Pressure from the drug trade

The issue of deforestation in Paraguay’s eastern region has been compounded in recent years by another illicit activity: drug trafficking.

San Rafael is one of Paraguay’s protected areas that is most affected by marijuana cultivation. According to WWF, around 3,200 hectares of the reserve was destroyed to grow marijuana between 2004 and mid-2020. Investigators say that most of the marijuana grown here ends up in Brazil, which is the main market for drugs produced in Paraguay’s reserves.

“This is the situation that we have there, the issue of illegal plantations is a serious problem throughout the whole area,” said Soso, who noted that the presence of drug traffickers means that interventions by MADES are less frequent, as police and prosecutors are required to visit the illegal plantations, which can result in violent encounters.

Marijuana plantation inside San Rafael. Image courtesy of SENAD.
Marijuana plantation inside San Rafael. Image courtesy of SENAD.

Sosa said that during the 2020 fires, police officers were hired to guard forest firefighters battling fires in areas controlled by drug traffickers.

“Imagine having to operate like that, with firefighters looking for protection,” he said.

In the first week of March 2021, agents from the National Anti-Drug Secretariat (SENAD) and officials from the Public Prosecutor’s Office raided large areas of San Rafael. In just a few days, they destroyed 42,000 kilos of marijuana planted on 14 hectares (35 acres).

“We found that all the hectares had been burned before,” said operation leader Carlos Gómez, a prosecutor at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. “We estimate that after the fires, more of these groups will likely enter the central area [of the reserve] to continue with their plantations.”

According to SENAD’s historical records, 48,913 kilos of marijuana were seized in San Rafael between 2015 and 2019, with 134 hectares (351 acres) of plantations destroyed. Despite several operations and seizures, no arrests have been made.

Little official protection

The reserve’s 73,000 hectares (180,387 acres) are protected by seven park rangers, or one ranger for every 10,429 hectares (25,771 acres). This is a far cry from one ranger for every 500 hectares (1,236 acres) recommended by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) for effective monitoring and enforcement.

A major reason behind this lack of protection is a bureaucratic issue surrounding San Rafael’s protected area status. Recognized as a national park by the World Database of Protected Areas and researchers, its legal status in Paraguay is ambiguous. The problem stems from a 2002 designation change that sought to switch San Rafael’s status from “national park” to “proposed national reserve.” However, Darío Mandelburger, the director of the General Directorate for the Protection and Conservation of Biodiversity within the Ministry of the Environment, says no such category legally exists in Paraguay’s environmental legislation.

“This caused a serious problem,” Mandelburger told Mongabay in 2020, as the ambiguity formed a legal vacuum that circumvented the enforcement of environmental protection laws in the park.”

A new road pierces San Rafael forest. Image used with permission from anonymous source.
A new road pierces San Rafael forest. Images used with permission from anonymous source.

But possible change was signaled earlier this year on Apr. 7, when the National Commission for the Defense of Natural Resources (CONADERNA) of the National Congress met with representatives of state institutions, environmental organizations, agricultural producers and Indigenous groups, to seek a legal definition of the protected area. An Institutional Management Commission was formed that will work within CONADERNA to pass a law that establishes a new status for San Rafael, which will officially designate it as a domestically accepted park or reserve.

Eisenkölbl said this judicial limbo has greatly harmed the forests and the communities living in the surrounding area, particularly where rural and Indigenous settlements coexist. Eisenkölbl believes that designating San Rafael as a national park is the ideal solution as that will confer the highest level of protection. However, Sosa believes this is not the likely outcome as the Paraguayan state would have to evict and compensate those who live and own land within its borders.

Smoke settled over San Rafael as fires burned in November and December 2020. Image by Hugo Garay/WWF.
Smoke settled over San Rafael as fires burned in November and December 2020. Image by Hugo Garay/WWF.

“For it to become a National Park, which I understand is the ideal situation, will require us to expropriate land, pay compensation, and spend millions of dollars, which is not currently possible within the budget,” Sosa said.

In the meantime, conservationists worry about the future of San Rafael and the critical habitat it’s supposed to protect as outsiders lay waste its remaining forest.

“[I]f action is not taken immediately to halt the illegal clearing of this forest, then it will be too late,” Smith said, “and the opportunity [for restoration], and the biodiversity of this spectacular national treasure, will be lost.”


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