The fallout from COVID-19, land grabs, and deforestation in Argentina’s Gran Chaco Forest region

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The fallout from COVID-19, land grabs, and deforestation in Argentina’s Gran Chaco Forest region

MARCH 25, 2024
BY MADISON DAVIS
OPEN ACCESS | CC-BY-4.0

In the spring of 2023, we taught a graduate level course titled “Agri-food Systems and Economic Development” at Georgetown University’s Global Human Development Program. As one of the assignments, we asked the students to write a policy brief on the impact of a major shock on food systems. This post by Madison is based on that assignment, and is a great example of the systems thinking with which future generations will tackle multiple global crises. We also thank IFPRI’s Valeria Piñeiro for her valuable feedback and suggestionsDevesh Roy, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow, and Ekin Birol, Associate Professor of the Practice, Georgetown University.

The Gran Chaco Forest is the second-largest forest in South America after the Amazon, spanning over 250,000 miles and parts of four countries. This semi-arid biome is home to over 50 unique ecosystems, thousands of plant and animal species, and 9 million people. It is of particular importance in the battle against climate change, as it acts as one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks.

The forest has also been a major target for development. Gran Chaco is among the most deforested areas on earth, much of that due to the expansion of farming and livestock ranching in recent decades, as well as growing climate impacts. In the last two decades, a quarter of the Gran Chaco Forest in Argentina has been lost, putting pressure on marginalized indigenous communities. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit indigenous communities hard and hindered efforts by the government and NGOs to limit deforestation.

The picture is complex; Argentina’s deforestation rate has slowed overall in the past decade and a number of national and international initiatives are seeking to reduce it further, reflecting a continuing push and pull over forestlands.

Development and deforestation

Land-grabbing—often carried out by foreign-owned businesses exploiting ambiguous land rights to capture tracts of land and convert them for some economic use, including large-scale farming and other activities—is a serious problem in Argentina and the Gran Chaco Region. A 2019 report by The Guardian, for example, linked rapidly-expanding soy plantations in the Gran Chaco area to serious deforestation and biodiversity loss.

These activities can displace communities, deny them access to productive land for cultivation, distort local markets, and trigger violent disputes. In Argentina, most informal land tenure is located in the Gran Chaco Forest area, home to the majority of the country’s indigenous peoples. Half of indigenous land in Argentina isn’t recognized by the government, while local governments have sold some to foreign buyers. Commercial livestock and soy producers have taken advantage of the lack of legal protections and cheap price of land in the Chaco area, leading to expanding agribusiness activities such as soybean farming and associated deforestation.

Gran Chaco and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic compounded the problems surrounding forests, as its widespread economic disruptions and mobility restrictions harmed local agricultural economies and undermined ongoing forest conservation efforts by the government and NGOs. As in many places, the pandemic led to a rise in poverty and rural food insecurity in Argentina, with indigenous communities dependent on Chaco forestlands being disproportionately impacted.

Lockdown restrictions disrupted smallholder farming and value chains, contributing to reduced food availability and rising poverty. From 2019 to 2020, the prevalence of moderate and severe food insecurity in Argentina increased from 35.8% of the population to 37%, with particular impacts on poor, rural populations. Before the pandemic, global poverty had experienced a steady decline for 30 years. Then pandemic measures reversed that trend; Argentina’s poverty rate—once the lowest in the LAC region—grew from 7.9% of the population in 2017 to 14.1% in 2020.

The economic burdens associated with the pandemic (decreased exports, closed borders, quarantined workers, etc.) triggered a recession and led to government budget cuts, reducing forest conservation efforts. A 2023 study found that “these budget cuts together with mobility restrictions hindered governmental control and enforcement for conservation in the [Argentine] Dry Chaco.” Lockdown policies also reduced or removed official oversight of vulnerable areas. The lack of government presence in turn likely contributed to an increase in land grabs and the illegitimate expansion of cattle ranching and agricultural production. Indigenous groups in the Chaco region reported an escalation in tensions and sometimes violence between communities and companies as land development ramped up during the pandemic’s height. The same study exploring land changes in the South American Chaco Forest found a significant surge in deforestation in 2020.

Policy discussion

The pandemic and recession that followed left the Argentine government with a shortage of resources to effectively protect vulnerable communities and land in the Gran Chaco Forest. In 2007, Argentina passed a national Forest Law mandating that provinces implement processes to protect and conserve forests. Yet the law has only received 10% of its proposed budget for enforcement and other activities since its inception, according to a report by conservation organizations.

However, Argentine forests are also seeing some generally positive trends. The country’s overall deforestation rate (with most forestland located in the Chaco region) has eased since 2013, according to an analysis of satellite data by Global Forest Watch. Meanwhile, soybean and agriculture industry organizations, and NGOs including The Nature Conservancy, have partnered to create a system that brings together stakeholders in the soybean value chain to minimize environmental impacts. Its primary goal is complying with new European Union deforestation regulations for imports—thus discouraging land grabs and other harmful practices. The system, the Sectorial Vision of the Argentine Gran Chaco (ViSeC), recently began pilot shipments of products to Europe. ViSeC has also recently incorporated the livestock sector to comply with the EU regulations.

Effective government oversight and investments in indigenous and rural communities are also critical to reduce ongoing deforestation activities and support the welfare of the families that are most vulnerable to agribusiness incursions. Most rural communities in the Chaco area receive minimal support, with little government investment in roads, education, healthcare, or basic services such as water and electricity.

Cross-border cooperation is vital, as stricter environmental policies in one country may lead to the uptick of land grabbing in another. In addition, a strong relationship between the government and international organizations, namely the United Nations and the UN Food an Agriculture Organization (FAO), can help successfully implement frameworks (such as FAO’s Voluntary Guidelines) to mitigate deforestation in these contexts. Argentina has made a number of commitments in these areas, including publicly committing to strengthen implementation of the Forest Law, to further reduce its deforestation rate, and to implement a National Forest Management Plan with Integrated Livestock (MBGI).

Such efforts can provide transparency and incentivize local governments to take action. Investments in infrastructure and institutions can be costly, but could also draw support from outside organizations and ultimately increase efficiency in the agricultural value chain and bring economic and social benefits to communities.

Conclusion

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed underlying deficiencies in land conservation policies and acute vulnerabilities among Argentina’s indigenous populations in the Gran Chaco Forest region. Addressing these problems will require more resources directed to forest protection and conservation. But such goals should be part of a broader effort by local and national governments, international organizations, and civil society to recognize indigenous lands, improve agrifood value chain infrastructure, and invest in smallholder agriculture and rural development. Taking these steps will help Argentina to slow the spread of large-scale agricultural production, recover native forests, and maintain the ecosystems and homes of its rural indigenous communities, while alleviating rural poverty and food insecurity along the way.

Madison Davis is a graduate student in the Global Human Development program at Georgetown University, specializing in Environment & Climate, and Food, Agriculture & Rural Livelihoods. Opinions are the author’s.

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