Few ecosystems in the South American continent demand as much attention as the Amazon rainforest. But its little sister, the lesser-known Gran Chaco, certainly puts up a fight when it comes to grandeur.
A geographic and cultural zone that includes parts of northern Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and southern Brazil, the Gran Chaco is a 600,000-square-kilometre hot and semi-arid region, home to a vast ecosystem and around 40 separate ethnic groups.
In much the same way as its indigenous communities, vast expanses of Gran Chaco’s territory had been ignored until the region found itself in the gaze of large-scale agribusiness looking to cash in on the rapid growth of world demand for Argentine soybean.
Cattle production expanding north from region has also played a role in chipping away at the Gran Chaco forest, in a similar way to the Brazilian cattle industry in the Amazon.
The Ayoreo people of western Paraguay, who include the last uncontacted indigenous peoples south of the Amazon, have an enemy that they call “the beast with metal skin and attacker of the world”. Their spears cannot penetrate its flanks.
The beast in question is not a mythological creature. It is simply the bulldozer, which tears through the Gran Chaco; the forest where the Ayoreo live. Between 1990 and 2011, Paraguay lost more than three million hectares of the Chaco forest, displacing the Ayoreo and threatening its inhabitants large and small, including giant armadillos, howler monkeys, and tapirs.
The rate of deforestation of the Gran Chaco Region during October 2014, at 73,968 hectares, was the highest monthly figure ever recorded since Guyra Paraguay began monitoring the change of land use in the Chaco in 2010.
Another victim of deforestation
In Argentina, deforestation due to agriculture expansion is threatening the Chaco, one of the largest forested biomes of South America.
The majestic jaguar (panthera onca), the largest of the New World cats, is found as far north as the southern states of the US, and as far south as northern Argentina. In the past jaguars ranged 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) further south, but their range has shrunk as habitat loss and human disturbance have increased.
Overall, jaguars are classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN, but the level of risk facing jaguars varies by region. Populations in Argentina, at the present-day southern range limit, have previously been identified as some of the most threatened of them all.
A recent study published in Fauna and Flora International’s journal Oryx, points to a surprising conclusion: the jaguar population in the Argentine Chaco is in crisis and imminent risk of local extinction.
The conversion of jaguar habitat to cattle ranching and the persecution of jaguars themselves are the main drivers of this population decline. The number of hunted jaguars reported in interviews can be used as an indicator of jaguar abundance, and the study found that this has dropped ten-fold over the last decade.
Rather than indicating a change in hunting practice, or in the perception of jaguars as a threat to livestock and people, this reflects the rate at which local people now come into contact with jaguars.
Deforestation continues apace with vast areas being cleared to plant soya, of which Argentina is now one of the world’s major producers. This has seriously affected tribes and wildlife, whose traditional environment is being destroyed.
Meanwhile, every day the plans or conservation programs come up short against “the Beast with Metal Skin”.
By Gustavo Carrasquel | ANCA24