A new report has tied meat and soybean production to widespread deforestation, fires, and human rights violations in Argentina and Paraguay’s Gran Chaco. The report titled, "The Avoidable Crisis" was produced by Mighty Earth, along with Rainforest Foundation Norway, and Fern sheds light on how the excessive demand for the products has led to the increase in environmental and socio-economic issues in the region.
The study released this week pointed to two United States-based agribusinesses, Cargill and Bunge, along with several European companies, as the critical drivers for the extensive destruction. These companies according to the report stood out for their role in the widespread damage caused to Latin American forest areas for soy in the Brazilian Cerrado and Bolivian Amazon Basin in a previous investigation.
The Gran Chaco region is known for its biodiversity with many native species such as the screaming hairy armadillo, and giant anteater, form an integral part of its ecosystem. The region is also home to Indigenous communities like the Ayoreo, Chamacoco, Enxet, Guarayo and many others.
Mighty Earth Policy Director Anahita Yousefi, said, "The level of destruction was astounding. We documented bulldozers in action clearing large areas of intact forests and grasslands, as well as huge fires billowing smoke into the air."
"While the Gran Chaco has traditionally received less attention than other biomes like the Brazilian Amazon, it’s a vitally important ecosystem, and there’s no reason to destroy it," he added.
The organization documented vast swathes of areas containing native forests and vegetation set on fire and cleared of habitats and linked them to massive soy plantations. Might Earth conducted on-the-ground interviews with farmers and local community members, as well documented the fields using drones with bird's eye views.
Apart from deforestation, the extensive use of herbicide glyphosate (marketed by Monsanto as Roundup) in these soy farms, has also severely impacted the communities living in the region.
According to World Bank's report, use of the glyphosate, which was declared a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO) has increased by 1000 percent over the last 20 years in Argentina.
After much deliberation, the EU decided to renew the license for glyphosate in November, which is detrimental for Latin America's soybean industry as the European agri-companies also have a stake in the agriculture industry.
The soy produced from the Gran Choco region is exported to the feed and meat processors in Europe, to raise the livestock for the chicken, pork, beef, eggs, and dairy sold by many European supermarkets and restaurants.
"Companies like Carrefour, Lidl, Marks & Spencer and Aldi have a responsibility to ensure to their customers that they are not selling meat or dairy raised on this soy," the report noted.
The European companies imported 27.8 million tons of soy from Latin America in 2016. On average, around 19 percent of the deaths in Argentina have been attributed to cancer, but in the soy-growing parts of the country, over 30 percent of the deaths are caused by cancer, which has raised concerns over the rampant and widespread pesticide and chemical use in the Chaco.
A family of Campesinos living close to the soy farm, 100 km away from the Chaco province's capital, Resistencia, told the Mighty Earth investigators that 140 chickens, goats, and cows died, owing to forest clearing, putting the family’s livelihood at risk.
"The dead animals weren't the worst," a family member told the Mighty Earth.
"We suffered more. Most of the kids got sick. Everyone. I have a son; he’s 19... a 15-year-old, a 3-year-old girl, and a 1-year-old boy. The youngest suffered the most," adding they experienced "skin rashes, stomach problems, and anemia,” he said. “It resulted in the hospitalization of our children."
Silvia Achaval, whose family lives very close to the fields in Avia Terai of Bunge’s largest silo in the region, said she is often exposed to the aerial spraying fumigations used for the soy fields.
Achaval was exposed to the fumes as the planes “were flying when I was pregnant" which also led to several deformities in her child.
"She had everything out of place,” Silvia said. “They had to move her heart, her lungs... They told me that she had a complicated surgery... that because of the poison, she was born this way. The doctors said she wasn’t going to survive. But thank God, she did."
“[Politicians and corporations] care only about the money,” Silvia added. “They don’t care if people get sick if children are born healthy. It’s all about the money, sadly. And the presidents and mayors need to stand up and say enough. No more poisoning.”
The report also offered some solutions, noting that over "650 million hectares of previously cleared land across Latin America, where agriculture could expand without threatening native ecosystems."
Ida Breckan Claudi, Rainforest Foundation Norway’s policy advisor, "As long as the soy traders don’t take immediate action to end deforestation, it becomes the responsibility of companies within the meat industry, retailers, and investors to demand that the soy traders guarantee deforestation-free soy. Investors like the Norwegian Pension Fund Global should take strong action towards portfolio company Bunge because of their repeated failure to address deforestation."