Gran Chaco Americano is a vast ecosystem in South America stretching across Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and a bit of Brazil. After the Amazon basin, it is the largest forested region on the continent, with huge reserves of water, energy and cultivable land, and a great diversity of indigenous peoples, including the Ayoreo Totobiegosode, the only native population that remains in voluntary isolation outside Amazonia.
Chaco’s present and future hangs in the balance between the growing exploitation of its resources to produce livestock and wood, and the conservation of its natural habitat and the ancestral lifestyle of its peoples.
The environmental organisation WWF considers Gran Chaco an ecosystem of global importance for its role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Paraguay currently has the sixth fastest rate of deforestation in the world, with the loss of some 325,000 hectares per year, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Porai Picanerai holds his hat in his two hands as he talks animatedly in Ayoreo, his native tongue. He has just got out of his van with two others with whom he patrols their land, rifle in hand, trying to prevent the employees of neighbouring cattle ranches from coming in and felling trees without permission.
They almost never get there on time.
Picanerai is the leader of the Ayoreo community in Chaidi, about 500 kilometres from the Paraguayan capital, Asunción. His loved ones have had to take refuge in this settlement after having to abandon – as he had to in 1987 – their isolated communities after the surrounding area was destroyed.
A vast trench, about 20 metres wide and six kilometres long, has opened up this week. Palo santo trees, lapachos, palo borracho trees and carob trees, all considered precious woods, have been taken from the Totobiegosode peoples’protected reserve.
Bulldozers, which according to the indigenous people belong to the neighbouring landowners who farm cattle on the land, have torn much of the area’s vegetation out by the roots.
A trail of footprints from big mammals such as jaguars, tapirs and armadillos show the path taken by the majority of animals that fled from the noise of the tractors and chainsaws.
A first glance at a satellite map of the area shows that the Ayoreos’ ancestral lands – situated between the 3.4 million hectares of Kaa Iya national park in Bolivia and the one million hectares of the Chaco Defenders National Park in Paraguay – are the only surviving virgin areas of forest. To understand the importance the Paraguayan state attaches to these strongholds of nature, perhaps all you need to know is that the Chaco Defenders Park has only one park ranger.
There is a basic consensus at the UN that the Ayoreo Totobiegosode, and any indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation, must be able to keep their ancestral lands and maintain their traditional lifestyle if they so wish. But threats to their lifestyle have loomed much larger than respect for these rights in the last two decades and “no government has taken definitive action to protect our territory, culture and environment,” said Tagüide Picanerai, son of the Chaidí leader, speaking to Equal Times.
“Discrimination against the indigenous peoples is so strong in Paraguay that very few people care what happens to the Ayoreo,” explains the young Picanerai, the only Totobiegosode to study at university in the Paraguayan capital. Tagüide is studying education at the National University (UNA) and lives in Asunción but comes from Chaidí, where the hundred or so people to have abandoned the forest most recently now live.
They live in the community in small wooden houses, one for each family, and try to live life as closely as possible to the lifestyle they had in the forest, but with the addition of community services such as a school, as well as small scale agriculture and livestock farming.
Who are the Ayoreo Totobiegosode?
The Totobiegosode have been known since 1979 when the “New Tribes Mission”, an evangelical group from the US, entered their territory to convert them and to take them as semi-forced labour to the cattle ranches, says Picaneria, who speaks Ayoreo and Spanish, and who explains that the missionaries forced him and other families to leave their natural habitat and way of life in 1986.
Porai explains how the New Tribes Mission forced them to live in a settlement called Campo Loro where many died because they did not have the antibodies to protect them from the diseases of a more advanced society and where they were subjected to slavery-like conditions.
At that time, the missionaries caused a confrontation that led to the deaths of at least four of the indigenous people and forced another 40 out of the forest, according to local NGOs the Amotocodie Initiative and People, Environment and Territory (Gente, Ambiente y Territorio – GAT).
Since then more and more Totobiegosode have been leaving the forest, either as a result of violent confrontations or when they no longer have anywhere else to go. This was the case for 40-year-old Ingoi Etacori and 70-year-old Carateba Picanere, who left the forest in 2004 after being left on the edge of an open highway by the owners of nearby ranches.
Etacori still has the marks on his head of the plaited hair he used to have, in accordance with the culture of his people. His father and three brothers are still in the forest, he told Equal Times, holding a few small green parrots in his hand, standing in the doorway of his wooden hut.
The new owners of the Paraguayan Chaco
At least three landowning companies own the property deeds to the bulk of the nearly 2.8 million hectares that, according to anthropologists, once made up the lands of the different Ayoreo groups that lived between southern Bolivia and the Chaco region of Paraguay. They are the Yaguareté Porá Company from Brazil; Carlos Casado S.A., majority shareholder of the Spanish-owned San José real estate group, and the Paraguayan Itapotí company.
The San José Group holds the title deeds to 245,000 hectares of Chaco forest in Paraguay and boasts of it on its web page: “One of San José’s most important assets is the 254,000 or so hectares it owns in Paraguay,” a country it describes as having “a stable social and institutional framework with great potential for economic development, strategically situated on the borders of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia”.
While local organisations such as GAT, Tierraviva and Iniciativa Amotocoide, and international organisations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and Survival cry out in protest against the indiscriminate granting of environmental licences by the Paraguayan authorities, the Carlos Casado company claims it has not committed any offences, and that it “has always worked within the legal requirements”.
In March 2016 alone, changes to the natural coverage of 36,513 hectares of the American Gran Chaco were identified. In the previous month, 21,105 hectares of forest had disappeared, according to the latest report by Guyra Paraguay, a non-profit organisation that monitors changes in land use in Gran Chaco.
According to its calculations, 1,259 hectares are lost to legal and illegal logging every day. By comparison, the 36,513 hectares are the equivalent of an area more than 3.2 times the size of Asuncion and more than 1.8 times the size of Buenos Aires.
Paraguay has the highest recorded rate of deforestation at 49% of land stripped bare this month, followed by Argentina at 28% and Bolivia at 23%. In the specific case of Paraguay, the average rate of deforestation is approximately 574 hectares per day; for Argentina it is 33 ha/day and for Bolivia 271 ha/day. In March 2016 alone, Guyra counted about 6,400 hot spots (or fires) in the Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay region.