Latin America’s vast forests are rapidly disappearing. They have come to represent yet another quickly diminishing artery of the continent’s many ‘open veins’. Their fertile land is being converted at an increasingly alarming rate for the purposes of large-scale agribusiness, namely, soy.
Louis Reymondin is the man behind a new satellite imagery and ground processing system, Terra-i, mapping deforestation across South America.
Reymondin, a Swiss native, is a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Geography at King’s College of London and has been working as a visiting researcher at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), whose headquarters are based near Cali in southwest Colombia, for the last five years. During this time he developed Terra-I from scratch.
The complex system detects land-cover changes resulting from human activities in near real-time, producing updates every 16 days. It currently runs for the whole of South America.
“So far the system has shown that deforestation has increased in Caquetá, Colombia by 340% since 2004, and the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay, the second most forested area in South America, has lost over a million hectares of forest.”
Deforestation in Argentina
According to Reymondin, “In Argentina, Terra-i has performed habitat status monitoring every 16 days from the 1st January 2004. During the past eight years, it has detected a cumulative habitat loss of 1,955,419 hectares, equivalent to an annual national loss rate of 244,525 ha/year.” To give an idea of scale, that is roughly an area the size of Luxembourg lost each year.
Deforestation is centred in the north of the country where its largest forest, and the continent’s second largest, following only the massive Amazon, lies.
“The provinces of Santiago del Estero and Salta were the most heavily impacted, having 590,094 hectares and 516,069 hectares converted respectively between 2004 and 2011.”
The Gran Chaco spreads over three countries: Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. As defined by data provided by the Organization of American States (OAS), the “Gran Chaco Americano” biome covers approximately 1,000,000 km² of South America and encompasses the central-north region of Argentina (53% of the total area of the Gran Chaco and 22% of the country’s surface area).
According to Reymondin, the South American Gran Chaco is a mosaic of habitats. It is a hotspot of biodiversity on the continent and one that is becoming increasingly threatened.
The data coming from Terra-i is especially pertinent as it attempts to isolate the deforestation resulting from human activity.
“The Terra-i outputs are of course not noise [error] free and we cannot guarantee that every single pixel that has been detected is the result of human activity, nor is Terra-i detecting all the events of deforestation that occurred since 2004.”
That said, Reymondin has included many special equations to ensure it is the best data available: “… we have implemented a range of methodologies to reduce the effect of noise, such as cloud cover, and to filter land cover changes that are not human-caused, or at least not directly, such as floods and drought. We can therefore say that the majority of the detections that we observe can be attributed to human activity.”
Why is the Chaco Disappearing?
Perhaps the most obvious driver of change is the blanket of soy that has been rapidly spreading over the continent since the 1990’s.
Changes in global markets have expedited this process in the new millennium, especially in Argentina. A country with a huge farming component, the rolling pampas of grazing cattle typically associated with the Argentine countryside are being replaced by industrial farms growing soy, now a much more lucrative crop for any farmer.
The romantic vision of ranch life remains important in Argentine culture, but the economic equations involved in the agriculture business have changed in recent years. The expansion of soy farming is driven by US ethanol production and a global interest in biofuels; prices for soy continue to break records.
Some agricultural analysts say that Argentine soybean farming is now several times more profitable than cattle ranching.
It is these profitable equations which are threatening the Chaco. Large-scale agribusinesses are encroaching on protected Chaco regions both themselves, and by pushing cattle ranchers into the area after evicting them from lands they traditionally used.
Now the third largest soy producer in the world, Argentina’s aggressive land conversions will soon change this status. Widespread drought in the US, formerly the top soy producer, combined with a larger than usual yield predicted for the 2012-2013 harvest, will put the Southern Cone soy producers in the top spot for production.
Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil combined are producing well over half of the soy on the international market. All countries in the Southern cone are rapidly converting all arable land to soy at breakneck speed.
Lessons of Paraguay
Perhaps nowhere is the power of soy, and the threat to the Chaco in the face of this, more apparent than in the case of Paraguay.
Recently, Paraguay made headlines worldwide by the all-too-quick impeachment of left-leaning president Fernando Lugo, prompting international sanctions and public condemnation.
Paraguay is currently the fourth-largest exporter of soy. Loose regulations and relative poverty make it an easy target for multi-national soy giants to take hold there. Terra-i created a video -which can be viewed here- illustrating the massive changes in land taking place in the neighbouring country.
Around 77% of Paraguay’s arable land is owned by just 2% of the population. In the past ten years, deals have been struck for 203 million hectares of land — nearly six times the size of Germany — at a pace and scale that outstripped the ability of governance structures to respond, a situation which Lugo sought to reverse with a reform that never quite came to fruition.
Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, writes in a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, “The Paraguay soy boom — made in China and Europe and grown upon the lands of the political elite — is controlled by the boardrooms of Big Business. As much as 70% of Paraguay’s soy is exported each year and of that the multinational grain giants Cargill, ADM, and Bunge account for about 70% [of all soy exported].”
Los Angeles based KPFK’s Sojourner Truth radio show recently featured a segment on the impeachment of Fernando Lugo. The show hosted Miguel Lovera, the former national secretary for plant safety under Lugo, who spoke of the impeachment as being a coup orchestrated by a ‘Genetically Modified Soy Mafia.’
Lovera was outspoken on the show in claiming Lugo’s removal as being intrinsically related to his moves to protect Paraguay’s Gran Chaco from encroachment by multi-national soy companies and his desire to redistribute their land to smaller-scale farmers.
“The main comparative advantage of Paraguay as a soy growing territory has actually been the lack of regulations in the past. Since Lugo’s government took over that condition changed, and we actually started regulating … venturing into sensitive territory and they weren’t ready to adapt.”
Lovera hints that the original struggle in the northern region resulting in the deaths of peasants and police officers was not only orchestrated by the soy mafia, but actually committed by those in their employment.
At the very least, there is a dangerous concentration of power in terms of Paraguayan soy -an industry controlled by only a handful of very powerful multinationals which account for an undeniably influential lobby.
Lovera states that the Chaco, after small-scale peasants, is becoming the most visible victim, “[The Chaco] is also the area that is allocating all this displacement, the cattle ranching displacement in the areas that are good for soy growing, they are encroaching into this wilderness.”
To Bear Witness
The power of something like Terra-i in the face of the great changes taking place in South America is perhaps that it is an indisputable witness to what is occurring here. An omniscient eye-in-the-sky silently watching and detailing every change taking place, no matter how remote the location in which it is occurring.
“Habitat conversion is contributing to widespread loss of biodiversity and other critical ecosystem services, yet in many parts of the world the scale and pattern of habitat loss still goes unmonitored,” says Reymondin.
“Decision makers at multiple scales (local to national to regional) need information on land-cover change, as accurate and recent as possible, in order to prioritise interventions and act upon new land-cover change patterns in a timely manner. Terra-i aims to provide information about habitat loss at a temporal and spatial resolution that is relevant for decision makers.”
The data and real-time images coming from Terra-i provide interest groups, interventionists, and really anyone with an interest, solid data to point to. It is free, accessible, and irrefutable.
Reymondin and his team aim to expand Terra-i. South America, while a significant achievement to monitor an entire continent, is but one of many hotspots in terms of biodiversity loss and deforestation due to human activity.
“We will keep updating the detection of deforestation in Latin America as data comes in from the MODIS satellite sensors. We plan to extend Terra-i to cover the whole tropics which will be a new challenge as this increases considerably the amount of data to process.”
Terra-I also plans to broaden its lens to encompass other resources, including the multifarious effects deforestation has on water resources.
Quite simply, Terra-I is the fly on the wall (or better, bird in the sky) bearing witness to the changes taking place. Increasing awareness and solid, publicly available information are key to social action. Given this, perhaps tools like Terra-i could help to prevent future stories such as Lugo’s in South America.
How aware are Argentines of the deforestation problem? Click here to find out.