Is the “Paraguayan Gran Chaco” at risk for extreme habitat destruction?

Alejandro Coca, Louis Reymondin

Apart from being the second largest forested area on the continent, the South American “Gran Chaco” region is also a biodiversity hotspot. More than 25% of this precious ecosystem lies within the official boundaries of Paraguay, making up for half of its territory. However, due to agricultural land expansion driven by population growth, land colonization, cattle raising, agricultural activities and a near absence of land-use control, its forests have increasingly come under pressure. Terra-i system has been able to track the alarming rates of habitat loss and land use change, clearly demonstrating that a series of policies and preemptive strategies need to be put in place in order to conserve the natural habitat.

Figure 1. Paraguayan Chaco clearings for cattle grazing, currently the main driver of habitat loss in the region. Photo source: Survival International.

The South American Gran Chaco is a mosaic of environments that encompasses high levels of biodiversity and the largest forested area on the continent after the Amazon. Its 106,600,000 Ha span four different countries: Argentina (62.19%), Paraguay (25.43%), Bolivia (11.61%) and Brazil (0.77%).    

Recently, Terra-i, the first tracking system for Latin American habitat loss, has corroborated the high rate of change the Paraguayan Chaco has been experiencing. First of all, let us briefly introduce the geographic, economic and social context of the region:

In terms of landscape, the Paraguayan Chaco, making up half of the national territory, is an alluvial plain with a semi-arid to sub-humid climate, subdivided into dry and wet zones. The region covers three departments — Presidente Hayes, Boquerón and Alto Paraguay — and includes both urban and rural populations. Historically, the inhospitable terrain was only home to a few indigenous communities. However, “mestizo” and foreigner communities have since occupied the land.
The regional economy is driven by agriculture - the Paraguayan Chaco claims 2.7% of the 12,244 km2 total of cultivated land in Paraguay, and extensive cattle raising makes up 60%. Both activities have been growing rapidly, mainly due to low land valuations for Paraguayan and Brazilian companies. Despite the incomes from agribusiness, the Chaco region is difficult to access due to poor infrastructure, leaving the local population isolated andmarginalized. 

However, what is happening in terms of habitat status? The numbers are showing alarming rates of change. Taking a quick look at Latin American habitat status, Terra-i lens confirmed Paraguay had the second-highest deforestation during the last decade. Then, for Paraguayan Chaco, 81,713 ha were lost in 2004, reaching 398,788 ha in 2011 (an increase of 388%) with the most affected zone being the Dry Chaco forests (98% of the habitat lost). During that same eight-year period, a total of 2,102,219 million ha of natural vegetative cover were lost, with an average rate of change of 262,777 ha/year. Furthermore, natural habitat loss between 2008 and 2009 increased at an alarming rate of 145% (279,206 hectares, the highest in two consecutive years since 2004), mostly concentrated in the departments of Boquerón and Alto Paraguay (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Terra-i land use change detection map, zoomed on deforestation hotspots (red dots) in Paraguay. Right, annual rate of habitat loss and accumulated loss for both Paraguayan Chaco eco-regions and national territory.


And what is the status of national parks? The Paraguayan Chaco hosts 6 national parks (NPs), given here in order of surface area: Defensores del Chaco, Tinfunqué, Lago Ypoa, Teniente Enciso, Ypacaraí, Rio Negro and Bellavista. The first is the most important, not only for its size but also for its history, being one of the first national protected areas in Paraguay and also the territory of the Ayoreo indigenous tribe. Terra-i hasn't yet detected any anthropogenic habitat loss in this NP (Figure 2) but it has been subject to strong habitat change pressure in the buffer area, mainly due to cattle raising activities (Figure 3). As for the remaining NPs, only Tinfunqué park has seen a moderate trend of increasing habitat change.

Figure 3. The initial steps for habitat loss in protected zones: Growing disturbances (roads) around buffer zones of Defensores del Chaco National Park, Paraguay. Imagery from Landsat, modified from GUYRA image.


Going beyond the Terra-i data, the main driver for Paraguayan Chaco habitat change is agricultural land expansion driven by population growth, land colonization, cattle raising, agricultural activities and a near absence of land-use control. According to the data the landscape is experiencing worrying amounts of change – a progressing challenge despite the existence of institutional and legal frameworks put in place to protect forests such as the National Environmental Policy, the Zero Deforestation Law (2004),the Forestry Law, and minority communities' rights. However, the institutional framework remains weak and the region lacks institutional coordination and adequate land use planning.

Nevertheless, NGO’s are playing a fundamental role in reducing deforestation. Although Paraguay has yet to develop an official monitoring system, GUYRA, a civil non-profit organization, has recently started to monitor land use change in the Gran Chaco. For 2010, GUYRA reported a total loss of 240,549 Ha of forest in the South American Gran Chaco (of which 201,375 Ha occurred in the Paraguayan Chaco). But, their field of action is going beyond the numbers. GUYRA Paraguay aims to extend conservation of the Gran Chaco Forest Ecosystems beyond the protected areas by obtaining legal land titles for those territories threatened by deforestation, and implementing conservation management. Under a tri-partite agreement with GUYRA Paraguay and the Ministry of the Environment (SEAM), the World Land Trust is supporting management costs of three protected eco-regions (Dry Chaco, the Chaco-Pantanal and the Atlantic Rainforest) in the northern Chaco.

To conclude, the Paraguayan Chaco is facing a threat of extreme habitat destruction. To reduce deforestation, sustainable pathways towards conservation must be established. To that effect, inter-related strategies such as Institutional Strengthening, Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES), National Protected Areas and Community Territories and Continued Scientific Research, are some of the areas that need to be implemented or further strengthened.

Further details about the above strategies will be found in Policy Brief under review.

Are you interested in watching the evolution of deforestation in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco? Play the following video:


Article authored by Alejandro Coca and Louis Reymondin, with the support of Caitlin Peterson, Martin Ross and Carolina Navarrete Frías (editors).

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