At COP26 in 2021, Paraguay signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, in which the 145 signatory countries committed to ‘halt and reverse’ deforestation and land degradation by 2030.
However, the declaration is not binding, deforestation is rampant, and the rights of farmers and Indigenous peoples are increasingly being threatened.
While Paraguay may be a relatively small country globally, according to a report published in October by the Forest Declaration Platform, it is now one of the four signatories of the Glasgow Declaration with the highest absolute rates of deforestation. In fact, Paraguay’s goal is to actually increase emissions and deforestation by up to 27 per cent by 2030, according to an assessment of the country’s national climate plans by the organisation Earthsight.
When asked about this, the Ministry of the Environment responded that initiatives such as the decade-old ‘zero deforestation law’ were in fact ‘contributing to the advancement of this commitment’.
However, the "zero deforestation law" only applies in the eastern region of Paraguay, where about 12 percent of the country’s deforestation took place over the last three years. Most of the forest clearance in this part of the country stopped in the late 1990s, at the end of the massive soybean boom which significantly deepened inequality in land ownership across the country and almost led to the disappearance of the Atlantic Forest.
Although the zero deforestation law is responsible for reducing clearing in the region, it also created a conflict, being used to protect the so-called tierras malhabidas (ill-gotten lands in spanish), 8 million hectares that the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) had to distribute among peasants and ended up giving away to businessmen and politicians.
Beneficiaries of ill-gotten lands began to declare them as “private reserves”. An Oxfam report explains that in addition to benefiting from tax reductions and greenwashing, they thus prevent the Paraguayan State from trying to recover them.
A total of 88 per cent of the country’s deforestation in recent years has occurred in the western region, the Paraguayan Chaco, and is directly related to the expansion of cattle ranching, commonly into Indigenous lands.
The most scandalous case involves the Ayoreo people, the last South American Indigenous group outside the Amazon to have remained in voluntary isolation. Despite being protected by international measures, a recent investigation proved that the Ministry of the Environment has known about illegal cattle ranching in the area for years and has done nothing about it. Instead, this now deforested area is still considered part of the forest apparently used to ‘sequester carbon’ in order to earn carbon credits.
But the vast majority of land clearing in Chaco is legal. The state has stipulated that cattle farmers and coal companies only have to leave 25 per cent of the forested land intact.
Although the Glasgow Declaration is hard to enforce on a local or international level, Pablo Barrenechea, director of the Ecology and Development Foundation, believes that the simplicity of the commitment may lead to a clearer understanding than currently exists around the Paris Agreement. ‘An agreement to stop deforestation, in contrast, is concrete in its objective and simple to understand”, said Barrenechea.
However, there is also a danger that within the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, the vagueness of the aim of ‘halting forest loss’ may encourage some to interpret it as an open door to compensate for deforestation in one part of the country with reforestation programmes elsewhere.
This runs the risk of enabling the deforestation of carbon-rich, biodiverse forests, and replacing them with forestry plantations full of invasive species, often planted on Indigenous territories. This is particularly true of eucalyptus plantations, which have a significantly negative impact on local biodiversity, soil health, forest fire risk and local water tables.
In fact, this is exactly what happened to the Qom Indigenous group in the Chaco forest. The Qom people that live in the forest are made up of 620 families spread across eight different communities. While they have a collective title to 1,117 hectares of the forest, a eucalyptus plantation promoted by a private foundation has divided the community. Bernarda Pessoa, one of the local Indigenous leaders who has spoken out about the project and wants to stop the eucalyptus plantation from expanding, has since received death threats.
This is but one example of the challenges Paraguay currently faces. While the world’s forests are a critical asset in combating global climate change, Indigenous groups , such as the Qom and the Ayoreo, and their lifestyles are being sacrificed as they seek to protect carbon-rich forests. But at the same time, industry leaders want to expand fast-growing, yet ecologically destructive reforestation initiatives in the name of carbon capture.
On a global level, the multiple injustices of climate change will only increase if we cannot find a way to better recognise the intrinsic value of both the forests and the ‘forest peoples’ who protect them. But on a local level, this injustice is already being played out in daily confrontations between people trying to protect their homes, cattle ranchers and modern-day colonisers who know that ‘money’ may not grow on trees, but carbon does.
Maxi is an Uruguayan journalist specialized in climate crisis coverage and currently based in Paraguay. His coverages have been published in media outlets across Latin America that includes Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay. Maxi had received various accolades that includes the 2018 Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Award and Amnesty International Paraguay Award.