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Paraguay’s Chaco Wilderness – the message to UK business is Use it and Abuse it.

Something’s just landed on my desk and I’m seeing red!   It’s an “independent” business supplement from last Sunday’s Observer, promoting Paraguay as an ideal location for investment in megaprojects, industrialised agribusiness and cattle ranching.   Inside its pages Paraguay’s President and key ministers boast of the country’s abundant natural resources, their efforts to reduce “public sector bureaucracy”, and Agriculture Minister Jorge Gattini reminds us of the abundance of “cheap, but productive, land in the Chaco region for cattle, sugarcane and soyabean”.

The Chaco is often described as one of the world’s last great wildernesses, rich in biodiversity, and home to ‘uncontacted’ peoples.  And it’s the same Chaco that’s currently witnessing some of the world’s most alarming deforestation rates – latest statistics for September 2014 recorded a loss of 707 hectares per day in the Paraguayan part of the Chaco – and where big business such as Brazilian beef producer Yaguarete Pora continue their illegal deforestation of lands owned by Ayoreo indigenous tribes, while government departments declare themselves powerless to stop it.

But it’s clear where the power lies.  Last month, investigative environmental journalist Pablo Medina was assassinated and it’s widely believed his killers were employed by Paraguay’s large and powerful ‘narco-cattle ranchers’ who act with impunity across much of the country (President Cartes himself has often been linked to drug trafficking and money laundering).   Cartes has publicly encouraged business to ‘use and abuse’ Paraguay.  And that’s exactly what’s been happening for years, and shows no sign of abating.

To cap it all, British oil company President Energy have just announced the discovery of significant oil reserves in the Chaco of up to one billion barrels which will only add to the pressure on this territory.

But in the face of all this gloom and doom, I do have some good news to report.  While the odds seemed stacked against us, our project in Paraguay is definitely making gains, strengthening communities and their capacity to resist.  In a small municipality in Eastern Paraguay called La Pastora, we’ve worked with community groups over a number of years to create and implement a ‘land use plan’, an innovative piece of legislation that’s been approved at national and municipal level which protects the area’s environment and small family farms.

La Pastora’s example has been so successful it’s inspiring other communities across the country.  One such is Carmelo Peralta, strategically located on the banks of the river Paraguay which forms part of the northern border with Brazil.  Carmelo Peralta covers a huge area, including tropical wetlands of the Pantanal, and is a gateway to the Chaco.  In fact it’s the likely location of a proposed bridge with Brazil, which will open up the area to yet more exploitation.  Negotiations have been taking place for months between the municipality and Friends of the Earth Paraguay, and finally, last month they signed an agreement with local stakeholders to develop a land use plan for Carmelo Peralta.  This might sound a little dull, but its significance shouldn’t be underestimated.  What it means is we’re one step closer to creating a shared and sustainable vision for their territory.  Which could make a huge difference in protecting the environment and the vulnerable from the worst excesses of big business and that highly sought after foreign investment.

Did you know that what you eat makes a difference to communities and forests?  Much of  the soy produced in Paraguay is destined for intensive livestock production.  To cut down on YOUR impact, take a look at our free Eat Smart Action Pack.

 This blog post written by Nick Rau, 6th November 2014

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