Big banks linked to deforestation that threatens Indigenous people

Report shows US and EU financiers back meat firms in Paraguay whose activities put Ayoreo people at risk
<p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In recent decades, the Ayoreo people have been forced to leave their ancestral lands in the Paraguayan Chaco, but 150 members remained uncontacted (Image: </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Fotografías Nuevas</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> / </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">Flickr</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">, </span><a href=""><span style="font-weight: 400;">PD</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;">)</span></p>

In recent decades, the Ayoreo people have been forced to leave their ancestral lands in the Paraguayan Chaco, but 150 members remained uncontacted (Image: Fotografías Nuevas / Flickr, PD)

In 2022, an isolated Indigenous group disappeared in the Brazilian Amazon. With the death of one man – the last member of an uncontacted tribe – an entire culture vanished. But this grim demise did not arrive at a moment’s notice: it began decades earlier with the unchecked expansion of livestock farming across the country’s north.

Now, another Indigenous group in South America faces a similar threat. The Ayoreo people live in the forests of the Gran Chaco in Paraguay, where protected land has been drastically deforested in recent decades. Those responsible range from the Paraguayan government to local ranchers – and international financiers, as a new analysis has detailed.

The report, published 30 March by human rights NGO Global Witness, reveals how major international financial institutions, including Santander and BNP Paribas, have bankrolled meatpacking companies accused of buying cattle raised by ranchers linked to illegal deforestation and land-grabbing in the Paraguayan Chaco. The two companies implicated are Paraguayan firm Frigorifico Concepción and Brazilian multinational Minerva, which has also been linked to illegal forest clearance in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Global Witness report builds on the “Grand Theft Chaco” investigations released by UK-based nonprofit Earthsight in 2020, in which both companies were named. The meatpackers, however, have not made changes to their operations in the period since, the report’s author, Charlie Hammans, told Diálogo Chino.

Banks including HSBC, JP Morgan and Santander have assisted the growth of both companies, with the trio having helped Minerva in share sales and finding investors on bonds worth US$1.4 billion. The Bank of America, meanwhile, underwrote a US$285 million bond for Frigorifico Concepción in 2021.

Asset management giants BlackRock and Vanguard were also found to have significantly increased their investments in Minerva between 2019 and 2022, rising from US$840,000 to US$4.8 million and US$4.5 million to US$8.6 million, respectively.

Green commitments?

These investments and engagements, Global Witness highlights, come at a time when nearly all the financial institutions featured in the report have sustainability commitments through schemes such as the Net-Zero Banking Alliance and Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative.

deforestation cleared land trees
Read more: Opinion: Financial sector must step up to curb Gran Chaco deforestation

“These banks have voluntary pledges, almost of them have policies to combat deforestation and extensive screening processes,” Hammans said. “But what we have found is that either the screening processes are not working properly or they are just accepting it as part of their business because it’s about making money.”

As their analysis demonstrates, voluntary initiatives have not been sufficient for financial institutions to clean their portfolios, and Global Witness has duly been campaigning for more strict legislation, particularly in the European Union. “There is the deforestation bill [to prevent the import of goods linked to forest clearance into the EU] that is coming in very soon. However, it doesn’t include finance,” Hammans said.

Minerva has 25 slaughterhouses in South America, five of them in Paraguay. The company says that has implemented the monitoring of its direct supplying farms in Paraguay, though not from indirect suppliers – the biggest problem.

Minerva did not reply to Global Witness’ requests to comment, and Frigorifico Concepción denied wrongdoings. Among the financial institutions, only BNP Paribas has replied, saying that it reached out to the Minerva for more information and to discuss the company’s supply chain traceability measures.

Deforestation crisis in Paraguay

Paraguay lost 32% of its tropical primary forest between 2001 and 2021 – the fourth-highest rate in the world, behind the US’s minor outlying islands in the Pacific, Dominica and Haiti, according to Global Forest Watch.

In addition to ranching, a cross-continent highway known as the Bioceanic Corridor has increased the deforestation pressure in the Chaco, which is South America’s second largest forest, behind the Amazon. It has also brought pressure for the people who live in it. “The works are moving fast, and this will impact our people,” says Tagüide Picanerai, a leader of the Ayoreo indigenous people. Picanerai lives some 500 kilometres from his home of Chaidí in the capital city, Asunción, where he has represented his community in negotiations with the Paraguayan state.

In recent decades, many of the Ayoreo people 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 collecting fruits and hunting. The recent drought in the country, says Picanarei, might have impaired their access to food.

The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Natural and Cultural Heritage Zone in northern Paraguay has faced increasing pressure and destruction from deforestation in the last two decades (Images: Google Earth, Landsat/Copernicus; Graphic: Diálogo Chino)

A significant area of the Ayoreo territory is now owned by private landowners, including Mennonite farmers who established colonies in the 1940s and 1950s, and big cattle-ranching businesses from both Paraguay and Brazil. The Ayoreo’s historical territory covers 550,000 hectares, an area which organisations such as Survival International have long campaigned to see formally recognised with land titles and protection. But negotiations with the Paraguayan government have failed to advance, and incursions and destruction continue on their lands.

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

“I don’t want to be pessimistic, but we need to warn about what to expect if the ruling party wins,” he says, pointing out that the leading candidate, Santiago Peña, from the incumbent centre-right Colorado party, is expected to allow the expansion of the agro-industrial sector towards the protected area. He says other candidates may be more open to dialogue with his people.

But as Picanerai points out, and as Global Witness’ findings underscore, the destiny of the Ayoreo and their lands is not just an issue of Paraguayan politics and business: it is one that extends far beyond its borders, to international boardrooms and banking offices. “The beef industry, both on local and global levels, has eyes on that territory,” he says. “This is a hazard to the future of the Ayoreo, who are absolutely vulnerable.”