An article by Christine MacDonald (writer – Rolling Stone Culture)
July 28, 2014 11:50 AM ET
A converted garage in Asuncion, Paraguay, seems an unlikely headquarters for the crusade to save one of Earth’s last great wilderness expanses. But in a cluttered and fluorescent-lit room, three geographic information systems (GIS) analysts are hunched over their computer screens searching satellite maps for signs of fresh deforestation in South America’s Gran Chaco forest, doing the best they can.
“The Chaco is one of the most unknown remaining wildernesses on our planet,” says Alberto Yanosky, the activist in charge of those analysts. The problem though, is that “we’re losing the Chaco faster than scientists can study it.”
The Gran Chaco, which cuts across parts of Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, is Latin America’s second most important forest, behind only the Amazon in terms of size and biodiversity. While the Amazon is a lush tropical world of wide rivers and towering trees, the Chaco, located to the south, is a dry 250,000-square-mile area with some of the highest temperatures in the world and some of the most meager rainfall.
But while the Amazon has an institutional charity system fighting for its survival, hardly anyone outside of South America has heard of the Chaco. That PR void has allowed U.S.-based agribusiness giants Cargill Inc., Bunge Ltd. & Archer Daniels Midland Co. aggressively expand in Paraguay with a minimum of international scrutiny or outcry.
Sustainable business gurus praise those companies for having saved the Amazon, and the companies themselves say they have adopted conservation policies that prove it’s possible to feed the world’s exploding population without putting much more land into cultivation. In Paraguay, however, the opposite has occurred. The factory farming system has advanced across the country’s most fertile areas.
Over the last decade alone, 2.5 million acres have been turned into soybean fields, displacing subsistence farmers and cattle barons alike. (Those with the wherewithal purchased cheaper land in the Chaco forest, part of the rush that’s helped make the Chaco one of the world’s top deforestation hot spots.)
Last year alone, the Gran Chaco lost 914 square miles of forest, the equivalent, according to Yanosky’s organization, Guyra, of 29 cities the size of Buenos Aires.
During the first five months of this year, 1,040 acres — a little more than 1.6 square miles of forest a day — were bulldozed and burned in the Paraguayan portion of the Chaco. GIS analyst Fernando Palacios, a boyish 29-year-old, says it’s dispiriting to watch what’s happening.
“Every month we detect all these areas that have been lost,” he says. “It doesn’t give you much hope.” Gurya sends its satellite images to members of parliament and the press, hoping to influence policy and public sentiment. But most shock about the ecological devastation has long since worn off.
What’s going on in Paraguay follows a familiar pattern in countries blessed with lots of biodiversity and saddled with a sluggish economy. Typically cattle ranchers are among the first to settle a virgin forest. Eventually their footpaths become dirt roads linking a once isolated area to ports and population centers.
Land prices soar and pioneers sell or get pushed out by deep-pocketed farmers with access to bank loans, Big Ag financing, influential friends and high tech machinery.
Once a former wilderness has been sufficiently tamed, the factory farmers often bypass the pioneers and bulldoze virgin forest themselves, going directly into the commodities production. This is what’s starting to happen in the Chaco.
There is one very big difference: Even as deforestation shifts into hyper-drive, the U.S. agribusiness companies that set this domino effect in motion are taking victory laps on the “corporate sustainability” circuit.
For instance, Cargill, the Minneapolis-based company (and the USA’s largest privately-held corporation) that has spent millions of dollars to brand itself as being a corporate conservationist, claims it has “figured out” how to make industrial scale agriculture environmentally sustainable.
To get its Amazon farmers to go along with those sustainability efforts, it has its own satellite monitoring system that is capable of detecting even the smallest amount of fresh deforestation. Next door in Paraguay, however, small rectangles flashing on a computer screen reveal just how different the rules are outside of Brazil.