The Gran Chaco: Healing Nature through Healthy Food Systems
The Gran Chaco stretches across Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil, spanning an area about twice the size of Spain. It is one of the last remaining biodiversity strongholds in the world and holds the largest dry forest in South America. Recent research found that there is 19 times more carbon stored here than previously estimated, making it one of the largest carbon sinks on the planet. Yet, the rare dry forest of the Gran Chaco is one of the most threatened ecoregions worldwide.
Eighty percent of Argentina’s deforestation today occurs in the Gran Chaco, largely due to large-scale soy and beef production. Growing the same crop year after year has led to overworked and malnourished soils that depend on synthetic fertilizers for productivity, perpetuating a cycle of depletion. Forests that once served as corridors for species like jaguars and giant anteaters are disappearing. These changes not only threaten biodiversity, but dramatically impact the region’s ability to adapt to climate change and cope with natural disasters. Fewer trees mean higher temperatures, elevated carbon emissions, and dry, depleted soils that are more likely to erode during floods or droughts, threatening not only local water quality and quantity but also the region’s food security.
But a new trend is emerging. In 2015, TNC began working with local farmers and larger conventional agricultural operations to introduce the concept of regenerative agriculture. The strategy is based on the principle of giving back to nature the resources needed to produce food— healthy soil, water, biodiversity—so the land can continuously produce while also sequestering carbon and enhancing climate resilience.
Farmer Martin Olivera is one of the champions of regenerative agriculture in the Santa Fe province. He allows his cows to graze on natural meadows or pastureland instead of clearing land for conversion to pasture. As a result, his cattle eat healthier and have shade protecting them from the scorching heat of the Gran Chaco. In return, the cattle fertilize the ecosystem and contribute to the spread of seeds, all of which keeps the forest healthy by creating a virtuous circle in what TNC calls the Gran Chaco foodscape. Martin also replenishes his soil’s nutrients by planting small, surface-dwelling plants between rows of crops. Known as cover crops, these plants aren’t harvested for income, but they help incorporate minerals into the soil to help boost overall productivity and prevent erosion.
Similar projects in Mexico, Central America, Colombia, and Brazil—led by TNC in partnership with thousands of producers like Martin—are demonstrating that food production increases when managed with respect for the delicate ecological balance upon which it depends, creating a positive change for communities, economies, and wildlife.
Innovative Finance for Deforestation-free Production
Eight financial institutions and agribusinesses committed USD 3 billion to accelerate deforestation-free cattle and soy production in South America. The entities have become the first signatories of the Innovative Finance for the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco (IFACC), a new initiative from the United Nations Environment Programme, TNC, and the Tropical Forest Alliance. The IFACC strives to scale innovative financial mechanisms to help farmers implement principles and practices that can provide soy and cattle to global markets without further converting or clearing forests in the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco ecosystems. The initiative aims to reach USD 10 billion of commitments and USD 1 billion in disbursements by 2025 through mechanisms such as farm loan products, farmland investment funds, corporate debt instruments, and capital markets offerings.
TNC and partners are helping landowners reduce deforestation by using practices that make land use more productive, like rotational grazing and planting native species that have income value.
Agroforestry Conservation in the Amazon
Two TNC programs in Latin America are demonstrating that agroforestry, the practice of growing food crops and native trees in the same land area, is ideal for reducing deforestation, restoring and connecting forests, improving biodiversity conservation, and mitigating climate change.
In Colombia, TNC recently completed a seven-year initiative in the Amazonian region of Caquetá, working with local producers to employ agroforestry practices that protect their livelihoods and nature. The initiative put almost 20,000 acres under conservation agreements and sustainable management and preserved 19,300 acres of native forests. The project also trained 171 smallholder families in good land-management practices and developed planning and sustainable management tools that are now being implemented by government organizations, including municipalities, Colombia’s Humboldt Institute, and the Ministry of Environment and Social Development. Finally, the work meant 3.59 megatons of CO2 eq GHG reduced emissions in the program area.
In Brazil, TNC launched the Agroforestry and Restoration Accelerator Project in Pará through the Right Now Climate Fund. The Accelerator will create a sustainable source of income for thousands of local farmers through sales of cocoa and other crops grown on degraded and discarded cattle pastures that will be transformed into healthy agricultural lands using agroforestry systems. The first 26 smallholder farmers have joined the project and are already implementing ecological restoration practices on 3,456 acres. TNC has conducted mapping and environmental studies of the three regions engaged in the project. The nature-based solutions that are at the heart of the project will help tackle climate change by naturally trapping and storing carbon, preventing the worst effects of climate imbalance.
working on his São Félix do Xingu ranch, Brazil. Cocoa is a sustainable forest crop native to the Amazon and the primary ingredient of chocolate. Planting cocoa helps reconnect habitat and brings back wildlife, including pollinators and seed dispensers to the restored areas.
Sustainable and Prosperous Communities
TNC is leading a consortium of partners, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to reverse deforestation through the Sustainable Prosperous Communities (SPC) program in Mexico. Together, we are helping smallholders in Campeche, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Quintana Roo, and Yucatan shift to nature-positive production systems and access markets and financing that recognize their efforts as good stewards of the land. The five-year, USD 30 million effort will include a range of public-private partnerships to transform the current economic model that encourages monoculture agriculture and low-productivity ranching. Those are the main drivers of forest conversion related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and threats to biodiversity.
Seaweed Farms Restore Livelihoods and Habitat
As Covid-19 restrictions wiped out Belize’s once-booming tourism industry, sustainable seaweed mariculture became a lifeline in a sea of uncertainty for tourism-dependent coastal communities in Belize. TNC has been working with local partners for the past five years to develop a sustainable seaweed industry that can provide social, economic and ecological benefits to both coastal communities and marine ecosystems. With the potential of being a “superfood”, farmers can obtain up to USD 15 per pound for dried seaweed, which is used in smoothies, soups, cosmetics and skin therapy. In addition to providing training sessions for this sustainable coastal livelihood, our collaborative program has focused on testing and developing a seaweed farming system that protects and provides habitat for other commercially and ecologically important species, such as spiny lobster, parrotfish, snapper and a host of other species. Sustainable aquaculture also offers the opportunity to empower women and reshape gender roles.
Authentic Partnerships for a Healthy Ocean
Building authentic partnerships with local communities is key to conservation everywhere. In Chile, one of the world’s top fishing nations, TNC is working to achieve the greatest conservation impact by focusing on artisanal fisheries—many of them facing collapse due to overfishing and poor management—which are dotted along the coast and employ more than 90,000 fishers. We are working with communities and the government’s fishing agencies to sustainably manage 13 fish species in 160 coastal fisheries. We also completed the first stage of a pioneering kelp forest restoration project in southern Chile that seeks to reduce the ecological and socioeconomic impacts of climate change. Chile is one of the world’s top exporters of seaweed and its dense kelp forests are essential for healthy biodiversity.
Fishing for a Future
A new national regulation in Peru will improve sustainable management of 76 species of coastal invertebrates, including scallops, clams, octopuses, shrimp, sea urchins and sea cucumbers, supporting for the first-time how communities manage their traditional fishing grounds, which cover more than 3.5 million acres that overlap with Marine Protected Areas in the Humboldt Current. TNC Peru matched the leadership and vision of fishers and agencies with scientific and technical resources to inform the regulation, and received more than USD 4 million from the Blue Action Fund to support the implementation of the new law and boost the management of marine protected areas over the next four years.
re working with TNC’s Oceans Program in Peru to more sustainably manage their fishery.
Working Together for Water Security
Protecting and restoring nature’s ability to provide clean water can help alleviate water shortages worldwide. First implemented in Latin America and now replicated around the world, Water Funds convene public, private, and community leaders to protect water at its source by reforesting watersheds that capture and filter water while introducing sustainable agriculture and ranching practices and other innovative projects that prevent contamination of the waterways. Our 26 Water Funds operate in nine countries in Latin America, mobilizing more than 350 public and private partners to invest more than USD 240 million to support conservation actions on more than two million acres in priority areas and benefiting nearly 104,000 families. Five additional Water Funds are in development in the region. The model is being replicated in North America, Africa, and Asia.
is transitioning her family farm from chemical intensive strawberries to a sustainable forest system that integrates crops and safeguards water sources. Guatemala City Water Fund project.
A Presidential Award In Guatemala
The Guatemala Water Fund was awarded the 2021 Presidential Medal for the Environment in recognition of its work to improve water security in Guatemala. Spearheaded by TNC and local partners in 2017, the fund has been working to strategically protect and restore forests in 18 watersheds that hold water sources for 16 million inhabitants of Guatemala City.
Impact Report 2021
Together, we find a way