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South America’s other deforestation – International

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South America’s other deforestation – International

It is the lesser known, less symbolic “little” sister of its giant neighbor, the Amazon. But for 25 years the Gran Chaco forest, the second largest biome in South America, has been inexorably bled, fauna and flora retreat in front of soybean or sunflower crops or in front of farms.

Appearances are sometimes deceptive. Along the endless tracks of the Chaco, a forest mass of one million square kilometers between Argentina (62 percent), Paraguay (25 percent) and Bolivia (11 percent), dense expanses of typical dry tropical vegetation create the illusion of an unchanged ecosystem.

But going beyond these green margins, long strips of cleared land betray the slow erosion that continues in silence. In some places, as far as the eye can see, lie trees of crackerscarob trees uprooted from machinery and waiting to be taken away to make charcoal, tannin, furniture or railway track sleepers, for which this hardwood is sought after.

Here, in the northeast of Argentina, a thousand kilometers from Buenos Aires, is the agricultural “frontier”. Where an agro-exporting model, increasingly crucial for countries greedy for foreign currency, collides with an indigenous ecosystem, its species, its ethnic groups. And it’s winning, little by little.

Technological agriculture
“In the province of Chaco practically the entire surface was covered with forests of different types”, recalls the agronomist engineer Inès Aguirre, of the Red agroforestal Chaco Argentina. “Until the 1990s, only one sector, to the southeast, had a predominantly agricultural area. But as soon as the technological ‘combo’ of genetically modified soy and direct sowing appeared, with minimal tillage, the Chaco began to be colonized and ‘pampered’, ”she explains.

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“Pamperizzato” means transformed into vast plains of crops or pastures, characteristics of the pampa argentina. Moreover, soy (30 per cent of the country’s exports) and GM corn, Argentina’s trademarks, have the specificity of resisting aridity, a “godsend” for the semi-arid soil of Chaco Seco.

Since then, the rate of deforestation in the provinces has been around forty thousand hectares per year, with peaks of sixty thousand, according to Aguirre. The images from above offer the impressive spectacle of vast empty rectangles alongside rectangles of dense vegetation. “It shouldn’t happen, since all forms of deforestation are now suspended in the province” following a moratorium, explains Noemi Cruz, of Greenpeace’s Forest Division, as she points to the felled trees and picks up a handful of dusty earth. Land on which, without the protection of the trees, “the water will slip on the surface, but it will no longer infiltrate the soil during the rainy season”.

The Chaco includes El Impenetrable, a national park of 128 thousand hectares, a “red zone” strictly protected under the terms of the Argentine law on forests: therefore untouchable, unlike the “yellow” areas, where tourism and “sweet” agricultural activities can exist, and “greens”, which can be altered.

But this subdivision – in the implementation phase, which is why a moratorium has been implemented in the meantime – is “under constant strong pressure from companies and producers, who want to extend agricultural land, and an international demand for raw materials, especially soybeans and meat ”, explains the researcher of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet), Matias Mastrangelo. And in the event of illegal logging, the sanction, a fine, “does not discourage clearing: companies take it into account as one of the many production costs”.

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In fact, around the Impenetrable it is plowed up, and the effects have repercussions on the various species of the adjacent park: anteaters, peccaries, tapirs, coral snakes. The jaguar, the largest feline on the continent, is also at the center of an ambitious restocking program. “A forest that becomes a soybean field cannot host the jaguar, and any of its prey. The destruction is complete ”, denounces the biologist Gerardo Ceron, coordinator of the Argentina Rewilding team that manages the repopulation program.

“In dry Chaco we are probably seeing a serious loss of fauna. In particular, large mammals become extinct ”, agrees Micaela Camino, biologist at Conicet, citing mainly the giant armadillo and the labiate peccary. “When a species disappears, what made it unique disappears with it. But also the food security of indigenous families and all the functions that this species performed in the ecosystem. And finally the ability of the ecosystem itself to regenerate itself, to be resilient. And this is extremely dangerous in a context of climate change ”.

Even before the species, there are human beings who disappear. In particular, some indigenous Wichi and Criollo communities, who live in groups in the heart of dry Chaco. “What generally happens, upstream of deforestation, is that the rights of these families are trampled on. Their land is acquired with a scam and they have to leave ”, explains Micaela Camino.

According to Aguirre, who worked in the province’s forest management, there are ways to regenerate the Chaco, for example an agro-forestry experience he conducted by combining carob planting and cattle farming. “The carob, a legume, produces a reaction between the bacteria and the roots that fixes the nitrogen in the soil. It’s extraordinary, the growth is incredible ”. But this is for “the after”. “The urgency is to stop deforestation”.

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(Translation by Thomas Lemaire)

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