In South America’s remote Chaco, deforestation uproots natural rhythms

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In the vast Chaco forests of northern Argentina, Noole finds solace from the intense heat under the cool shade of dark carob trees. She belongs to the Indigenous Pilaga community and lives on a small farm where her family grows watermelons and potatoes for sustenance and also for sale in the market. These trees play a crucial role in their lives by providing food, water, and relief from the scorching sun. However, this habitat is under threat due to deforestation caused by the expansion of large-scale soy and cattle farms to meet global food demand. An upcoming trade agreement between the Mercosur bloc and the European Union could exacerbate this issue, although the EU is expected to impose strict regulations to restrict deforestation.

Noole, a 53-year-old Pilaga woman, expresses deep concern about land clearing and its impact on their community. She believes that clearing leads to drought and highlights the significant role trees play in the environment. For her and her brother Jose, the carob trees hold almost a spiritual significance and act as a source of relief. Apart from providing sustenance and shade, these trees support a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals.

The Gran Chaco, spanning Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, is twice the size of California and is bordered by the Andes mountains and the Parana and Paraguay rivers. Data from the Argentine government reveals that approximately seven million hectares of native forest have been destroyed in Argentina between 1998 and 2021, with the majority of the deforestation occurring in the Gran Chaco. This amounts to an area almost 90 times the size of New York City.

During a journey through the Gran Chaco, Reuters witnessed trees being cleared by bulldozers and cattle grazing on arid land. While Argentina has implemented a forest law and many countries have importation rules to deter illegal deforestation, local enforcement may be inconsistent, and low fines are often ineffective as a deterrent.

Teofila Palma, a farmer in the Gran Chaco, has noticed the visible impact of nearby clearances on the local climate. She mentions that since the clearing took place, temperatures have risen further, and the wind blows in unrestrained. Mariela Soto, another farmer, states that logging has caused erosion and the loss of pasture, leading to the death of animals.

Despite the environmental concerns, some local residents argue that farming exports have created jobs and contributed to development in a region where poverty is prevalent. They fear that condemning deforestation could lead to economic hardships for the people of Gran Chaco. Juan de Hagen, a veterinarian and farm manager, hopes that the EU’s deforestation laws will not negatively affect the residents of Gran Chaco economically.

Noole expresses disappointment that global trade deals and regulations rarely consider Indigenous communities like hers, despite the potential disruption to their way of life. She believes that such agreements are mainly for the benefit of the economic and business world, leaving Indigenous communities marginalized and excluded from negotiations.

In conclusion, the Gran Chaco region faces the threat of deforestation due to the expansion of large-scale farms for soy and cattle production. While the upcoming trade agreement between the Mercosur bloc and the European Union could further exacerbate this issue, the EU aims to implement stringent regulations to mitigate deforestation. However, the impact of deforestation on the Indigenous communities and the environment cannot be overlooked. The trees in the Gran Chaco provide more than just economic value; they are an integral part of the ecosystem and the lives of the people who call this region home. It is crucial to find a balance between economic development and preserving this unique habitat for future generations.

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