Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ENVIRONMENT: Paraguay’s Forests in Danger of Vanishing

Alejandro Sciscioli

ASUNCION, Jun 4 2003 (IPS) - Native forests have virtually disappeared in eastern Paraguay due to the advance of the agricultural frontier and indiscriminate logging by large landowners and landless peasants.

The phenomenon is now threatening jungles in the west as well.

Over the last 30 years or so, deforestation has become a growing problem in this land-locked Southern Cone nation, aggravated by erroneous development policies, the failure to address social demands, corruption, and weak enforcement and oversight by authorities, agricultural engineer Carlos Tallone told IPS.

The problem began in eastern Paraguay in the 1970s, ”when immigrants from southern Brazil moved across the border to Paraguay, where they mainly dedicated themselves to agriculture,” he explained.

With financing from the Paraguayan government, the new settlers bought up large tracts of land at low prices in the southeastern department of Alto Paraná, along the Brazilian border, and began to clear the forest to grow crops, mainly soybeans, selling the timber at ridiculously low prices, said Tallone.

After the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) collapsed, forests began to be chopped down in the east as well, where groups of landless peasants starting occupying property owned by large landholders.

The landless farmers moved into forested areas, where they felled the trees and sold the timber, which was smuggled over the border into Brazil.

But ”to prevent invasions of their property, the landowners decided to cut down the forests themselves,” he said.

When deforestation began in the eastern part of this country of six million, there was no official registry of forested areas. But private sector sources estimate that more than 65 percent of the eastern region’s 16 million hectares were covered by virgin forest.

The most abundant native species of trees were palo santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi) and quebracho (Schinopsis quebracho).

The area covered by virgin forest has drastically shrunk, to just 619,000 hectares – four percent of the estimated total of 30 years ago, when the logging began, according to data provided by the Forestry Service, which answers to the Ministry of Agriculture.

”But a third front of deforestation is opening up now,” Tallone noted.

Ranchers, who also took part in clearing the forests in the eastern region, to create pastureland, are now moving to western Paraguay, fleeing a growing wave of cattle rustling that has caused them serious losses, he said.

Ranchers ”are clearing the forests in the western region at a rate of around 100,000 hectares a year,” said the agronomist.

Of the 24 million-hectare western region, 15 million hectares are covered by woodland, including more than nine million that are timber-productive forests, which means they are fit for logging, the official statistics indicate.

A mining engineer from the United States, Tod Spargo, who has lived in Paraguay since 1975, is seeking financing for a sustainable forestry project in the western part of the country.

Spargo first came to this South American country to direct a search for uranium, and marvelled at the immense stretches of nearly untouched forest as he flew over the jungle as part of his work.

Since then, he has carried out research on various native species of trees and their rates of growth, and has designed a project for which financing is now being sought.

”The idea behind the plan is to demonstrate that the native forests can be preserved, in equal or better conditions than those existing” before they began to be exploited, Spargo said in a conversation with IPS.

The first stage of the project will be implemented on 17,000 hectares located in the northwestern department of Boquerón, which will be divided into five production units. Trees would be cut on each subdivision in a rotating pattern, for periods of one year, and would be left untouched for four years.

”The most important part of the plan is that it has been scientifically determined that only those trees with a diametre larger than 36 cms can be cut,” said Spargo.

”Cutting one tree per hectare a year would allow daily production of four cubic metres of top-quality boards,” he pointed out.

The main species involved in the project are the palo santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi), white quebracho (Aspidorsperma quebracho-blanco), coronillo (Scutia buxifolia), palo blanco (Calycophyllum multiflorum), red quebracho (Schinopsis quebracho-colorado), guayacan (Caesalpinia paraguariensis) and algarrobo negro (Prosopis nigra).

”For each tree felled, six seeds of the same species will be planted,” said Spargo. ”That way we will ensure that the logging operation is economically profitable as well as ecologically sustainable.”

Agronomist Damiana Mann, a technical adviser to the Forestry Service, said the biggest danger to Paraguay’s native forests is the change in the use of land – cutting down trees to clear land for agricultural purposes.

”The owners of land with forest cover see woodland as unproductive, which means they need incentives from the government to preserve and manage their forests,” Mann remarked to IPS.

Paraguay’s legislation authorises the clearing of woodland except in protected wilderness areas, or along rivers to prevent erosion and the clogging of riverbeds.

There are 18 protected areas in Paraguay, including 10 national parks, with a total combined surface area of nearly 1.5 million hectares. Fifteen of the reserves are in the east, covering a total of 358,000 hectares. The other three are in the west, and are comprised of approximately 1.1 million hectares.

Mann said the Forestry Service was drafting two bills, aimed at curbing the clearing of woodland for agricultural purposes, and promoting reforestation with native or exotic species.

Paraguay’s current reforestation law provides for an incentive equivalent to 75 percent of the costs of planting and the first three years of maintenance. But the Forestry Service is behind in its payments of the bonus due to a lack of funds.

”We are also working on creating a Forestry Fund that would draw money from various areas and cover the costs of reforestation,” she added.

Mann underscored the excellent quality of Paraguayan soil for reforestation activities, and pointed out that those who are involved in planting forests use mainly native species.

The Environment Secretariat’s director of strategic planning, Jorge Coronel, said deforestation has a direct impact on the quality of water resources, ”because there is greater build-up of sediment in rivers and streams.”

”When it rains, the soil does not absorb the water” if the trees have been cut down, and ”the soil is thus impoverished as sediment is washed away,” he explained.

In addition, since rainwater runs off the land more quickly without vegetation to deter it, the water is not absorbed, and the groundwater reserves are also reduced, said Coronel.

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