Gran Chaco – South America’s second-largest forest at risk

The story behind the deforestation of Paraguay’s Gran Chaco and its illegal leather dealings with European car brands

The investigations of Earthsight on illegal European imports of leather from Paraguay

Earthsight, a non-profitable organization based in the United Kingdom, aiming to shed light on matters concerning social and environmental crime, injustice and links to global consumption has declared that top European luxury car brands are importing illegal leather from stolen lands of Paraguay – Gran Chaco. Where was once a biodiverse and rich forest, now is a flat animal pasture.

Gran Chaco is losing its forest faster than anywhere else in the world: Earthsight estimates land the size of a football pitch being cleared every two minutes in 2019. Sam Lawson, director at Earthsight, talks more about the investigations made with an in-depth overview of what was carried out and his thoughts on how to salvage the current situation. 

Sam Lawson: The investigation took about eighteen months altogether but we already had a bit of an idea of the deforestation that was happening there because of a previous story we investigated in Paraguay concerning charcoal. For many years we have been researching as well as following others’ research on what is known as Forest Risk Commodities like palm oil, beef, soy and leather which come from land where deforestation took place.

Since we already were looking into Paraguay, we looked through some of the shipment records and trade data that Italy was a market for leather from Paraguay. The data collection was varied; doing both field work and undercover work in Paraguay, we analyzed satellite imagery in detail, going through trade data and shipment records, to show who sells what to who, we even went undercover with land dealers and spoke to whistleblowers from the government in Paraguay.

Farah Hassan: Were you able to contact or question these automotive car brands that were mentioned in this scandal?

SL: We started off with surveying them but without letting them know what we had to begin with. We then sent them some survey questions about the traceability and policies that they have but none of the car companies were able to respond saying that they can trace their leather back to the farm where the cattle was raised and none of them, at that time at least, had a policy that disallows the use of leather from land which had been deforested and so that was our initial discussion with the companies.

Following that we then shared with them our findings in advance before publications trying to give them the opportunity to comment but none of them were able to add much to the story, some had made nonsensical denials or had passed on nonsensical denials that have been given to them by suppliers in Italy and Paraguay. We’ve been able to easily critique those responses and to show that they don’t hold any value whatsoever. 

Gran Chaco – the worst deforestation case in South America

FH: Gran Chaco has reportedly the highest deforestation rate in the world, estimating up to a loss of 44,000km2 in area. Why Gran Chaco is suffering from severe deforestation rates as opposed to other South American forests?

SL: It is a number of factors, it has to do with accessibility; this is relatively flat land and the forest is relatively less dense than the Amazon rainforest for example so it’s fairly easy to clear forests with a bulldozer. Another factor is the successive Paraguayan government actively encouraging the deforestation, that has been going on in their country, legislating it to make it easier as cattle demand for beef and leather has been growing internationally. They are the same drivers that are also driving deforestation in the Amazon, it’s just economically harder to deforest there compared to Gran Chaco along with the protections that have been implemented in the Amazon in recent history.

Entrance to a cattle rance in an area of the Paraguayan Chaco exposed to intensive deforestation. Earthsight

Preserving biodiversity and indigenous people

FH: What can we do in the future in terms of finding other ethical leather sources? and preserving what we have for the prosperity of biodiversity and for the indigenous people?

SL: What we are saying and many other groups are saying now, and studied these issues for years, is that there is a need for legislation. For too long individual consumers or individual companies had to do the right thing; in terms of forests and indigenous people and that approach clearly failed and this report demonstrates that very clearly.

Governments must act, both in Paraguay and Brazil – another country affected by the same issue – and also in Europe. When it comes to Europe, laws demand that companies only source goods that have no connection to deforestation; to human rights abuse; and those kinds of laws are under consideration now in a number of EU nations.

What we are concerned about is the pushback against these laws; from companies that claim wrong to be in our view. That such laws would be too much of a burden on them. The average consumer who is buying products in Europe does not want to have links with these crimes; and would like to see their legislators ensure that this in fact is possible. 

The need to protect remaining lands

FH: Since the beginning of the issue, indigenous people lost their homes and into urbanized areas. 

SL: There is a need to protect remaining lands. That means that the Paraguayan authority needs to uphold their own laws and respect their international commitment towards these people. Leather coming from that area is awful. It ends up in cars made by BMW and Jaguar Land Rover through some of Italy’s largest tanneries. They’re not just failing to prevent leather from deforestation ending up in their products. They are failing to prevent the worst possible scenario.

FH: What is Earthsight’s message for the public through this story? letting them know that there is more to life than making a profit?

SL: The message is that people need to think about what they buy; and that doesn’t just include the obvious things. People need to think if they want to avoid the consumption driving these illegal actions overseas. Then they need to vote for the right politicians who will force these companies to do the right thing. At the end of the day no amount of individual consumers can solve this dilemma. Even then if every consumer was clued up and motivated to do the right thing; knowing what to buy it’s not easy. Governments need to step in and take action. But in the meantime our advice would be to go vegan and to not consume animal products; because so many of these issues have linkage with rainforests and forests overseas.  

Lampoon, Paraguay cattle ranching general Chaco
Paraguay cattle ranching general Chaco. Photography Earthsight

The need for a legislation that bans leather importation

FH: Earthsight has stated that two-thirds of Paraguay’s leather exports go to Italy. Italy is one the leading countries in leather manufacture. What to do in connection with consumer habits to prevent the import of illegal cattle leather?  

SL: Ideally the solution is for people to stop using leather altogether. If you’re going to keep using leather you need to to ensure that it doesn’t come from these countries.

Right now there’s countries that claim they can ensure that the leather from Paraguay or from Brazil is legit. Not from areas not deforested and did not involve human rights abuses.

What we know is that none of those systems can really guarantee that. You need to be sure that leather is not from those countries and even then it’s hard to trust them. You get a number of firms saying their leather is Italian in origin; but what they actually mean is that the final stage of manufacture had taken place in Italy. That the cattle source was from somewhere else. Therefore there’s a lot of falsehoods that go around in this industry.

Deforestation rates have been escalating

What we need is a legislation that bans the importation of leather; or any forest commodities like soy, palm oil or beef. This is because they come from deforested land. Where human rights abuses took place and which requires companies to carry out certain due diligence practices; to ensure that they are complying with that legislation, that’s the goal.

The Amazon was on fire in summer of 2019. We needed to ban all imports of beef and leather from Brazil. For instance we need strong legislation and some seasonal laws are not going to make any difference.

Since 2012, deforestation rates have been consistently escalating due to the demand driven by consumers for Paraguayan beef and leather. As a result it has led to the expansion of their footprint onto European countries. However, with deforestation comes the annihilation of the indigenous peoples’ way of life. If such illegal dealings persevere there will be no land to call Gran Chaco.   


Is a non-profitable organization based in the United Kingdom, aiming to shed light on matters concerning social and environmental crime. European luxury car brands are importing illegal leather from stolen lands of Paraguay, Gran Chaco. This is due to Injustice and links to global consumption.

Farah Hassan

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.