Dwarfed by its more prestigious sibling, the Amazon, Latin America’s second-largest forest is a little-known victim of 25 years of gradual invasion by agriculture.
The Gran Chaco indigenous forest, which spans one million square kilometres (386,000sq miles) across Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, is at the mercy of ravenous soybean and sunflower crops, as well as pasture land.
Comprising a mix of dry thorn shrubland, woodlands and palm savannas, the dense tropical dry forest contains massive scars – vast areas of deforestation gouged out with alarming regularity.
The harm to local fauna and flora is immeasurable.
Here, in Argentina’s northeast, some 1,100 kilometres (685 miles) from Buenos Aires, is the country’s agricultural frontier. It is where the agro-export industry, so crucial for a country short on foreign currency, advances at the expense of various species of fauna and flora, as well as people.
Deforestation in the region has averaged around 40,000 hectares (154sq miles) a year, peaking at 60,000 (322sq miles) on occasion, said Ines Aguirre, an agricultural engineer from Chaco Argentina Agroforestry.
Gran Chaco includes a 128,000-hectare (494sq-mile) national park called The Impenetrable that is designated a “red zone” and strictly protected by a forestry law. But there are also “yellow” zones where tourism and “soft” agriculture are allowed, and “green” zones that are a free-for-all.
What this means is that deforestation around The Impenetrable park affects the rich fauna living within it, such as anteaters, peccaries, coral snakes, tapir and the continent’s largest feline, the jaguar, which is endangered in the region and the subject of an ambitious reintroduction programme.
“In the dry Chaco, we are probably facing a very serious effect of losing fauna. We are seeing especially the extinction of large mammals,” said Micaela Camino, a biologist at CONICET, Argentina’s government scientific agency, citing the giant armadillo and white-lipped peccary as examples.
It is not just fauna and flora being pushed out but also local Indigenous communities, such as the Wichi and Criollo who live in the forest.
“What generally happens is that before the logging, the rights of these families are violated. They are swindled [out of their land] and forced to leave their homes,” Camino said.