In 2022, an isolated indigenous group disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon. With the death of one man, the last member of an isolated tribe, an entire culture can disappear. But this disappearance did not happen on the spur of the moment: it began decades earlier with the uncontrolled expansion of cattle ranching in northern Brazil, where the Amazon is located.

Now, another South American indigenous group faces a similar threat. The Ayoreo live in the forests of Paraguay’s Gran Chaco, where protected lands have been drastically deforested in recent decades. Those responsible range from the Paraguayan government to local ranchers to international finance companies, according to a new analysis.

The report, published on 30 March by human rights NGO Global Witness, reveals how major international financial institutions, including Santander and BNP Paribas, have financed meat companies accused of buying cattle raised by ranchers linked to illegal deforestation and land grabbing in the Paraguayan Chaco.

The two companies involved are Paraguay’s Frigorífico Concepción and Brazilian multinational Minerva, which has also been linked to illegal logging in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Global Witness report is based on the “Grand Theft Chaco” investigations published by the British non-profit organisation Earthsight in 2020, in which both companies were mentioned. However, the meatpackers have not changed their operations since then, the report’s author, Charlie Hammans, told Diálogo Chino.

Banks such as HSBC, JP Morgan and Santander have contributed to the growth of both companies. The trio has helped Minerva sell shares and find investors for $1.4 billion worth of bonds. Bank of America, meanwhile, underwrote a $285m bond for Frigorífico Concepción in 2021.Asset management giants BlackRock and Vanguard were also found to have significantly increased their investments in Minerva between 2019 and 2022, from $840,000 to $4.8m and $4.5m to $8.6m, respectively.
Green commitments?

Global Witness highlights that these investments and commitments come at a time when almost all of the financial institutions appearing in the report have made sustainability commitments through programmes such as the Net-Zero Banking Alliance and the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative.

“These banks have made voluntary commitments, almost all have anti-deforestation policies and extensive screening processes,” says Hammans. “But what we’ve found is that either the screening processes don’t work properly, or they just accept it as part of their business because it’s all about making money.

As his analysis shows, voluntary initiatives have not been enough to get financial institutions to clean up their portfolios, and Global Witness has campaigned for stronger legislation, particularly in the European Union.

“There is the deforestation bill [to prevent the import of forest-related products into the EU], which will come into force very soon. However, it does not include finance,” says Hammans.

Minerva has 25 slaughterhouses in South America, five of them in Paraguay. The company says it has implemented controls on its direct supplier farms in Paraguay, but not on indirect suppliers, the biggest problem.

Minerva did not respond to Global Witness requests for comment, and Frigorífico Concepción denied any wrongdoing. Among financial institutions, only BNP Paribas has responded, saying it contacted the Brazilian meatpacker for more information and to discuss the company’s supply chain traceability measures.

Deforestation crisis in Paraguay

Paraguay lost 32% of its primary tropical forest between 2001 and 2021, the fourth highest rate in the world, behind the smaller US islands in the non-violent, Dominica and Haiti, according to Global Forest Watch.

In addition to cattle ranching, an intercontinental highway known as the Bioceanic Corridor has increased deforestation pressure in the Chaco, which is the second largest forest in South America. It has also put pressure on the people who live there.

“The construction is moving fast, and this will have an impact on our people,” says Tagüide Picanerai, a leader of the Ayoreo indigenous people. Picanerai lives some 500 kilometres from his home in the Chaidi community: he spends his days in Asunción, the national capital, where he has represented his community in negotiations with the Paraguayan state.

In recent decades, many of the Ayoreo have been forced to leave their ancestral lands and change their way of life, but some 150 members remained uncontacted, the only group living in voluntary isolation in the Americas outside the Amazon.

As hunter-gatherers, they move around the area gathering fruits and hunting. According to Picanerai, the recent drought in the country may have hindered their access to food.

A significant part of the Ayoreo territory is now owned by private landowners, including Mennonite farmers who established colonies in the 1940s and 1950s, and large cattle ranching companies from both Paraguay and Brazil.

The historic territory of the Ayoreo covers 550,000 hectares, an area that organisations such as Survival International have long been fighting for formal recognition with land titles and protection. However, negotiations with the Paraguayan government have not progressed, and incursions and destruction of their lands continue.

In February 2022, a group of South American indigenous organisations issued a statement warning of the “imminent risk of extermination” of the Ayoreo people and demanding urgent measures for their protection. Little has been done since then, according to Picanerai, and with elections approaching in Paraguay on 30 April, the signs are not encouraging.

“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but we have to warn about what we can expect if the ruling party wins,” she says, noting that the leading candidate, Santiago Peña of the incumbent centre-right Colorado party, is expected to allow the expansion of the agro-industrial sector into the protected area. She says other candidates might be more open to dialogue with their people.

But as Picanerai points out, and as Global Witness findings underline, the fate of the Ayoreo and their lands is not just a matter of Paraguayan politics and business: it is an issue that extends far beyond its borders, to international boardrooms and banking offices.

“The meat industry, both locally and globally, has its eyes on that territory,” he says. “This is a danger for the future of the Ayoreo, who are absolutely vulnerable,” he adds.

This article was originally published on the information platform Diálogo Chino.