Interview: Changing markets to stop deforestation

A parrot is sitting on a tree

Tucan; Photo: Fabianus Fliervoet / WWF Paraguay

Lucy Aquino is a biologist and the director of WWF in Paraguay where she has been working for the last 16 years. Amanda Parker also began her WWF career in the Paraguay office. Later she worked as a project manager at the agricultural and land use change team at WWF Germany. Both women have been involved in the project “Paraguay Land Use” (ParLu) from the start of the project four years ago until its final workshop this December.


Ms. Aquino – How would you describe your country to someone who does not know Paraguay?

Lucy Aquino and Amanda ParkerAquino: Paraguay is a landlocked country in the middle of South America. We have two regions that present two completely different realities. We have the Oriental region where we share the Atlantic forest ecoregion with Argentina and Brazil and we have the Occidental region which contains the Chaco Eco-Region and the Pantanal. We have an amazing and incredible biodiversity, especially in areas that are not very disturbed. On the other hand, our development is really being accelerated by the demand in the market, especially soy beans and beef. Only approximately 10 to 13 percent of the original forests remain in the Atlantic forest in Paraguay. And the parts that we have left are very isolated and degraded.  In the Chaco region we still have one of the biggest dry forests in the world. But the deforestation rate is increasing and we have about 300.000 hectares per year of deforestation in that area. In the Pantanal, the other part of the Occidental region, deforestation is also going very fast.

What are the main challenges for local people and the economy in those regions?

Lucy Aquino is holding a presentationAquino: Economically, we are doing very well, right now. We are the forth exporter of soy in the world and we are also the sixth exporter of beef. We have a very good market and the demand is growing. So the production is also going to be growing. Right now the arena of opportunities for investment is very good. But that also means that our natural resources are being depleted very fast.

Parker: We did a study of the biggest commodities coming out of Paraguay, primarily focusing on soy and cattle. We really wanted to understand what is driving the land use change? And these commodities are the main drivers of deforestation in Paraguay. So we took a look at what are the market links and recognized – Germany is one of the links! There is also China on the list, also Russia, the United States, Chile… When we look at the systems in general you see that there is a reason that deforestation is happening and it’s really these market forces that are driving this.

A lake with birds

For the last 4 years, WWF in Paraguay implemented a project called “ParLu”. Could you please tell us a little bit about this project?

Aquino: The project was started because there were many different kinds of necessities. But this was really meant to be a bottom-up project, giving the benefits to the small communities that want to stay on their land and not rent it or sell it to the soy producers. There are people who are producing other things beside soy beans, but the facility and the development of the soy – they were absorbing them. And then they requested support.

Ms Parker – Why did WWF Germany get involved in this project?

Parker: Paraguay is one of the small offices in our network. It’s a small country. The population is 6.5 million people. They have very strong cultures and customs and there is high numbers of indigenous people. So there is a lot of cultural and traditional history and it also has this incredible biodiversity and ecosystem services. But there is one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world and it is happening very unsustainably. And Germany is one of the countries that import a lot of the products that come from Paraguay. Germany is the second largest importer of soy that comes from Paraguay – so we also have this responsibility to buy responsibly and also to understand where our products are coming from and how can we help that it is done in a more sustainable way.

Ms Aquino - What are you exactly doing to support local communities in Paraguay?

Three women working in a gardenAquino: We are giving them some alternatives to selling or renting their land - like growing medicinal plants, other organic agriculture, and also mate (a Paraguayan herb tea) farms. We are giving them materials to start their farms or for opening nurseries for restoration. Some indigenous communities feel closely related to the forest. They depend on the forest but they also needed extra income to survive because they are having more children and their land is becoming too small for the group. It is very important to consider the indigenous communities – they are the communities that are suffering the most from everything that has to do with climate change, deforestation, and degradation.  So we worked with them in order for them to remain on the land. We are also helping them to develop better products to have a better market, not just locally but also internationally.

Parker: This is why we as organization are also working in Germany, for example – on changing consumer behavior and making people more aware of where they are buying from, what is the impact of their consumer choices. And we see that there is an impact but this is slow to move and slow to change. But when people have an awareness of what responsible consumerism is, they do want to make a change – when they know that their purchasing habits can make a difference.

Aquino: The commodities are making a lot of difference. There are parts of the market that are already committing to deforestation-free commodities. We need the market and the financial institutions to make a difference because the commodities are driven by markets and the financial institutions that give the capacity to the producers to produce more and more rapidly – so they have to be part of this equation.

Using a multi-level approach, you are also working on the governmental level?

Aquino: Yes! At the national level, we are working with the public sector. We are exchanging capacities and we are supporting a lot of the public employees to be able to work in international forums. Also, we have brought the indigenous people who are claiming their rights, their land, and their forests, to come to these international forums. And not just the public or the indigenous or the communities, also the NGOs and the universities…

Conference hall during a presentationParker: We are also working closely with Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay and other offices that are engaged in that region for example from the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland to have a regional dialogue. The purpose of this is to really make sure that the project objectives are not just focused in one country or another. We are really working at a regional level so have sustainable solutions and that we can really have an exchange and dialogue amongst the different countries.

How would you summarize the impact of your project?

Aquino: Well, we opened some doors – and our country was the first country in Latin America that ratified the Paris Agreement and now we have a lot of opportunities as well as a lot of commitment from the government to restore the areas especially in the Atlantic forest where it is really devastated. So we have the commitment to restore 900,000 hectares and restore the environmental services.

What challenges do you see for the next steps?

Aquino: In the Oriental region the Atlantic forest is almost gone. We have very few protected areas and even within the protected areas we have threats of invasion and deforestation and illegal logging. We even have a zero-deforestation law that was ratified in 2004 and was extended until 2018 - also thanks to this project. However, there is a lot of impunity and there is a lack of governance in the sense of controlling and stopping deforestation. We really need to develop more mechanisms to stop deforestation. The little forest that we have left is very very important. If we destroy that we will not even have seedlings to restore the forest. So it is really important that we continue with the zero-deforestation law beyond 2018.

View on a forest in the twilight

We just heard that WWF will receive funding from the International Climate Initiative (IKI) for another project. What will this project be about?

Parker: There is a new project that is going to be funded through the IKI. Its working with grasslands and savannas in the Orinoco in Columbia and in the Pantanal in Paraguay and its really tackling some of the biggest drivers of land use change, again commodity production in beef, in soy, and palm oil which is happening a lot more in the Columbian side. So we are again using a multi-level-approach, working with small producers, with sustainable finance roundtables, with the public sector…

Aquino: And it is also about making the people aware of the beauty and importance of grasslands, savannas and wetlands. The ones that really need support in adaptation especially to climate change and are the indigenous communities. The Tsunami is already here. We have to come up with some ideas for those communities to adapt to climate change.