Beyond Borders: Leaving no one behind in the Gran Chaco region
02 December 2021
The United Nations Country Teams from Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina recently completed a ten-day mission by visiting several communities in the largest dry forest in the world and the second-largest forest biome in South America: the Gran Chaco, which extends over an area of over 1,14 million square kilometres, distributed in central and northern Argentina, southeastern Bolivia and western Paraguay.
At the Bolivian and Paraguayan Chaco, the UN country teams were crossing borders with a common objective: to bring the UN closer to the field and interact with local authorities and communities. One of the mission’s goals was to identify the needs of the most vulnerable people living in the area and explore ways of collaborating within the framework of the 2030 Agenda and its primary objective of “leaving no one behind”.
The UN country teams visited nearly ten municipalities and localities in both countries to assess how to better contribute to the region’s development, looking for ways to make ongoing projects more effective and scale-up results.
Susana Sottoli, Resident Coordinator in Bolivia, and Mario Samaja, Resident Coordinator in Paraguay, were accompanied by members of their country teams and representatives from international cooperation agencies. The teams from both countries also connected virtually with the UN Resident Coordinator in Argentina, Roberto Valent.
The mission was a unique opportunity to talk with representatives of indigenous communities who shared their aspirations and concerns about the future. They also displayed an excellent capacity for climate adaptation and a great spirit of collaboration to seek common solutions.
First stop: Bolivia
In Bolivia, the teams visited the municipalities of Machareti, Ñancaroinza, Camiri and Charagua. One of the first persons they met during the mission was Mrs Clara Pérez, the indigenous leader of Machareti on the Bolivian side of the Chaco. Road access to this municipality is through gravel and dirt roads, making access even more difficult during the rainy season.
“The truth is that it hasn’t rained for two years. Last year it didn’t rain. So what’s the point of planting if production fails,” said Clara, who has been the leader of her community for the last two years, alluding to the difficulties they are now facing due to climate change.
According to Clara, one of the main challenges is strengthening food production. While the community owns the land, the conditions of the Gran Chaco and the impact of climate change make planting and harvesting extremely challenging. In addition, the lack of economic resources has forced many women and men to leave their communities to work the lands of others for minimum wages.
“All the crops failed, first because of the drought and then because of the frost. As a result, most people harvested little or nothing from their crops, certainly not enough for the whole year”, she explained.
“By visiting Clara’s community and other regions of the Great Chaco, we were able to learn from the voice of the actors in this area about their needs and aspirations for development,” said Susana Sottoli, the UN Resident Coordinator in Bolivia.
“This visit will allow us to work horizontally with local communities as partners to bring together more actors and mobilize resources according to specific priorities”, added Sottoli.
“The idea is that our programs, our interventions as United Nations have to be part of a larger, more integrated vision of various sectors so that together with strategic partners we can support development in these regions that geographically are one,” said Sottoli. “This is a clear example of greater integration of the work of the United Nations”.
Second stop: Paraguay
On the Paraguayan side, the UN mission visited the towns of Filadelfia and Macharety (a sister Guarani community to the homonymous town in Bolivia).
There, community leaders talked about the ties they still maintain with their Bolivian relatives and what they had achieved after twenty years of community organizing: securing their land, organizing the community and improving their food production systems.
“Unity is very important for the development of the community,” explained Cartor Miguel Saavedra, community vice-leader and a small farmer. “Each family has its own land and we work as a community. Land development is getting closer and closer and is squeezing us, but we maintain the vision of staying united and taking care of the forests, which are very important to us. Large farms surround the community and the relationship with the neighbours is one of mutual respect,” said the indigenous leader.
This viewpoint is popular among the various groups that inhabit the Paraguayan side of the Gran Chaco, where solidarity and cooperation are essential amidst very harsh climate conditions, which go from prolonged droughts to flash floods that contaminate water reservoirs and make roads inaccessible.
At this stage of the mission, meetings were held with representatives from the indigenous communities and Mennonite cooperatives established in the region since the beginning of the 20th century, civil society and community organizations, and local authorities. All of them spoke about their aspirations and concerns about the future of the region.
“Holding this consultation was essential to localize the Sustainable Development Goals with the community itself, which has found a way to solve many of its difficulties by working together,” said Mario Samaja, UN Resident Coordinator in Paraguay.
This mission of UN teams demonstrates that joint work can take place across borders.
“The presence of the United Nations in the Gran Chaco is fundamental. It is necessary to work in a coordinated, effective and coherent manner as a system taking into account that there are realities in which the approach must be transnational to promote the achievement of the SDGs in places where the context is really adverse,” said Roberto Valent, UN Resident Coordinator in Argentina.
To learn more about the experience, and hear from the Resident Coordinators, check out this video, which follows them on their journey.
Facts about the Gran Chaco
The Gran Chaco is the largest dry forest globally and the second-largest forest biome in South America, after the Amazon. It spans about 1,14 million square kilometres and extends to areas of central and northern Argentina, southeastern Bolivia and western Paraguay. In addition, a small portion of the Gran Chaco is located in southern Brazil.
Climate action efforts are vital in the region. In the summer, temperatures exceed 40 degrees Celsius, while in the south and southwest, they can reach below 0 degrees in winter. Extensive droughts alternate with floods during rainy periods. These extreme phenomena are becoming more frequent due to climate change.
Most of the inhabitants of Gran Chaco live in Argentina. A smaller proportion resides in Bolivia and Paraguay. Its population is diverse and composed of a mosaic of identities and cultures, including indigenous communities and descendants of the different migration waves from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The region has fallen behind other bioregions of the continent, with social indicators below the regional average, especially in terms of deficits in access to infrastructure and essential services such as health, education and access to drinking water. As a result, the population is highly vulnerable to climate events and other crises.
There is also an asymmetry in the income levels of the population, which affects women’s lives the most. Institutions face challenges in meeting the needs of the population distributed unequally throughout the Chaco territory.