Paraguay weighs natural gas drilling in Médanos del Chaco National Park

by Maxwell Radwin 

  • Congress is considering opening up natural gas exploration and extraction in Médanos del Chaco National Park, a protected area in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco, a savannah and dry forest ecosystem along the northwest border.
  • The 605,075-hectare (1,495,172-acre) national park has unique ecosystems and endemic flora and fauna, and is home to several Indigenous communities who rely on freshwater reserves that could be compromised by future drilling.
  • Modifications to a key law were approved by the country’s chamber of deputies last year then rejected by the senate this week. But it has another opportunity to pass later this year.

Paraguay is considering opening up mining and natural gas drilling in one of its national parks in the Gran Chaco, despite widespread outcry that development could compromise the fragile savannah ecosystem.

Two modifications to a law would designate Médanos del Chaco National Park as public domain, allowing the government to open investment to a hydrocarbon industry that was expelled from the area several years ago.

“There’s going to be exploitation. There’s going to be drilling,” said Mónica Centrón, Project Coordinator of Alter Vida, an eco-development non-profit. “It also leaves the door open for other companies to come in. Basically, the park will be destroyed if this happens.”

The modifications — made to two articles of a law that expanded the park — were approved by the lower house last October but failed in the senate this week, thanks in part to recommendations from President Mario Abdo and the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (MADES) to reject them. The proposal now returns to the lower house.

The 605,075-hectare (1,495,172-acre) national park, located in the northwest of the country, makes up one piece of a larger biosphere reserve that includes other protected areas like the Defensores del Chaco National Park and Bolivia’s Kaa-Iya National Park.

An armadillo in Médanos del Chaco National Park. (Photo courtesy of MADES)

The park is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage status, due to its unique dry forest and savannah ecosystems and high biodiversity, which includes animals like the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), pantanal cat (Leopardus braccatus) and guanaco (Lama guanicoe). It’s also home to the Yrendá aquifer and Timane River that supply freshwater to the area.

“No one touches Médanos del Chaco!” Sixto Pereira, a senator, said ahead of the senate vote. “We completely reject the exploitation of our resources for the benefit of a few. We hardly have enough (natural) wealth for the future and we can’t allow what we have left to be destroyed by economic interests.”

The park is home to around 130 Indigenous Guaraní Ñandéva families as well as Ayoreo Indigenous communities maintaining voluntary isolation. Mongabay has previously reported on the groups’ efforts to preserve their traditional practices and the rapidly disappearing forest against cattle ranching and land titling issues, among other things.

Several natural gas companies — including Riviera, Zeus Oi and state-owned Petropar — have permits in the area but had to halt their plans in 2016 after the park expanded its borders. Paraguayan firm Primo Cano Martínez SA, the first to extract natural gas in the Gran Chaco, lost a 40,000-hectare (98,842-acre) concession and is reportedly considering suing the state for damages if the modifications to the law don’t pass.

Protesters against changes to the law hold signs outside of congress. (Photo courtesy of Alter Vida)

Deputy Edwin Reimer, who sponsored the proposal to modify the law, argued that companies with licenses had their rights violated when the park was expanded. But critics of the proposal said the country has other legal commitments it has to take into consideration, as well.

“Paraguay has made commitments to the international community guaranteeing sustainable management of its natural resources and has ratified greatly important international treaties to protect biodiversity,” Por Los Bosques, an alliance of 69 local environmental organizations, said in a statement. “…In no way can reducing the legal protections of a national park for the prospecting and potential exploitation of hydrocarbons be consistent with those commitments.”

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