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On barbecues across the US and Europe this summer, steaks are sizzling. Meanwhile, half a world away, trees are crashing to the ground in the dry tropical forests of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay. What’s the connection?
These trees will be used to make charcoal.
“The Chaco is a hotspot for changing land use,” says Matthias Baumann, a geographer from the Humboldt University in Berlin, who recently published a study on the effects of deforestation in the Chaco. According to Baumann, an area the size of a football pitch is cleared in the region every two to three minutes.
Environmentalists have been warning for years about the consequences of deforestation, legal and illegal, in the tropics. The Chaco, which is a dry forest rather than a rainforest, has often been overlooked, though a recent report by the British-based environmental organisation Earthsight on the Paraguayan charcoal industry did attract some interest.
The industry has increased in value from around 7 million dollars in 2003 to around 40 million dollars, according to local media.
Much of the charcoal from Paraguay’s biggest exporter, Bricapar, finds its way to US and European supermarkets, according to Earthsight, including well known chains such as Aldi, Lidl and Carrefour.
But Baumann says that charcoal isn’t the main reason for deforestation in the Chaco. In fact, 95 per cent of the cleared land is used to provide grazing space for the growing cattle industry. Soybean production is also increasing, to meet export demand and for cattle feed, Greenpeace says.
According to Baumann’s calculations, between 1985 and 2013, more than 49,000 square kilometres of the Chaco was chopped down, equating to a loss of 22.5 per cent of the forest and creating around 250 gigatons of greenhouse gases.
Deforestation creates greenhouse gases because mature forests store carbon in their wood, leaves and soil. That carbon is then released back into the atmosphere when the land is cleared and the wood destroyed.
“That’s significantly more than released by the burning of fossil fuels in the same time period,” says Baumann. “And emissions from cattle rearing are not included in our study.”
He wants more areas to be designated as logging-free zones, arguing that the example of Brazil shows that such initiatives can work.
However, he also points out that the creation of such zones in other places means that logging activity relocates to the Chaco. To stop that from happening, international co-ordination on environmental projects is needed, he says.
The Chaco’s forests are also popular with industry because they’re cheap. “In the best Pampas regions, a hectare of land costs up to 15,000 dollars. In the Chaco it costs just 300 dollars,” says Hernan Giardini of Greenpeace Argentina.
In Paraguay, protected zones have had mixed success. Fines for illegal logging are so low that companies just accept them as part of doing business, says Giardini.
Paraguay is also one of the poorest countries in South America and the charcoal industry offers a source of income for many. More than 200,000 people are employed in it, according to timber merchants association FEPAMA.
“Charcoal production is mostly black-market work with very low wages,” says Giardini. Violent disputes often erupt between the workers and security guards, he adds.
European shoppers have two choices of charcoal in their supermarkets: charcoal made from timber waste or briquettes made from agricultural waste.
Aldi Nord says that it has numerous certificates proving the legitimate origin of its charcoal. It says it’s also working with distributors to develop methods of avoiding social and environmental pitfalls in the charcoal production chain.
Following the Earthsight report, Aldi Sued also announced that it would investigate the origins of its charcoal more thoroughly. In the coming years, it says it will only sell charcoal from certified sustainable sources.
But environmentalists warn that not every certificate is meaningful and that producers can take advantage of grey areas in order to get certified.
It’s still possible to introduce sustainable forestry to the Chaco, according to Giardini. But first, studies are needed on how to help the forest recover, he says, particularly with regard to the “quebracho blanco,” the tree of choice for charcoal loggers, which needs around 40 years to grow to maturity.