, who was head of the Wildlife and Biodiversity Department while Colman was employed there. Also speaking to Earthsight, Avila described Colman as “a very good employee, she was always very ethical in whatever she did.”

Avila left the ministry in 2013 and now works as a biologist at the National University of Asuncion. He recalled that Colman’s clash with the Department for Environmental Quality Control was one of many between that department and his own.

“It was evident that they worked very much in favor of the producers,” Avila said.

For Colman, the institutional reluctance to crack down on fraudulent EIAs is symptomatic of the Paraguayan state’s obsession with beef, the country’s third-largest export after hydroelectric power and soybeans, another driver of deforestation.

“Our hospitals don’t function, our schools don’t function, but our international roads, yes, they function because they transport cattle. Our economy doesn’t function but we have the lowest meat export taxes in South America,” Colman told Earthsight. “Everything revolves around those two questions, soya, and cattle. And ultimately the soya is to feed the cattle.”

Colman and Avila’s testimony was echoed by a current Environment Ministry employee, who spoke to Earthsight on the condition of anonymity.

The employee described an atmosphere within the ministry that saw senior officials “repeatedly ignoring flagrant contraventions of Paraguay’s environmental law” as well as ordering employees to approve licenses even when there were obvious irregularities in the EIAs.

On one occasion, a senior official allegedly told one of the anonymous employee’s colleagues: “This is a request from the minister. You have to grant this license.”

While current and former Environment Ministry employees expressed concern, the gravity of the situation was played down by officials at the National Forestry Institute (Infona), which shares responsibility with the Environment Ministry for overseeing the country’s forests.

The institute’s legal director, Victor Gonzalez, told Earthsight that providing the necessary paperwork was eventually filed, officials will take a lenient approach to businesses clearing land prior to getting a permit.

“In this case, we’d classify it more as an administrative fault,” Gonzalez said. “We are very careful about calling it illegal deforestation.”

For its part, the Environment Ministry says previous administrations were responsible for the failures highlighted by the former officials’ testimony.

In a statement, the ministry said: “The current [ministry] management does not take responsibility for events that happened during previous administrations, and aimed to face corruption from the beginning by using all the available technology to exercise a strong cross-checks, [and] achieve transparency in environmental processes, which are easily accessible to the general public”.

Meanwhile, Earthsight said in a recent statement that its findings had been raised with the Environment Ministry as early as September 30th, but that the ministry has yet to announce any plans to investigate further.

“Earthsight believes the government already has everything it needs to act, but nevertheless stands ready to assist in working towards preventing further destruction of forests and indigenous lands in Paraguay,” the statement read.


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Banner Image: Expansive clearings for cattle grazing in the Pargauayan Gran Chaco are visible from above. Photo credit: Peer V CC 3.0.

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