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When asked to name places affected by deforestation, many struggle to get past the Amazon.
However, deforestation reaches far beyond the shrinking borders of Brazil’s rainforest. Thirty percent of the planet is covered in forests, nearly four billion hectares.
But of those, only 9% are protected. The other 91% are subject to deforestation and misuse.
“Forests make up more than half of the planet’s biodiversity, they play a fundamental role in climate regulation, the maintenance of water flow, soil conservation, and from them we get indispensable goods for survival like food, wood, and medicine,” explained Hernán Giardini, biodiversity coordinator of Greenpeace Argentina.
Yet approximately 13m hectares disappear every year worldwide, an area similar to that of Argentina’s Santiago del Estero province.
Chaco & Yungas
Argentina’s forests are among those that are disappearing. Today only 30% of the country’s original forests remain.
The most extreme cases of deforestation in Argentina are in the Chaco and Yungas rainforests.
After the Amazon, the Great Chaco forest is the largest ecosystem on the American continent, stretching across Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. It covers one million hectares, 61% of which are in Argentina.
The forest is home to around four million people, several species of precious hard wood trees, animals threatened by extinction, and 70% of Argentina’s deforestation.
To the western border of the Chaco forest is the Yungas rainforest. It is ‘considered an international hot spot for biodiversity by international bodies, such as the World Rainforest Institute’, as reported by Greenpeace.
Besides several thousand people, rare wildlife, and a variety of trees, the Yungas is now also home to sugar cane and soy fields – at the expense of over 90% of the original area of the piedmont region. Less than 3.8m hectares of the forest remain.
Such forests provide resources on which around 1.6 billion people across the globe depend for survival. Among those people are the Toba, Wichi, and Mocoví indigenous tribes of the Great Chaco forest.
“The land is their natural way of life, in the broadest sense of the term. It is everything,” explained Rolando Nuñez of the Centro de Estudios Nelson Mandela.
The centre estimates that between 30 and 40 thousand of those indigenous people, mostly of Toba ethnicity, have been expelled from their land, their ‘everything’.
Over 26 thousand of them now live in settlements of Rosario. Such expulsion of indigenous groups has significantly contributed to the explosion of urban poverty, one of the most vital things to realise about deforestation, according to Nuñez.
“They survive in conditions of extreme poverty, hunger, malnutrition, anaemia, and illnesses like tuberculosis and trypanosomiasis.”
Nuñez also explained the use and destruction of forests only benefit miniscule groups. Those groups very rarely include the indigenous from which the land was taken or those who are generally used for cheap labour. Instead, indigenous groups are forced out of their most important relationship: that with their land.
Even indigenous groups that manage to keep their land suffer.
“Sometimes deforestation in a zone is so widespread that spared communities remain as islands in a sea of agriculture. These ‘forest islands’ often do not have the capability of providing the necessary resources for the communities to conserve their customs and cultural values,” explained forestry engineer Ignacio Gasparri.
The laws to protect those people and their land are often not followed or applied.
For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) declared an area of the Yungas a Biosphere Reserve in November 2002.
The area was deforested later that month.
“The relationship between the indigenous world and their land is indivisible. To deprive them of their land, we change all their customs, habits, and ways of life. For them, their land is their home, pharmacy, supermarket, and park,” Nuñez concluded.
Environmental changes are not specific to indigenous groups, however.
Gradual though it may be, climate change is transforming the environment for everyone, and deforestation has been a major player in the process.
“By burning fossil fuels…and clearing forests, we have dramatically increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere and temperatures are rising,” states the Inconvenient Truth website.
The website also lists several changes witnessed as consequences of climate change: The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the last 30 years. Malaria has spread to higher altitudes in places like the Colombian Andes, 7,000 feet above sea level. The flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland has more than doubled over the past decade. At last 279 species of plants and animals are already responding to global warming, moving closer to the poles.
True, deforestation isn’t the sole culprit for these changes, but it has played a significant role.
“It is said that today in Argentina deforestation contributes more to global warming than do the country’s cars, trains, planes, and boats combined,” said Gasparri.
It is the source of 65% of greenhouse gas emissions from less developed countries, and 35% from more developed countries.Globally, it is responsible for around 20% of emissions.
Loss of Biodiversity
The loss of biodiversity joins climate change among the principal consequences of deforestation.
Iron Wood, Algarrobo, and Itin trees, precious hard woods, thrive in the Chaco forest. There are 40 tree species exclusive to the lower Yungas. Ten of them are high in commercial value.
The trees are often burnt or illegally sold when the forests are cleared for soy production.
The top predator on the American continent, the jaguar, also lives in the Yungas and Chaco forests. The jaguar population of Argentina once extended down to Patagonia, but today faces extinction because of hunting and loss of habitat due to deforestation.
Seven other species of the feline family join the jaguar in the Yungas – the only place in the world eight feline species coexist in one territory.
With them in the Yungas are collared peccaries, deer, six banded armadillos, parrots, tucans, bats, and several species of snakes. The giant armadillo, which faces extinction along with the jaguar, lives next door in the Chaco forest.
“When these forests are destroyed, any wildlife in the bulldozers’ path is shot. Armadillos and other, smaller mammals, are frequently burned along with the groups of fallen trees, stacked up along the newly deforested fields,” stated Greenpeace in a briefing.
All For What?
Despite all these precious resources, the Chaco and Yungas forests are being destroyed at one of the fastest rates in the world.
According to Greenpeace, the destruction of the forests accelerated in 1996 when Monsanto, a US-based agricultural company, introduced genetically-engineered (GE) soy to Argentina.
The GE model sparked increased soy production that has accelerated steadily over the past few decades. Argentina is now one of the world’s top producers of soy.
Following the introduction of the GE crop, milkmen, cattle dealers and other farmers abandoned their work to cultivate soy. Agricultural borders were extended to harvest the crop. Forested land, in areas such as the Great Chaco and the Yungas, was sacrificed.
“Soy cultivation has become the most important agricultural activity in Argentina,” states the Dirección Nacional de Alimentación website.
Soy produced in Argentina is largely exported to be used as animal feed, and is also used for Biodiesel fuel.
“The grand scale of soy-based Biodiesel production presents a real threat to our last native forests. Nine million more hectares would be required to supply the plants in current and projected production,” explained Giardini.
Since 1998, two years after the introduction of GE soy, the country’s forests have diminished by more than 2.5m hectares – one hectare every two minutes.
In the past few years, that number has increased even more.
Ley de los Bosques
On the belief that ‘deforestation is one of the greatest threats to ecological balance in the world…’, Greenpeace recently succeeded in having the ‘law of the forests’ sanctioned by garnering over one million votes.
The law, officially Ley 26.331 de Presupestos Mínimos de Protección Ambiental de los Bosques Nativos, establishes a one-year time period for every province to put a territory law into effect. The law will classify the province’s forests as one of three types:
Category I (red) specifies areas of high conservation value. ‘Red’ areas should never be deforested but should remain as natural forest forever. Only scientific investigation, sustainable harvesting, and tourism will be allowed.
Category II (yellow) signifies areas of lesser conservational importance that can be slightly degraded but not deforested. Sustainable use, tourism, harvest, and scientific investigation will be accepted in Category II areas.
Category III (green) denotes areas of low conservational value. The law will tolerate deforestation in those areas.
The law prohibits further deforestation until each province puts its laws into effect.
It will also require complete environmental impact studies and public presentations of the findings before authorisation of a deforestation project.
The law also prohibits opencast burning of deforestation residuals.
Monsanto’s website claims it is ‘helping farmers around the world to create a better future for human beings, the environment, and local economies’ by producing more efficiently.
Greenpeace names soy production (Monsanto’s work in Argentina) as one of the main reasons for an increase in deforestation in Argentina that has led to widespread problems.
In Gasparri’s opinion, “it is necessary to feed people of the world, for which there must be more and better agriculture to produce more food. The real issue here is that society finds a balance between agricultural production and natural conservation.”