- Paraguay Photo
- A fox in the Chaco region
- ©Francisco Fracchia
- Paraguay Photo
- Palm savannas from the humid Chaco region
- ©Juana De Egea
At the center of South America, the landlocked country of Paraguay encompasses some of the most biologically diverse habitats in the world, and represents one of the continent’s last frontiers.
Paraguay’s western half encompasses a sparsely populated portion of the Gran Chaco. This harsh landscape extends across southeastern Bolivia and northern Argentina, and its lands span savannas and marshes, semiarid thorn forests, open grasslands and sand dunes. The various habitats support guanacos, jaguars, toucans, rheas, the endangered Chacoan peccary, and 10 different species of armadillo. Several indigenous tribes, including the Guaraní, Ayoreo, Chamacoco, and Ishir, also make their home in the Paraguayan Chaco, relying on hunting, gathering, and subsistence farming for their livelihoods. The tribes live largely in isolation—though the Chaco covers approximately 60 percent of Paraguay’s territory, it is home to only 3 percent of the country’s population.
To the east, in a region also known as the Oriente, is the Atlantic Forest. Unlike the Chaco, this region—replete with rich soils and rainfall—has long attracted farmers and ranchers, and much of the landscape has been converted for these activities. The Oriente also contains small portions of the highly diverse and fragile Cerrado ecosystem, which borders Brazil and supports jaguars, rheas, toucans and several primate species.
- The Paraguayan Chaco contains Paraguay’s most important and largest protected areas in addition to several large private reserves.
- The Chaco region harbors approximately 2,000 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 mammal species, 120 reptile species, and 100 amphibian species. Its salt marshes provide key habitat for migratory birds like geese, storks, and flamingos.
- Some of its wildlife standouts include one of the few nocturnal monkey species in the Americas and the Chacoan peccary, once thought to be extinct until scientists rediscovered it in 1974.
- The first Mennonite colonies came to the Central Chaco area in 1927, hailing from Canada, Germany, and Russia. They arrived seeking religious freedom and were drawn by government incentives to establish permanent, settled populations in the region.
- The Chaco was the scene of the last territorial war in South America, waged from 1932–1935 between Bolivia and Paraguay, which cost approximately 100,000 human lives.
Beginning with the arrival of small Mennonite communities in the mid 20th century, cattle ranches and agriculture have spread across the Paraguayan Chaco. Historically, the region was home only to indigenous people who farmed for subsistence, but the newer settlers established small cooperative agricultural communities, ranches, and dairy farms. These farms gradually grew in size and scope to supply Paraguay with most of its beef and dairy products. Today, the Chaco is one of the most important regions for economic growth in the country; however, cattle ranch expansion is also driving deforestation and environmental decline. To ensure that Paraguay’s economy can continue to thrive over the long-term, development plans must therefore integrate conservation strategies, too.
The Oriente region, which attracted farmers and ranchers from Paraguay’s earliest history, has been highly degraded. Growing rates of deforestation led the government to pass a law in 2004 prohibiting the conversion of forested areas to farmland. But the law’s success turned out to be a double-edged sword, inadvertently spurring more farmers to expand into the Chaco instead. Now, the more fragile Chaco ecosystems are being quickly exploited for cattle ranching. If unabated, the current rate of deforestation could result in the loss of the largest expanse of dry tropical forest in the Neotropics. It could also mean the local disappearance of jaguars, giant anteaters, giant armadillos, tapirs, and Chacoan peccaries.
To reduce pressure on intact forest in the Chaco, WCS and local partners are working together with key stakeholders in the region to develop and promote sustainable cattle management practices. For example, we are helping to diversify the ranching production chain and implementing a more eco-friendly livestock production system. We are also developing private and local conservation initiatives that complement public protected areas, concentrating on private reserves, municipal conservation areas, and forest management in indigenous reserves. Through this work, we are emphasizing the protection of high-value native forests, and the construction of corridors to ensure that critical ecosystems remain connected for wildlife that pass between them.
In the Oriente region, we are working closely with local partners to restore deforested areas and improved sustainable forest management. Additionally, given that nearly 95 percent of Paraguay’s territory is privately owned and that current laws favor private ownership, we are helping to create private reserves that reinforce and complement the biodiversity conservation efforts of the country’s public protected areas. Ultimately, we aim to promote integrated land- and resource-use policies and practices across the country. This mission will ensure the protection of Paraguay’s highly diverse and fragile ecosystems for future generations.
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