- Wetlands surrounding the protected Lake Ypacaraí in Paraguay are being filled in to allow for the construction of housing and tourism projects.
- In addition to providing habitats for countless species of flora and fauna, the wetlands act as a filter for freshwater and help control flooding and erosion.
- The projects were approved by the Ministry of Environment, sparking outcry from congressmen who want to know if protected area laws are being ignored in favor of urban development.
Urban development projects surrounding a protected lake in Paraguay are threatening the recovery of local ecosystems and raising questions about the government’s ability to circumvent conservation mandates.
Wetlands around Lake Ypacaraí are being filled in to allow for the construction of housing and tourism projects despite a series of environmental recovery measures that prohibit development in the area.
“These activities are totally altering the natural makeup of the lake,” Monica Centrón, of Alter Vida, a socio-environmental development organization in Paraguay, told Mongabay. “The area they’re working in has so much flora and fauna. We’re losing all of that. We’re losing water quality and space for biodiversity.”
Work on the new construction projects could endanger the as many as 79 species of fish that live in the lake, as well as the many mammals that the lake supports, including the Maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus), giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) and Neotropical otter (Lontra longicaudis).
Wetlands surrounding the lake also act as a filter for freshwater and help control flooding and erosion.
The impact of the development could be felt throughout the region’s watersheds, as Lake Ypacaraí’s tributaries span about 1,113 square kilometers (429 square miles), ultimately flowing into the Paraguay River, one of the largest in South America.
“The people need to know about this situation,” Centrón said. “We have to be conscious of this and try to stop it because, if not, it will open a door to future real estate projects.”
Legal uncertainty for protected areas
The lake’s proximity to the capital of Asunción — just 16 kilometers (10 miles) east — has historically made it a tourist destination, putting it at risk of increasing development as the city grows. For decades, the area has also suffered from algae blooms and high rates of fecal coliforms — indicators of contamination with human and animal waste.
In 2014, the area was declared a “Managed Resources Reserve” in the hopes of allowing dwindling biodiversity rates and water quality to recover. According to the area’s management plan, no land use change is permitted for 10 years or “until the waterbody is recovered.” That means the area should be free of development until 2024.
Nevertheless, complaints about new construction work started coming into the National Commission for the Administration and Management of Lake Ypacaraí and its Basin (Conalaypa) as early as last December, with photos and videos showing dump trucks preparing to fill in wetlands for a condominium project. Conalaypa referred the issue to the Ministry of Environment.
Technically, for now, that activity does have some legal backing. An environmental impact report was approved by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.
Part of the confusion is that land titles belonging to property owners around the lake were issued before the protected area was declared, with some titles extending into the water, theoretically allowing for private development.
However, at the same time, the protected area law says development is only allowed if the projects existed before 2014. That isn’t the case for the filling works that started last year, leading critics to believe that officials are cherry-picking which laws to abide by when trying to push through economic projects.
There is also debate about what qualifies as “leveling” versus “filling” an area, which may have allowed for more legal flexibility in moving forward with the project.
“The Ministry of Environment is ‘grabbing’ a restricted use zone to allow for the filling of the wetlands,” said Raquel Rodríguez, a biologist and local defender of the lake. “They allege that it doesn’t have strict protections.”
Congress wants answers
Last month, several congressmen requested an official explanation from Minister of Environment Ariel Oviedo about how the environmental impact studies were carried out and how he made sense of them in the context of the laws protecting the lake.
Deputy Kattya González, one of the most vocal signers of the letter, also said that she hopes to question other relevant officials about the issue. She visited the area earlier this year and took photos of construction work being done at a rapid pace.
She said the environment ministry appears to be “selling off” environmental permits, suggesting that other protected areas in Paraguay could face similar threats. However, González said she has so far not discovered concrete evidence of corruption.
“Today they have a really criminal policy,” González told Mongabay, “in which the environmental impact permits, which eventually enable the completion of works, are totally subject to the economic powers that control Paraguay.”
She added: “They look into environmental impact qualifications from their desk, without going to the site, without verifying, without taking into account everything that goes into the law.”
The ministry has come under fire in the past for similar activity. In 2020, several former ministry officials described to UK NGO Earthsight how the agribusiness industry was allowed to illegally clear forests and disregard complaints from Indigenous communities.
“Our Lake Ypacaraí is dying at the hands of the negligence and criminal complicity of authorities and unscrupulous people,” González said earlier this month, “who take advantage of the fact that no one controls and disciplines them.”
Banner image: The waters of Lake Ypacaraí. Photo via Silvia Centrón/MOPC.
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