But beyond beef and soy, the cleared land of the Gran Chaco produces some pretty unexpected stuff, too: everyday products that are exported and sold abroad to consumers who may never know their purchases contribute to the destruction of South America's second largest forest.
There are at least 14 million head of cattle in the Paraguayan Chaco and over 4 million hectares of land devoted to cattle ranching—an area larger than Belgium.
The Paraguayan government hopes to climb into the top five of global beef exporters in the next 10 years. To meet that goal, ranchers will need more land—a lot of it—since Paraguay's beef industry is based on grazing, rather than the feedlot model prevalent in the U.S.
To clear forest land for grazing, both legally and illegally, Paraguayan cattle ranchers use what's called "chaining." That means leveling the forest with tractors that drag heavy chains. Then they burn the fallen trees.
Increasingly, some Paraguayan ranchers are realizing that there’s money to be made off those felled trees, too. Rather than just incinerating the wood in their fields, they turn it into carbón—or charcoal, in English.
Across the Paraguayan Chaco, large brick kilns located off of main roads slowly bake the wood cleared from nearby forests, transforming it into charcoal that fuels weekend cookouts worldwide.
Paraguayan charcoal may be a “natural” product, but it’s hardly environmentally friendly. That’s because making and selling charcoal from recently cut trees—trees that previously went to waste—makes deforestation more profitable.
As a result, purchases of this product indirectly contribute to the deforestation of the Chaco, sometimes turning environmentally minded consumers into unknowing accomplices in the decimation of South America’s second-largest forest.
A similar problem arises with another Chaco good that’s sold far and wide: leather.
A September 2018 United Nations report on contemporary forms of slavery in Paraguay shows that forced labor on Chaco cattle ranches and related industries is slowly improving due to increased compliance with labor laws, but affirms that it remains prevalent.
Going, going …
It can be overwhelming, I know, for consumers to investigate whether their leather, say, or the charcoal for their BBQ is ethically sourced.
There are so many worrying environmental problems in the world, and global supply chains are incredibly complex. So for consumers living far from the places that produce the goods they buy—even very conscientious ones—it is easier to focus on extraordinary events like the Amazon fires than to contemplate the unintended consequences of a weekend cookout.
That said, there's no "out of sight, out of mind" when it comes to social and environmental justice. If South America's great Gran Chaco forest continues to be leveled at the current rates, it will recede before most people even knew it existed.
Joel E. Correia is an assistant professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Florida.