Bulldozers advance in Paraguayan Chaco
BirdLife Partner Guyra Paraguay has warned that if current rates of deforestation continue, the Chaco, currently home to rich and abundant biodiversity, could soon be reduced to the same state as South America’s Atlantic Forest: isolated fragments providing a tenuous clawhold for the threatened remnants of its bird species.
Satellite images analysed by Guyra Paraguay shows that habitat losses in 2009 will be far higher than in 2008, when 228,000 ha were bulldozed to make way for agriculture, mainly cattle ranching. Much of the pressure is believed to be coming from Brazilian agribusinesses, pushed over the border by soaring land prices and stricter environmental law enforcement in their home country.
The Chaco ecosystem is shared between Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina, and is made up of ecologically diverse dry open forest, savanna and seasonally flooded habitats. A UNESCO Man and Biosphere reserve covers around half the 14 million ha of Paraguayan Chaco. According to UNESCO, this is "biophysically the most diverse of the Gran Chaco system. It combines a high biodiversity with well-conserved ecosystems and habitats of great importance that are indispensable for the establishment of biological corridors with the neighbouring countries."
But at its peak in May 2009, the daily rate of habitat loss reached 1,291 ha, the equivalent of more than 1500 football pitches. Demand for fuel for bulldozers dried up local supplies, leading to the creation of a black market, and further intensifying the climate of violent criminality which threatens local communities, national park officials and conservation NGOs.
"Ranchers are armed. It makes it impossible for wardens to act - there have been many examples of threats and intimidation", said Guyra Paraguay's CEO, Dr. Alberto Yanosky.
According to Survival International, land occupied by the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode, the only uncontacted indigenous tribe in South America outside the Amazon, has been bulldozed by employees of a company owned by Brazilian ranchers, who also prevented a representative of the Paraguayan government from entering the area. Amnesty International has reported that members of the indigenous Ava Guarani community who refused to vacate their ancestral land to make way for soy farmers have been sprayed with pesticide.
"The main threat to Important Bird Areas in the Chaco region is fragmentation" —José Luis Cartes, Guyra Paraguay
The Paraguayan Chaco includes some large protected areas, most of which have been designated Important Bird Areas by BirdLife International. But lack of funds means that these are not always well managed or protected. For example, until recently, the 780,000 ha Defensores del Chaco National Park was patrolled by just one guard, without a vehicle.
"The main threat to Important Bird Areas in the Chaco region is fragmentation", said José Luis Cartes from Guyra Paraguay. "We have connectivity between areas, but tendencies show a progressive isolation, with clear-cutting affecting even the boundary areas on the east side of Defensores del Chaco National Park. In 20 years these areas could become 'island' fragments, as occurs now in the Atlantic Forest."
Only one bird species currently regarded as threatened, the Endangered Crowned Eagle Harpyhaliaetus coronatus, is likely to be affected by the ongoing habitat loss, and by increased hunting pressure as a result of the greater human presence. However, according to Rob Clay, BirdLife's Americas Region Senior Conservation Manager, at least four Near Threatened birds are probably also being affected, and may soon warrant higher levels of threat: Chilean Flamingo Phoenicopterus chilensis and Dinelli's Doradito Pseudocolopteryx dinelliani by the drying up of lagoons and wetlands, and Blaze-winged Parakeet Pyrrhura devillei and Black-bodied Woodpecker Dryocopus schulzi by forest loss.
"Many of the Chaco bird species are fairly tolerant of habitat degradation", Rob Clay explained. "But some of the current Least Concern species, such as Chaco Owl Strix chacoensis, Spot-winged Falconet Spiziapteryx circumcincta, Black-legged Seriema Chunga burmeisteri, Cream-backed Woodpecker Campephilus leucopogon and Hudson's Black-tyrant Knipolegus hudsoni, will likely become threatened, or at least Near Threatened."
"But while the implications for birds are worrying, I suspect the implications for mammals...are far more significant" —Dr Alberto Yanosky, Guyra Paraguay
"But while the implications for birds are worrying, I suspect the implications for mammals such as Chacoan Peccary Catagonus wagneri, Giant Armadillo Priodontes maximus, Giant Anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla, Jaguar Panthera onca, Maned Wolf Chrysocyon brachyurus, Brazilian Tapir Tapirus terrestris, and many others are far more significant", Alberto Yanosky added. "The Paraguayan Chaco is one of the few places left in the Americas, outside of the Amazon, where a relatively intact mammalian megafauna can still be found, and in notable abundance. But that won't be for much longer at current deforestation rates”, Rob Clay added.
Lack of resources means that the authorities are unable to respond quickly to reports of illegal land clearance. Penalties are also inadequate. "The maximum fine for infringement of the laws is $12,000", said Dr Yanosky. "It is no problem for the ranchers to pay this and carry on – it makes good business."
Guyra Paraguay is working with Paraguay's Environment Ministry (SEAM), and with former Environment Minister Dr Luis Casaccia, now Paraguay's Environmental Prosecutor, to try to halt the destruction of the Chaco, and to raise international awareness of the threats to this unique ecosystem.
Together with long-term partner the World Land Trust (WLT), Guyra is also raising funds to purchase and protect what is left of Paraguay's forests. Under a three-way agreement with Guyra Paraguay and SEAM, WLT is supporting management costs of three protected areas in the northern Chaco. Thanks to this support, seven park guards are now employed at Defensores del Chaco, and a vehicle with fuel has also been supplied.
Tropical deforestation has serious impacts on the world's climate. Globally, deforestation and forest degradation account for 15-20% of all human-induced carbon emissions, and a large proportion of this takes place in the tropics. This is therefore one of the major causes of global warming.