They came from the forest.
In early 2021, a settled Indigenous Ayoreo community living in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay reportedly started hearing songs and shouting during the night. The singing came from an uncontacted Ayoreo tribe, who travelled close to the settlement to bring a message of struggle. From a distance, they sang of the vanishing forest they depend on and how much harder life was becoming for them.
And then they left.
The Gran Chaco is South America’s second largest forest biome and spans vast tracts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The subtropical region doesn’t receive the same amount of international attention as its northern neighbour, the Amazon, but it’s a vital carbon sink teeming with threatened wildlife. It’s also home to dozens of Indigenous tribes, including some of the last uncontacted tribes in South America. Fuelled by global demand for beef, leather and soy feed, millions of hectares of its forest have been cleared away for pastureland and crops in recent decades, pushing out the Ayoreo and other tribes in the region.
Activists say multinational corporations such as Cargill are historically to blame. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been pushing governments and agribusiness to do more to rid supply chains of the deforestation that is threatening the region. There is hope that some commodity traders are starting to get their act together in an effort to meet “deforestation-free” pledges.
And lawmakers are now proposing regulations in the European Union and the United States that will force companies to rid their supply chains of deforestation. But after a decade of empty promises, a dozen South American Indigenous groups have united to demand urgent protection for the region’s uncontacted tribes.
They want to see ranchers expelled from their ancestral lands.
People of the forest
While the ecological harms of widespread deforestation (such as increased carbon emissions and a loss of biodiversity) have been well documented, a recent study has provided a sense of the scale of displacement of people who depend on the forests of the Gran Chaco. An international team of researchers used satellite imagery of the region to determine that more than 5,000 (or 18% of) small homesteads that were in the area in 1985 have since disappeared and only around 2,800 new homesteads have emerged. It’s hard to determine how many of these settlements were Indigenous, but some undoubtedly were.
In the Indigenous Quechua language, “Gran Chaco” means “hunting land,” a fitting name, given the rich diversity of wildlife in the area and the hunter-gathering traditions of the tribes that live there. Agribusiness has eaten into the forest resources that these communities depend on – including wildlife for food and wood for fuel and shelter. “The people side to it is often overlooked,” says Christian Levers, an assistant professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and lead author of the study. With their ancestral territory being encroached upon, they have less space to live according to their own customs and traditions, advocates say. And with less territory, they have to work even harder not to come into contact with the ranchers in the area.
In the Paraguayan part of the Gran Chaco, the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode are fighting for formal land claims to put a halt to deforestation. The Ayoreo, together with Indigenous organizations from across South America, are now calling on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene after years of negotiating with the Paraguayan government, and are making little progress. “For years, the Paraguayan authorities have stood by and watched as the Ayoreos’ priceless forest goes up in smoke,” says Teresa Mayo, head of Survival International’s Ayoreo campaign. “Satellite images from recent decades show a truly horrifying rate of destruction. It’s now only major international pressure that can prevent the total destruction of the uncontacted Ayoreo people, and the forests they have cared for for so long.”
The coalition wants to see an end to foreign companies, such as Brazilian firm Yaguareté Porá and Argentina’s Carlos Casado, being allowed to operate on their ancestral lands. Advocates say the situation is at a tipping point.
“If the state refuses to act when we protest at the invasion of our territory, the cattle ranchers will occupy all our land, our relatives will die, and we could soon disappear too,” an Ayoreo leader, Porai Picarnerai, said in a statement.
Murky beef and soy supply chains
Soy and cattle ranches are key drivers of deforestation in many parts of South America, and the Gran Chaco is no exception. While meat companies in other parts of the world label their products as local, their livestock is often fed soy that comes from South America. From 1961 to 2014, soy production grew by more than 55 million hectares in South America. Recent investigations have called out U.K. grocers and fast food chains for selling beef and chicken raised on soy that fuels deforestation in the Gran Chaco and the Amazon. In a 2021 report, Greenpeace UK noted that “meeting the UK’s annual demand for soya requires a land area larger than Northern Ireland.”
At the heart of the problem is the lack of traceability that plagues soy and cattle supply chains in the Gran Chaco. There are often multiple layers of suppliers and middlemen between farms and larger multinational companies that make it hard to know whether products are tainted by deforestation. The largest multinational companies have pledged to get deforestation out of their supply chains, but the problem persists.
For years, the Paraguayan authorities have stood by and watched as the Ayoreos’ priceless forest goes up in smoke.
- Teresa Mayo, head of Survival International’s Ayoreo campaign
Cargill is one of the largest food companies that sources soy from the Gran Chaco. In 2019, advocacy group Mighty Earth named Cargill the “worst company in the world” for allegedly continuing to “prioritize the deforesters in its supply chains over the climate or their customers’ sustainability demands.” A 2018 Mighty Earth investigation reported that soy farmers at sites of recent deforestation in the Gran Chaco had claimed they sold their products to Cargill and Bunge. In an emailed statement, a Cargill spokesperson said that the company has committed to eliminating deforestation from its supply chains and that it “does not and will not supply soy from farmers who clear land illegally.”
But environmental advocates continue to question Cargill’s commitment to zero deforestation in its South American supply chain. In 2021, the World Wildlife Fund and Global Canopy published a “Soy Traders Scorecard” that concluded that global soy traders are failing to take meaningful action when it comes to deforestation. The scorecard ranked 22 traders. Among them, Brazil’s Amaggi ranked at the top but scored only 52.5 out of a possible 100 points. Cargill ranked second with 50.5 points. The company also scored just 17.5 points out of 33 when it came to whether it was implementing ethical supply chains that were free of deforestation.
The report found that none of the six big multinational soy traders – Amaggi, Cargill, Bunge, ADM, COFCO and Louis Dreyfus Company – had a clear cut-off date for when they would ensure their deforestation commitments in the Gran Chaco. Of those companies, France’s Louis Dreyfus Company ranked the worst on the scorecard (but sixth overall). Only nine of the 22 companies responded to the scorecard survey.
Car leather driving deforestation
The leather industry is also fuelling deforestation in this part of the world. A 2020 report by U.K.-based non-profit Earthsight, Grand Theft Chaco, linked illegal deforestation in the Paraguayan Gran Chaco, where uncontacted Ayoreo tribes live, to cattle ranchers that have sold animal hides to some of Europe’s largest tanneries. Earthsight investigators found that large car manufacturers, such as BMW and Jaguar Land Rover, were using leather in their vehicles sourced from slaughterhouses that process cows from ranchers responsible for “illegal clearances” in these forests.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Jaguar Land Rover said the company took the allegations in Earthsight’s report “extremely seriously” but didn't find evidence of illegal deforestation in its supply chain.
A BMW spokesperson also maintained that the company’s leather supply chain “is not related to deforestation in Paraguay.” The spokesperson added that the company had taken “initial measures several years ago and began to restructure the leather supply chains.” BMW says it has been steadily reducing the amount of leather it sources from South America and by 2023 will no longer have any hides from Paraguay in its supply chain.
But in 2021, Earthsight released a follow-up report alleging that little had changed. The report said that the Paraguayan government had not taken meaningful action to prevent deforestation and that leather exports tied to deforestation continued to flow to European tanneries that supply car manufacturers. Rubens Carvalho, the head of deforestation research at Earthsight, says car manufacturers still weren’t tracing their leather all the way back to ranches, and that’s the only level of traceability that matters.
“If you don’t know the farm from which the leather is originating, it doesn’t matter if you know the tannery it’s coming from,” says Carvalho, who posed undercover as an industry investor in Earthsight’s investigation. “It’s what’s happening on the ground that matters, and that level of traceability still seems to be extremely complicated in the leather industry.”
“Traceability is needed,” he says. “Without that you’re left blind.”
What corporations can do
In 2014, more than 50 companies and dozens of governments signed the New York Declaration on Forests, a non-binding commitment to end deforestation driven by agriculture commodity production by 2020. That commitment obviously didn’t materialize fully, as deforestation is still widespread, but some experts say that significant progress has been made in the years since the declaration. Global deforestation has slowed somewhat since the 1990s, when an estimated 16 million hectares of forest were cleared every year, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. And 141 countries pledged to stop forest loss by 2030 at COP26, last year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow. Argentina and Paraguay signed the declaration, but Bolivia did not.
Melissa Brito, an agricultural economist with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), says that companies have also started to invest in understanding their supply chains all the way down to the farm level. And advancements in monitoring technologies have made it harder for companies to make excuses.
Traceability is needed. Without that you’re left blind.
- Rubens Carvalho, the head of deforestation research at Earthsight
NGOs, such as TNC, have put together traceability systems and guidelines to give companies the tools and knowledge they need to act on their deforestation commitments. A few years ago, the NGO community that works on deforestation and supply chains came together and developed a list of recommendations called the Accountability Framework. It includes everything from a consistent definition of a forest to information about acceptable levels of traceability and reporting in supply chains. “It’s a giant recipe for how to do ethical supply chains,” says Brito.
She adds that the large multinationals that source soy and other commodities from South America are at varying stages of attaining their zero-deforestation commitments. Some are more advanced in certain regions than others, she says. In other words, they’re not all where they need to be yet, but they’re “on a journey,” she says.
Robust regulations, please
Many advocates remain unconvinced that corporations will do what’s necessary to purge deforestation from their supply chains without tough regulations. There has been a push for legally binding regulations in countries where companies are headquartered that would force them to trace commodities to their point of origin to make sure they aren’t tainted by deforestation.
“We have seen over the decades that voluntary schemes do not work. There have been a number of voluntary schemes in place for a number of years, and over the last 20 years all we’ve seen is a rise in deforestation,” Carvalho says.
In February, the European Commission introduced a proposal that would set “mandatory due diligence rules for companies which want to place these commodities on the EU market with the aim to ensure that only deforestation-free and legal products are allowed on the EU market.” Last year, the British government passed legislation to address “illegal deforestation” in corporations’ supply chains but failed to take on legal deforestation. And in the United States, a group of lawmakers introduced a bill called the FOREST Act, which would restrict products linked to illegal deforestation. The bill was sponsored by two Democrats and one Republican in October, but it’s unclear if Congress will pass it.
Whatever government remedies are applied to deforestation, advocates say they need to happen quickly to save the Gran Chaco and the Indigenous communities that live there.
“Time is running out, and the Chaco is vanishing fast,” Carvalho says.