Course:FRST370/2022/The displacement of Indigenous rightsholders in the Gran Chaco forests of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina: the implications of a community-based forest framework in transboundary traditional territories

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Map of the Gran Chaco region, South America.

Our case study aims to provide insight into the policies in the Gran Chaco. The region sits primarily between three different countries: Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia. This region has a mixed history of overexploitation, displacement, and environmental implications. As a result, the region is prone to deforestation and mismanagement of resources. Land-grabbing has become a catalyst for a lot of these pressing issues. The displacement of people in the region such as Indigenous communities and the criollo people has added to differential policies. Criollos are not Indigenous peoples, they’re descendants of Spanish Conquistadors and do not have access to land titles[1]. This is an essential part of our discussion of the region and the implications that policies, governance and displacement has on the resources of the region. We found that the need for further research and education in the region is part of our resolution.


Transboundary, plurinational, soyzation, bovinization.



The Gran Chaco is an arid forest in South America situated transnationally between Bolivia, Paraguay, and, with the largest area, Argentina [2]. The Chaco is considered a transboundary territory because the forest is not confined within the borders of just one country but rather 4. Due to the fact that it spans the borders of several different countries, including a very small overlap with Brazil, there are complexities in both the land stewardship of local communities, as well as the extent and reach of each nation’s jurisdiction. Bolivia has attempted to recognize these complexities by declaring itself as a “plurinational state”[3]. The Chaco is Bolivia’s first autonomous region and plurinationalism helps the complexities of land tenure, governance, and identity to be better articulated in their constitution. Changes in Bolivia’s constitution and official name (Plurinational State of Bolivia) were implemented in collaboration with Indigenous peoples in the region. Some of the Indigenous people groups that reside in the Gran Chaco include the Wichí[4], Guaraní, Weenhayek, and Tapiete[3]. In addition to the many Indigenous groups in the region, there are also non-Indigenous groups such as the criollo farmers who are smallholders, often of Spanish descent[1].

The Gran Chaco is the second-largest forest in South America covering 1.1 million square kilometers. Despite its size and the large number of people who are reliant on it, reports show that the Chaco is undergoing one of the most pronounced periods of deforestation in South America, second to that of the Amazon rainforest[5]. The deforestation of the Gran Chaco is not only due to agriculture but also in part the construction of the Trans-Chaco-Highway that goes between Paraguay and Bolivia[6]. This development continues to be transformed into critical infrastructure for rapid expansion of soy production in Paraguay, which has faced similar intensification to Argentina and Bolivia but will not be the focus of this case study[7][2]. Fehlenberg et al. highlight that the Chaco’s “cross-border setting provides a unique natural experiment to analyze drivers of deforestation under different policy settings, socio-economic conditions, and conservation paradigms” (2017, p. 25)[6].  

Timeline of major events in the region.

Historical Context

Up until World War II, the Chaco was mainly used for subsistence agriculture and cattle ranching[6]. As the global market expanded and transnational trade became characteristic of modern capitalist and neo-liberal society, the presence of industrial agriculture increased in the Chaco[6]. At the same time, industrial agriculture became more prominent in the Chaco and the dispossession of local smallholders started to take place. Dispossession and deforestation are still pressing issues that the Gran Chaco faces today. The soyzation and bovinization of forest lands in particular have spurred deforestation in the Chaco as well as the dispossession of local communities[5]. Soyzation is the process by which forest lands are converted to grow soybeans. Soybeans are one of the largest exports of both Argentina and Bolivia, therefore increasing national incentives to support its expansion as an industry. Similarly, bovinization takes place when land is converted for the specific goal of using it for cattle ranching. The introduction of non-native grass species is replacing forests to make for more efficient beef production and because of its contribution to the national GDP of Paraguay specifically, there are little to no limitations on the growth of the industry[6].

Tenure arrangements

History of Land Tenure

The Gran Chaco region has historically been inhabited by Indigenous groups such as the Wichí[4], Guaraní, Weenhayek, and Tapiete[3]. These people groups engaged in land cultivation and agricultural practices. Many engaged in a farming practice known as subsistence farming wherein their harvests were not for the sole purpose of economic gain or entrepreneurial purposes but rather to sustain themselves and their community. Indigenous peoples use traditional knowledge rooted in their communities’ histories and collective memory and experiences on the land to live and thrive in specific areas of South America and the Gran Chaco more specifically. Some non-Indigenous groups have also lived in the Gran Chaco for generations (not since time immemorial in Indigenous groups’ case) such as the Criollo farmers.

Post World War II the global economy expanded and international trade introduced the Chaco to industrial agricultural practices[8]. Due to the arid conditions in the Chaco, companies couldn’t previously farm in some of the regions of the Chaco that Indigenous groups such as the Wichí were living and farming in[4]. After technology to combat this was developed, the Wichí and criollo peasants were pushed out of their traditional lands and territories. Gabay & Alam in their paper about land tenure governance point out that “about 95% of the land in the Parque Chaqueño forest region is subject to some kind of conflict over tenure rights” not only that but “60% of the Indigenous communities in the region lack secure land tenure of their ancestral land” (2017, p. 30)[4].

With a growing international market for agricultural products along with the recent increase in the industrialization of crop production other issues such as the introduction of GMOs have also impacted Indigenous land sovereignty and tenure. In 1996 the Secretariat of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food gave the go-ahead for a soybean crop that was Roundup Ready[4]. This along with no-till practices and a GMO corn crop began to change the landscape significantly making it increasingly hard for communities living there prior to continuing their way of life.

Indigenous Land Tenure and Rights

Law No. 26,160 on Indigenous Community Ownership passed in Argentina operationalized Indigenous land rights and declared an emergency on the status of Indigenous land rights. This law was meant to survey the Chaco in Argentina and state whether or not it was under ancestral use. The National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI) was introduced in Argentina in order to enforce tenure rights for Indigenous groups. Unfortunately, 8 years after this law was passed only 2.61% of Indigenous communities in Salta were surveyed[4]. This along with the prevalence of agricultural companies seeking to take advantage of affected smallholder farmers allow for the continued dispossession of Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Gabay et al. also highlight the fact that “businessmen continue the practice of misleading Wichís and peasants into signing ‘contracts’ they cannot read or understand, in which they recognize alleged land property rights thus inadvertently renouncing their own rights” (2017, p. 32)[4]. Many Wichí communities do not speak Spanish and are more easily misled in these negotiations.

There are proven linkages between the dispossession of Indigenous and non-Indigenous smallholder farmers and deforestation in the Chaco. Gabay & Alam (2017) state that “community forestry provides a meaningful contribution to furthering the mitigation pathway” and “in order to achieve its full potential, it is necessary to strengthen community land tenure rights and enhance community organizations'' (p. 27)[4]. The current land tenure system in the Gran Chaco that spans Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay varies greatly and is often left up to private owners to deal with negotiations amongst themselves. Peasant farmers such as the criollos and Indigenous peoples’ are subject to land-grabbing and exploitation for their financial positions relative to international and industrial agricultural companies.

Landowner Perspectives

Argentina holds the largest portion of the Gran Chaco with 60% of it within Argentinian borders. Land tenure in the Argentinian Chaco is mostly private with 58% of it being owned by private groups or individuals[9]. The other portion of the Chaco is 22% companies, 11% government organizations, 7% Indigenous communities, and 2% non-government organizations[9]. An ecosystem service provision (PES) was introduced under the National Forest Law to provide a monetary incentive for landowners to implement conservation practices on their parcels. In their study, Godoy et al. (2022) surveyed PES participants and other landowners to see the effectiveness of the program and general attitudes[9]. Godoy et al. found that landowners who relied on their agricultural income preferred to sell their land and that Indigenous communities would rather sell or donate their development rights to the land. Additionally, respondents would rather not engage in programs that required sustainable timber production but would rather join the PES program than choose tax reductions, selling their land or development rights, or donating development rights[9]. Unfortunately, the monetary payments that respondents required are more than the available PES funding in Argentina leaving landowners with a hard choice to make and often leading them to sell their land or traditional rights to said land.

Affected Stakeholders

Indigenous Communities

Across the Gran Chaco region, there are many Indigenous communities who have sustained themselves in the arid forests for thousands of years, with particular ethno-cultural identities tied to the land through ancestry and generational occupation[10]. These are affected stakeholders who, because of their intergenerational and ancestral ties to the lands, are also more specifically rightsholders. The Guaraní, Weenhayek and Tapiete peoples occupy lands in present-day Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay with large gas reserves in the ground[3]. This supply of resources complicates Indigenous claims to title, as the governments in the region, such as the federal government of Bolivia, allow economic interests to supersede their claims to an autonomous region by fragmenting land to allow continued extraction in certain areas with less productive patches of land being granted Indigenous title[3].

In Salta, Argentina, in one of the most contested provinces in the region, the dominant Indigenous group is the Wichí people[11]. Even with the federal recognition by Argentina of the rights of Indigenous peoples to remain on traditional lands, in practice this has led to only a fraction of traditional Wichí lands being included in Indigenous communal land titles, with large portions continuing to be privately owned among major agribusinesses[12] [11].

Bundle of Rights chart

Los criollos

Another group of affected stakeholders are the criollos communities. These are small-scale peasant cattle ranchers who are considered to be part of “local communities” that also include Indigenous peoples in the region and who participate in conservation within the forests where they live. However, they are not considered legal rights holders in the same way as the Indigenous communities because even though they rely on the landscape for their livelihoods, they are more recent colonial arrivals of Spanish settler descent without the same relation to the territory and recognition under law[13] [14]. They have struggled for land tenure alongside Indigenous communities, but because of their status, they do not have access to community forest titles[14].

Interested Stakeholders

The interested stakeholders of the region promote a diverse group of members. There are several large soy companies that have a substantial amount of control over the industry. These soy companies are not directly impacted like the affected stakeholders, yet their involvement can hinder further movements for preservation, conservation and sustainable practices. Next, Non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) provide support and services for environmental education and implementation of sustainable practices[14]. NGOs are not directly affected by policies either, yet they provide support for those who are. World Banks and International Organizations are interested in agricultural production and services that can be exported from the region. These groups have similar interests to the large soy companies, as they are purely interested in the financial gain that can come from the exportation of agricultural products. Finally, we introduce state and national governments to our group of interested stakeholders[14]. These groups have high influence but low importance in the region's power analysis[13]. These groups are hoping to become involved to regain power and relevance in the region.


Barriers to Conservation and Conflicts of Interest

The Gran Chaco forest is a complex region with a number of different interested and affected stakeholders. The dominant barriers to conservation in the Chaco forests include a lack of support for policies and frameworks, conflicts of interest, lack of social support, and financial motivators. The number of different parties invested in what happens in the Chaco makes for complicated negotiations and conflicts of interest.

The government of Argentina has exhibited conflicting views on the development of the Chaco. Even though the Argentinian government passed Law No. 26.331 (the National Forest Law), it is in contrast to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries in 2011 that put forward the Agri-food and Agroindustrial Strategic Plan which had a 57 Million ton increase in crop yield. In order to increase production by this much, there would need to be 9 million more hectares of farmland[4]. Effective policy is backed by government action and other influential parties. Money pressure in the region contributes to this polarization between agricultural exportation and the conservation of the landscapes. Due to the lucrative nature of soy and beef exportation, landowners and national governments continue to encourage the development of Chaco land through plans such as the Agri-food and Agroindustrial Strategic Plan put forward in Argentina. Additionally, smallholder farms and landowners (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) are encouraged to sell their land to the larger agricultural corporations moving into the Chaco. Often these negotiations are not just and involve land-grabbing through the exploitation of language barriers, financial disparities, and other tactics.

Another barrier to conservation and Indigenous land rights in the Gran Chaco has to do with the type of forest it is. The Chaco is an arid forest and the second largest forest in South America next to the Amazon[5]. Arid forests are largely understudied and therefore not considered as much when it comes to environmental justice. Unfortunately, to the public eye, the aesthetics of a dry forest pale in comparison to that of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem making it hard to gather international pressure or support for movements in the Chaco region.

Assessment of Power

Power analysis of stakeholders and other actors.

The distribution of power in this region has evolved over the past century, especially as changes in global values and awareness of land rights have pressured governments in the Gran Chaco and beyond to take a different approach in the wake of colonization. In Argentina, while the rights of Indigenous peoples to their territories was theoretically acknowledged as of 2007 when the Forest Law was passed, little actualized progress has been made to secure land titles to Indigenous communities[15]. The federal government continues to hold the majority of the power alongside the large agribusinesses with control over wide swaths of deforested lands for soy production. The organization of federal power disseminates to each province, which determines management decisions for the natural resources in their jurisdiction while ultimately following Argentina’s National Constitution and the baseline conservation requirements (which are quite limited in scope)[5]. This convolution adds to the barriers to Indigenous rights over lands that are now considered rich beds of natural resources for the government to extract[5]. Moreover, peasant criollo communities have seen little recognition until very recently, and still remain to have access to the same community forest tenure titles as Indigenous communities despite their dependence on the landscape[13][14].

As Indigenous groups continue to fight for their ancestral territories, some have taken to utilizing certain strategies to pressure the federal governments, including categorically demonstrating their occupation of the lands where they have traditionally lived in order to take advantage of the Forest Law[15]. However, bureaucratic obstacles and a lack of funding have impeded these efforts, despite economic support in recent years from NGOs based around the world[14]. Additionally, large soy producers in the region have benefited from the capitalization of agriculture, where they have captured access to lands and investment capital which allows them to grow, act with greater agency, and lobby for pro-corporation policies[16].

In Bolivia, resource extraction in the Gran Chaco has also contributed challenges to Indigenous autonomy in the region, where hydrocarbon projects are booming under the country’s neo-extractivist model[3]. The Indigenous communities of the Guaraní, Weenhayek and Tapiete peoples have worked to advance their representation in the region, however their efforts have been constricted by elites and the government’s priorities, though they continue to carve their own space to progress postcolonial justice[3]. Bolivia also made changes to the constitution, with Indigenous contributions to its rewriting that recategorizes the country as a “plurinational state” and recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-governance. To accomplish this, there are three ways to designate a piece of land as a part of autonomías indígenas originarias campesinas (Indigenous peasant autonomies, AIOCs), which is the main strategy for Indigenous recognition and power to result from this Constitution[3][17]. In reality, like in other parts of the Gran Chaco the reclamation process has been stalled due to logistical slowdowns and competing interests of the government to continue resource extraction in these same lands[3] [18].


The Gran Chaco region contains a complex, overlapping web of governance structures, stakeholders, and transboundary issues that have resulted in rapid rates of deforestation. Despite new developments in formal recognition of Indigenous rights, major blockages remain in the process of realizing these rights through tenure security[5][14]. Moving forward, governments in the region will face pressure to follow through on the formal recognition of the traditional ways of Indigenous groups in the region, with the hesitation of governments to relinquish power and lucrative colonial resource extraction posing the greatest opposition.

However, there is also an urgency to reform the sustainability of timber products in the face of disappearing forests and intensive agricultural practices in the region, as economic reformation away from extractivism requires a restructuring of forest management towards Indigenous practices that pre-date colonial governments[3]. Non-governmental organizations are fairly new to the region but have proved to be beneficial through supporting community engagement in land use and customary forest practices[15]. Investing in locally driven organizations within the movement for Indigenous and peasant land tenure, as well as international NGOs can provide necessary funds for long-lasting change towards better ecological outcomes and awareness[9].

Conservation of biodiversity while promoting traditional lifestyles in the region is another important aspect with great potential for growth in the coming future. The Gran Chaco region has unique dry forests that are home to an abundance of unique species and spiritually important organisms that support humans and ecosystem functioning in the midst of the climate crisis. However, further research is needed to assess the present threats to the region as little is known about the long term effects of deforestation and specific climatic risks[8]. Finally, the last recommendation to the Gran Chaco region would be to encourage the governments of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina to invest resources and time into supporting the movements for education and protection of a post-colonial model of decentralized control and community engagement.

Cattle ranch (small-scale) in the Gran Chaco.


Taking a deeper look at the resource injustice and extractivism of the Gran Chaco region it is apparent that there are large conflicts of interest that allow wide scale deforestation. Agricultural production provides a much needed influx to the economies of the region, but also destroys biodiversity for monetary gains that do not reach past the elites into the communities that are experiencing the most harm due to this intensification[8]. Preservation and conservation do not offer the same incentives that production and exportation do to the colonial government structures that remain. Countries such as Argentina continue to allot federal resources and support to the expansion of industrial agriculture in areas such as the Gran Chaco while laws like the National Forest Law supposedly encourage the preservation of these forest areas while granting security to local communities[15]. Cultural and social justice are continuously compromised in practice, as Indigenous rights are still not fully consummated in the implementation of what laws and policies do exist in the region. This area of South America (Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina) has ample natural resources and have been guarded for thousands of years by the Indigenous communities who have thrived in the arid landscape long before the creation of these states[10]. Their forest management practices allowed them to flourish, yet they have been excluded in the recent centuries with slow development in policy to rectify this severe displacement. Additionally, the initiatives and policies that are present do not have the social or economical capital to influence sustained change in these areas when faced against the power of large agribusinesses, private land ownership, and slow bureaucracy. Governmental legislation and financial support for current actions are needed to continue to manage the region's biodiversity and forests to empower impoverished and marginalized communities who rely on the lands[10].


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  2. 2.0 2.1 Bucher, E. H., & Huszar, P. C. (1999). Sustainable management of the Gran Chaco of South America: Ecological promise and economic constraints. Journal of Environmental Management, 57(2), 99-108.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Anthias, P. (2022). The pluri-extractivist state: Regional autonomy and the limits of Indigenous representation in Bolivia's Gran Chaco province. Journal of Latin American Studies, 54(1), 125-154. doi:10.1017/S0022216X21000997
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Gabay, M., & Alam, M. (2017). Community forestry and its mitigation potential in the Anthropocene: The importance of land tenure governance and the threat of privatization. Forest Policy and Economics, 79, 26-35.
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  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Fehlenberg, V., Baumann, M., Gasparri, N., Piquer-Rodriguez, M., Gavier-Pizarro, G., Kuemmerle, T. (2017). The role of soybean production as an underlying driver of deforestation in the South American Chaco. Global Environmental Change, 45, 24-34.
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  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Godoy, C. C. N., Pienaar, E. F., & Branch, L. C. (2022). Willingness of private landowners to participate in forest conservation in the Chaco region of Argentina. Forest Policy and Economics, 138, 102708.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Alcorn, J. B., Zarzycki, A., & de la Cruz, L. M. (2010). Poverty, governance and conservation in the Gran Chaco of South America. Biodiversity, 11(1-2), 39-44.
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  16. Le Polain de Waroux, Y., Garrett, R. D., Heilmayr, R., & Lambin, E. F. (2016). Land-use policies and corporate investments in agriculture in the Gran Chaco and Chiquitano. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(15), 4021-4026.
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  18. Merino, R. (2018). Reimagining the nation-state: Indigenous peoples and the making of plurinationalism in Latin America. Leiden Journal of International Law, 31(4), 773-792.

This conservation resource was created by Course:FRST370.