Forest fires that have blazed across Paraguay in recent weeks are likely to have been, in part, started by criminal groups seeking to clear space for more marijuana plantations.
Paraguay declared a state of emergency earlier this month as forest fires choked much of the country. More than 5,000 separate fires were registered on October 1. While a lengthy period of drought and dry weather allowed the fires to spread virtually unchecked, a new report has claimed armed groups may have started many of them.
In September, Guyra Paraguay, a non-governmental organization tracking forest fires, stated that all of them had been deliberately started, either "for agricultural reasons or to grow marijuana."
On October 13, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development declared that armed men linked to marijuana cultivation in the Caazapá National Park had stopped firefighters from containing fires in the area, Ultima Hora reported.
On October 2, firefighters in Caazapá National Park directly blamed marijuana traffickers for starting a fire there.
The same dynamic has been seen in previous years. In October 2019, a volunteer firefighter chief in the municipality of Villarrica, located close to Caazapá, suggested that the fires could have been due to land clearance for marijuana cultivation.
At least 2,350 hectares of marijuana plantations exist within the natural parks of Mbaracayú, San Rafael, Morombí and Caazapá, which are all part of the Paraná Atlantic Forest, according to Mongabay.
But it is likely that the number of plantations has now increased as demand for marijuana has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities in neighboring Argentina and Brazil, as well as in the United States and Europe, have reported soaring consumption of marijuana in recent months.
Paraguay is the leading marijuana producer in the region, with much of the crop sent to Argentina and Brazil. The country's northeastern region, where 93 percent of marijuana plantations are concentrated, has presented severe environmental degradation in recent years.
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While Paraguay reports low marijuana consumption rates, neighboring countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile had large consumer markets prior to the pandemic. The latter three countries listed have the highest rates of marijuana consumption in all of South America, according to a 2019 report on drug consumption in the Americas.
Brazilian authorities have seen a massive increase in marijuana seizures coming from Paraguay in 2020. According to data from Brazil’s federal police, 257 tons of marijuana were seized in the border states of Paraná and Mato Grosso do Sul between January and September, while just 107 tons were seized in 2019.
Paraguay has the second-highest deforestation rate in South America, according to Global Forest Watch, and this year's catastrophic forest fires may be the worst in the country's history. And it is not facing this problem alone.
Drug traffickers and other criminal groups in Latin America have also taken advantage of illegal logging to clear space for plantations, build landing strips for drug planes or sell off timber. For example, neighboring Brazil is facing reports that almost 100 percent of its forest fires were started by criminal groups.