At the end of 2021, during the COP26 in Glasgow (United Kingdom), the Argentine government signed a commitment to stop deforestation together with leaders from more than 100 countries. However, the destruction of the Gran Chaco, the largest and most biodiverse forest in South America after the Amazon, continues. It is cleared to plant soybeans which are then sold to Europe to feed livestock.
By Marina Aizen
International campaigns against deforestation have historically focused on rainforests. Biomes such as the Amazon or Indonesia ones, where large quantities of commodities are produced for the global agro-industrial chain, have thus received a constant focus of attention. But, this narrative put aside what has been happening for more than three decades in dry forests.
Due to the profound transformation they experienced, thanks to the technological package of genetically modified soybeans and the expansion of livestock farming, the Great American Chaco and the Brazilian Cerrado, among other vital ecosystems, have been decimated, generating carbon emissions (sources of climate change) comparable to those of tropical systems.
All this has also had an impact, of course, on the physical makeup of the atmosphere and on the rise in planetary temperature, regardless of whether enough attention or not has been paid to it.
The Gran Chaco, underestimated
The case of the Gran Chaco, shared by Argentina (60%), Paraguay (23%), Bolivia (13%) and Brazil (4%), is emblematic. Not only have historical emissions been underestimated, but also there has been a mistake as regards the remaining amount of carbon that is kept stored in the biomass. This, of course, makes even more important the conservation needs of a system that has only a tiny area of protection in The Argentine Impregnable, where the creation of the Parque Nacional was achieved -same name, in part, as what ranch La Fidelidad was.
The rest of The Impregnable, a region as wonderful as mysterious, with enormous biodiversity, is the new hot frontier of deforestation in Argentina. And it has caused that all civil society organizations in the province of Chaco are now ready to fight against its governor, Jorge Capitanich.
According to studies carried out by Argentine and German researchers using a combination of measurements on the ground and satellite monitoring, the carbon stored in the ecoregion is 19 times higher than previously thought, a value that continues to surprise scientists themselves.
“Only for the dry Gran Chaco, there are some 4.65Gt of carbon stored in the vegetation. This is a very considerable amount of carbon. It is reasonable to think that not everything is going to be sent out. But we have proved, in terms of the amounts of emissions that are going into the atmosphere, that those of the Gran Chaco are comparable to those of places like the Amazon or Indonesia. “And those are the sites that relate to the big discussions about climate change,” points out Tobias Kuemmerle, from the Land Use program of the Geography department of the Humboldt University in Berlin (Germany).
The Gran Chaco is the largest and most biodiverse uninterrupted forest system in South America after the Amazon. Its destruction has been particularly brutal in Argentina, where it has lost more than 8 million hectares in the last three decades, and in Paraguay, where large areas have been flattened for stockbreeding. Bolivia, for its part, has more protected areas, although the dramatic forest fires of recent years demonstrate its fragility.
Integration or disintegration?
Since 1985, 14 million hectares of the Gran Chaco have been deforested, in all. For the sake of what? The integration of these countries to the global cycle of commodities, whether for whole or processed grains in the form of flour or oil, meat or leather. Everything has a demand that seems to have no ceiling in markets that are in Europe, China, India and other Asian countries.
The clearing of the Gran Chaco —and, for example, that of the Cerrado— was not done to enable subsistence agriculture or livestock, as had happened historically. This was due, on the contrary, to the entry of organized capital, since technological problems were solved to carry out agricultural production in more open, dry and seasonal forests.
“The actors that intervene most of the times are companies with investment capacity that, when deforesting, carry out a total clean-up and go through, in two or three years, a whole process from ranching to agriculture and, sometimes, to direct agriculture”, states Ignacio Gasparri, researcher at the National Council of Technical and Scientific Investigations of Argentina (Conicet for its initials in Spanish) of the National University of Tucumán.
“In many places of the Argentine Chaco, there is a system of land leases. It is not the people who own the land the one who control the fields, but someone who rents it. There is no motivation to do things right. I am here for 10 years, I pull out every drop from this field and then I go somewhere else. All this contributes to a tremendous dynamics,” adds Kuemmerle. And he concludes: “One of the tragedies of Chaco is that agriculture probably does not have a good future, but it can only be done for a certain amount of time and then everything is destroyed.”
This logic of intensive capital use translated into a very fast and sustained advance of the agricultural frontier. Thus, in a very short time, a huge amount of emissions were produced from places that were not supposed to release so much carbon into the atmosphere.
Integration or disintegration?
For many years, the international scientific community had not even noticed what was happening in this area of the world, considering it an empty, degraded and difficult to access site. There was also no money for research. In order to stand out, the researchers began using the term “extratropical” to refer to dry forests, as if to warn that something was happening here too. And that was important.
However, a paper published in 2016 between several Argentine and German researchers, led by Matthias Baumann, also from the Humboldt University of Berlin, came to fill a gap that existed in the scientific literature.
“The carbon that has been released by agriculture in the last 30 years has the same magnitude as Kalimantan in Southeast Asia, which is an area (on the Island of Borneo) highly affected by deforestation for oil palm production. Everybody talks about Indonesia, but nobody talks about Chaco. And our research reveals that the magnitude of the emissions are the same,” underlines Baumann, who is also the lead author of the paper, still under peer review, which establishes that there is 19 times more carbon than was calculated in the vegetable stocks of Gran Chaco.
“Emissions are so intense because land use change has been very drastic and widespread. There is more carbon in Chaco than what was previously assumed. That means that if the expansion of the agricultural frontier continues, the damage in terms of carbon emissions is expected to be greater than previously thought”, he adds.
In turn, Gasparri, a researcher who makes the measurements on the ground, explains: “In terms of the surface that this region has, a lot is being emitted compared to the Amazon, despite the fact that it has less than half of the biomass which has an Amazon forest per hectare. However, the emissions are equivalent in orders of magnitude.”
More clearing, more inequality
Deforestation in the Argentine portion of Gran Chaco has slowed in the last decade, even though scientists still cannot understand what has really happened.
The approval of the Law of Forests, in 2007, matched up with a drop in the price of commodities. Many of the areas that remain to be cleared of trees and animals are far from the transportation infrastructure, so the cost of moving production to the collection centers is not enough to guarantee a profitable income. There are lots that are dismantled for real estate speculation and never have a productive use. Even so, the rate of clearing in the ecoregion remains around 100,000 hectares per year, which —although it is a quarter of the historical peak— is still very high.
Now, clearing not only moves forward unabated on vegetation and biodiversity, putting it at great risk. It also does it on native and Creole communities, often violating their human rights. The distribution of the “wealth” generated by deforestation has been completely unequal, causing the displacement of communities that have historically lived in the mountains. The provinces of northern Argentina continue to be among the poorest in the country.
Far from Paris
The type and dynamics of the sliding of the agricultural frontier has a strong impact on the amount of emissions: carbon production is higher in agriculture than in livestock.
This happens for a simple reason. When farming is done on a cleared field, even the roots are removed and everything is burned, releasing immediately the carbon accumulated over centuries and centuries. However, when cattle are raised, the soil is covered with grasses, such as gatton panic, a subtropical species originating in Zimbabwe, which captures more carbon than soybeans.
The discussion about emissions from Chaco should be relevant in a world that wants to limit the rise in global average temperature to 1.5°C with respect to the pre-industrial era, which is the most ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. “There are more people in the markets where Argentine products are consumed who are starting to be interested in this issue,” warns Baumann.
According to Transparency for Sustainable Economies (Trase), an online platform that allows making visible the commodities trade with the aim of making supply chains transparent, the European Union and the United Kingdom are among the markets most exposed to deforestation in the Gran Chaco, through the purchase of soy flour that is shipped through the ports of Santa Fe, through the waterway.
While the debate on the European Union-Mercosur agreement bogs down, due to the unscrupulous clearing of the Amazon, studies of emissions from the Gran Chaco should also highlight the role of ecological destruction in the region.
Both the European Union and the United Kingdom are discussing so-called “due diligence” laws to clean up agro-industrial chains of deforestation, in the same way that large electronics manufacturers, such as Apple or Samsung, are required not to supply components in areas where human rights are broken.
The processed soy that they buy in Argentina is used to fatten all kinds of industrially farmed animals, such as pigs, cows, chicken or salmons, among others. Thus, the rich biodiversity of Chaco, unique in many ways for its animal and plant species (endemic, in some cases), is being replaced by a handful of proteins that arrive magically chopped and packaged to supermarket shelves. The same shoe fits dairy products, in all its varieties, even those that are sold as the healthiest.
“That with which we feed pigs and chicken, as well as the meat we import, can be linked to deforestation. When you take the European Union as a whole, the indirect deforestation that we are experiencing in South America is very large,” says Kuemmerle.
However, as commodities markets are global, and work like a big pot where everything ends up in the same stew, the dynamics that take place outside Europe and that have an impact everywhere cannot be dismissed. In this sense, Gasparri explains that the great pressure on forests such as those of Argentina tallies with the time when animals began to be raised in industrial-scale stables in China, where there was a population with nutritional deficiencies and very low protein consumption.
“The whole urbanization process that occurs there with the incorporation of a diet with more proteins is done, to a great extent, with animals that are raised in a confined manner: chickens and pigs. When the country opens up to the international market, a very important player turns up, that adds to the demand for a product that was already high,” he explains.
“The countries that are producers are responding to a global demand. Even to logics that can be wrong, which is that of ‘if I do not do it, someone else will do it’. And that situation has brought us to a difficult to manage point. Climate change policies conceal a great challenge”, he adds. “You have to analyze the entire value chains, the collective responsibilities. It is not a strict problem of production, but of value chains.”
Many organizations are putting pressure on fast food chains and supermarkets in Europe for their exposure to deforestation, and not only on large trading companies or Brazilian meat processing plants. These campaigns tarnish their corporate image, appealing to a new class of young consumers.
“The world’s leading food brands –including restaurant chains such as McDonald’s, and Tesco and Carrefour supermarkets– have failed to eliminate deforestation from their global beef supply chain, in spite of having committed themselves to do so by 2020”, says a recent report by the Mighty Earth organization.
And he adds: “Cattle is the most important driving force of the conversion of native ecosystems linked to agriculture, with pastures being responsible for 63% of the loss of global tree cover linked to industrial agriculture between 2001 and 2015. Even though much of the media attention is focused on the Brazilian Amazon, cattle-driven land clearing also threatens other critical biomes such as Cerrado and Pantanal in Brazil, the Gran Chaco region in Paraguay and Argentina, and a variety of native ecosystems in all parts of Australia”.
The tree, the forest
Gran Chaco has a variety of hardwood trees. Among them, the Quebracho, whose exploitation and looting on an industrial scale constituted a good part of the darkest history of Argentina and its most vulnerable people. In addition to having a lot of tannin and a beautiful red trunk, it has a great capacity to retain carbon inside. These types of trees, which also include white Quebracho and Palo Santo, are not to be found in any other ecoregion. Ecologists do not know why: it is a mystery of nature.
These are slow-growing species, subjected to enormous heat. They have the capacity to be standing for several centuries, providing environmental services for generations. A bulldozer, however, can take them down in a matter of minutes.
The Quebracho provided an essential input for the textile industry created by the Industrial Revolution. Now, more than the tannin and its wood —which was also super-exploited to make cross ties in the expansion of the railway, as well as poles and fences—, the best help it can give to society is seizing the excess carbon in the atmosphere that was paradoxically pushed by the same Industrial Revolution that almost destroyed it. And, also, giving shade and spiritually exalting the landscape.
“It is difficult to compete with the Amazon, which is such an important ecosystem, with many unique species and with great importance in recycling moisture. But, systems like Cerrado or Chaco are wrongly portrayed as degraded empty lands, lands that do not have much biodiversity. They may not have the biodiversity of the Amazon, but they have a lot of it. Chaco has a great variety of birds. In Europe, you would have to put together many ecosystems to have the same number of species”, considers Kuemmerle.
“Gran Chaco suffers in the shadow of the Amazon, it is misrepresented and there is not much research on those places, which are very remote,” he warns. What makes Chaco special is that it is “the largest subtropical dry forest with trees, shrubs and woody vegetation, and most importantly: it has more than a million square kilometers.”