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In Paraguay a Familiar Story is Playing Out

September 13, 2011


Cattle Ranching in the Paraguayan Chaco

In Paraguay, the Ayoreo people are fighting for their very survival. These indigenous people are struggling to save their ancestral home in the Chaco region from cattle companies, farmers and religious sects who are moving into the region and clearing the land. New arrivals do this to make the land suitable for farming and grazing cattle. The combination of burning and then bulldozing the land leaves the region barren.

The Chaco region in southwestern Paraguay is one of the most inhospitable lands in South America; while it composes 60 percent of the country’s area, it is inhabited by only two percent of the Paraguayan population. Popular filmmaker and conservationist David Attenborough has praised the beauty of Chaco calling it “one of the last great wilderness areas left in the world” and called for its protection due to the many plants and animals that inhabit its dense forests.

The preservation of forested areas is not only vital to sustaining the region’s biodiversity; the survival of the Ayoreo people also depends upon it. It is not simply a matter of the Ayoreo people moving somewhere else. The territory called Eami in their language, is tied to their history and very identity and thus valued as sacred. As one of the members of the Ayoreo point out, “Our history is etched in every stream, in every waterhole, on the trees…our territory expresses itself through our history because the Ayoreo people and our territory are a single being.”

While the Ayoreo people were legally awarded some disputed land by the Paraguayan government, two Brazilian beef corporations, BBC S.A and River Plate S.A are refusing to hand over the land until they are sufficiently compensated. These companies are seeking permission to clear a large area of land bordering on the Ayoreo’s. This will mean fencing the Ayoreos in to a smaller area, marginalizing them even further. Although many Paraguayan officials support expanding the cattle and farming industries throughout the Chaco as a means to boost the economy, the long-term damage to the nation from both a human rights and an environmental perspective would be catastrophic. The practice of slash and burn agriculture will only bring short-term benefits at the expense of Paraguay’s ecology and the destruction of the Ayoreo people.

The Ayoreo-Totobeigosode, a sub community of the Ayoreo, is one of the last uncontacted groups in the world, Brazilian beef corporations, wealthy farmers, and Mennonite communities seeking remote areas in which to live a life based on a literal translation of the bible are encroaching on the Ayoreo lands. In the 1950s, the Ayoreo people lived in an area 2,800,000 hectares; now they claim only 550,00 hectares – a loss of nearly 80 percent. According to the BBC, over 1 million hectares have disappeared since 2007. Moreover, the new arrivals into the Chaco region have brought diseases, such as measles that were previously unknown to the Ayoreo people.

Members of the  Ayoreo-Totobeigosode

Both BBC S.A and River Plare S.A have been caught twice by satellite imagery of illegallyclearing protected forestryin Chaco. Yaguarete Pera, another Brazilian cattle corporation in the region was found guilty of deforesting the region and concealing evidence of the displace Ayoreo’s former presence. No stranger to controversy, Survival International awarded Yaguarete Pera their 2010 ‘Greenwashing Award’ for “dressing up the wholesale destruction of a huge area of the Indians’ forest as a noble gesture for conservation.”

Survival International issued a report to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) on 10th August, 2011 stating that the Ayores-Totobeigosode face the “imminent danger” of extermination. There are only 5,600 Ayoreo Indians left today with about 3,000 living in Bolivia and 2,600 in Paraguay. The Ayoreo people were lured out of their homes and into modern society with promises of a better life; many were dragged out forcibly. As Aquino Picanerai, a member of the Ayoreo recalled, “they brought us to the world of the white people and locked us up in this concentration camp.” Lacking the necessary skills to thrive in modern society and disenchanted with their situation, these indigenous people have since returned to their more traditional way of life. Others rejected modernity from the start, opting never to leave the forest, hoping to remain hidden and unmolested from the outside world. Sadly this will not be the case. Rising beef profits and the availability of cheap land continues to bring speculators seeking fortunes into the region.

Certain government officials in Paraguay have expressed the need for investment and claim that the human rights and deforestation situation has been exaggerated. Paraguay’s weak laws facilitate the wholesale destruction of the forest. Under current Paraguayan laws an individual or corporation is allowed to clear forest on up to 75% of its land. They may then sell the remaining 25 % to another entity who is entitled to clear 75% of that plot. The process leads to the complete destruction of that land. Last year, Paraguay’s congress failed to pass a law that would have placed a ban on deforestation in the Chaco region.

In an attempt to explain public silence on injustices being perpetrated in the Chaco region, Benno Glauser, the Director of Iniciativa Amotocodie explains “public opinion has no opinion on the matter”. The Chaco is at the periphery of a country of little international importance. Even in Paraguay, the Chaco does not embody the homogenous Guaraní society composing the majority of the population – more than 98 percent of Paraguayans are either mestizo or of primarily European descent. In contrast, the wilderness of the Chaco is sparsely populated by indigenous tribes and religious isolationists. In the public discourse, the cause to save the Ayoreo remains an obscure impediment to economic development. If this matter continues to fall on deaf ears then the allure of profits at the expense of humanity will prevail.

Written by COHA Research Associate Sean O’ Leary

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Albrecht Glatzle permalink
    September 17, 2011 5:29 pm

    This article really represents a familiar story as far as the (fairly hypocritical) European perception of the realities in the Paraguayan Chaco is concerned. In Europe (excluding the Russian Federation) 99.7% of native forests have been cleared. Multiple deforestation and reforestation has been carried out during the centuries on about a third on the European land surface.

    This is a big contrast to the situation in the Paraguayan Chaco, where just one third of the area is used as grazing land, 19% is natural rangeland, and just 15% has been sown to pastures on previously cleared bushland so far. Arable lands are marginal, covering just the insignificant portion of about 1‰ of the Paraguayan Chaco. Sixty-five percent of the Chaco is still covered by native bushland and dry forests. Almost exactly 10% of the Paraguayan Chaco has been declared as public and private nature reserves. These include the considerable area of 27.500 ha of the Estancia Yaguareté Porá (mentioned in the article), declared as a private nature reserve by presidential resolution. At a world wide scale, only 2.6% of the land surface has been declared as such. According to the regional plan for the Chaco, completed in 2008 under the leadership of the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, a net surface of another 20% of the Chaco is still available for land clearing and pasture development. This means that even when totally developed, well over half of the Chaco will remain under pristine conditions or with minimal alterations. In that way the Paraguayan Chaco always compares very favorably with any other region of this planet, particularly Europe.

    This article speaks disparagingly of the land users claiming wide-spread law-breaking by them. However, Paraguay has pioneered some of the most forward thinking environmental regulations for land use on the continent, which other
    countries like Argentina are only now beginning to introduce. While some individuals may have flouted the law, many more are fully committed to respecting the environment, the indigenous peoples and the wildlife, and have reason to feel abused by this article. Nowadays, illegal logging is extremely rare and prosecuted by law. According to the laws in effect, farmers have to leave half (50%, and not just 25% as claimed in the article) of their farms in pristine condition, and as such practically without economical use (25% as natural reserve and another 25% in form of ecological corridors, bush islands and wind breaks). Farms developed in that way do embrace a diversity of habitats and therefore more biological diversity than does the relatively monotone, closed bushland, as studies have shown. These important ecological services provided by the land owners are exclusively on their own account, of course. At this point I think it would be legitimate to mention that European farmers are generously compensated for legal land use restrictions with 400 Euro per hectare and year.

    Furthermore, the article discredits unduly the Mennonite settlers in the Chaco, many of whom had barely escaped Stalin’s terror in the former Soviet Union. The 18,000 Mennonites who live in the Chaco Paraguayo are fairly open-minded, very successful farmers and ranchers, partly engaged in national politics, responsible for most of the well developed infrastructure of the region including a grid of roads of more than 5000 km. They contribute most of the 40% of the national beef and all of the 50% of the national dairy production which the Paraguayan Chaco accounts for. The Mennonites finance and manage the biggest aid program for the local Indians who increased in numbers from a few hundred in the 1930s to well over 40,000 today in the Central Chaco. This includes the only functioning health care and insurance system for Indians in Paraguay and is provided by the Mennonite cooperatives. Furthermore, they are the biggest employer in the region attracting into the Chaco thousands of laborers form other provinces of Paraguay.

    As far as the uncontacted Indian tribe is concerned, it has been quantified by anthropologist Dr. Volker von Bremen (who lived almost two years among the Ayoreos) in the early 1990s to about 30 individuals. Meanwhile 18 members of this group gave up their traditional life as hunters and gatherers voluntarily and joined their relatives in one of the Ayorean territories (this was in 2004, if I remember correctly, when the photo was taken, shown in this article and in almost every other article on this topic published in Europe). There are no independent studies on how many, if any, uncontacted individuals still live in the bush, but one thing is sure: Reserving a territory of half the size of Britain for a handful of Indians under European pressure (or incentives given generously to Paraguayan political decision makers) would create a social conflict situation with tremendous explosive potential. These days there is no indigenous community in the Chaco whose hunting and gathering activities contribute more than 5% to a maximum of 10% to their living. Therefore Indian leaders of almost all communities have been highly concerned on recent attempts to pass a zero-deforestation law for the Chaco in parliament which they consider as an attack on their livelihood.

    • James Scoyne permalink
      September 19, 2011 9:06 pm

      It is nice to hear someone who supports Santa Cruz in Bolivia, over traditional agriculture in the highlands. DEVELOPMENT, SI. We in Toronto Canada, have created an industrial and post-industrial society, while maintaining a marvelous balance with RiverineForest and parks. May Chaco, finally do the same.


      P.S. The indigenous people claim it all!


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