Thursday, 21 October 2010

Chaco forest preservation funds appeal

John Vidal's piece describing the Chaco forest as the "last agricultural frontier", where "great swaths of … virgin thorn forest … are being turned into prairie-style grasslands to rear meat for Europe and grow biofuel crops for cars" could not have been more timely (Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguyan land under threat, 6 October).

At the World Land Trust we have identified the situation in the Chaco as one of the worst examples of wanton destruction in the natural world. Vidal's article clearly lays out the issues confronting this habitat of rich biodiversity: "home to about 3,400 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles, and 100 species of amphibians".

He describes how Mennonite farmers, who settled in the region in the 1930s, together with Brazilian ranchers, have bought an estimated 2m hectares (5m acres) of land, and have rapidly developed "a $100m-a-year meat and dairy agri-business". Their rapid development of the land has led to at least 10% of this forest being cleared. The methods used in this deforestation – fire and bulldozers – will undoubtedly lead to desertification and erosion, and the destruction of a unique ecosystem. The rate of this destruction has accelerated dramatically in the past two years and shows little sign of slowing down.

However, Vidal fails to highlight the most important point facing conservationists – the lack of available funding needed to protect this wilderness. This is also hampered by the fact that many people are simply unaware of where the Chaco is and why it is so important to conserve it. The forest covers an area of 240,000 sq km and encompasses parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Deforestation of this area and the resultant carbon emissions will have a serious impact on the world's climate.

The World Land Trust has been striving to raise funds to help local conservationists acquire critical areas of Chaco land, in order to protect this unique habitat. So far we have been able to fund the purchase of more than 20,000 hectares, which are now owned and managed by Guyra Paraguay, a national conservation non-government organisation.

Raising funds for basic measures, such as enforcing existing legislation to protect the land, is difficult, but the results can be extremely rewarding. We are at present funding five rangers to protect an area of 5m hectares. It costs about £5,000 a year to put a ranger in the field – in the Chaco, a combination of land acquisition, together with keeping trained rangers in the field, benefits not only the biodiversity but also the indigenous peoples living in the forests.

When I visited the Chaco last month, as well as seeing the extent of both illegal and legal deforestation, I was able to see areas deforested 80 years ago in the Chaco war of the 1930s (when Bolivian troops invaded the region) that still have not fully recovered. This gives some indication of how fragile this ecosystem is. As Vidal says, "the region's remoteness and the government's lack of resources for monitoring or prosecuting law-breakers has encouraged rampant, illegal felling of this dense, slow-growing forest". It simply must not be allowed to continue.

John Burton,
The Guardian

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