Agro-industrial development is putting intense pressure on the Chaco woodlands of Bolivia, Argentina, and especially, Paraguay.
The worst repercussions of this deforestation – besides its critical role in tropical deforestation’s release of 1.5 billion tons of carbon each year – falls on the uncontacted indigenous Ayoreo tribe.
Paraguay’s uncontacted Ayoreo Natives depend on the forest for their survival, which the indigenous Ayoreo has protected for thousands of years.
But they’ve been continually forced to run from the cattle ranchers’ bulldozers, who have taken over much of their land.
Paraguay’s Environment Ministry violated national and international law by quietly issuing an environmental license to cattle ranchers to bulldoze a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the last refuge of uncontacted Ayoreo. It has put their lives in extreme danger, the Indigenous advocacy organization Survival International reported last December.
The trouble has been brewing for decades. Paraguay’s Chaco Biosphere Reserve documented it in 2005. “In the last two decades old processes have intensified, partially affecting the Paraguayan Chaco Boreal … It has led to a growing impoverishment of the entire system, with a significant impact on the social and cultural field, especially affecting the already destabilized groups and indigenous communities.”
Now, according to a new scientific study by the University of Maryland, the development of cattle ranches in Paraguay’s Chaco woodlands within the western half of the country has resulted in the highest rate of deforestation in the world.
Bulldozers are constantly at work, clearing their forest, their homes and gardens, and the uncontacted Ayoreo are forced to run away. Any contact with the ranchers could kill them as they lack immunity to diseases brought in by outsiders.
Ayoreo forcibly contacted since 1969 by colonists, bulldozer operators, ranchers, and driven from their forest homes by manhunts developed respiratory diseases after contact such as tuberculosis. Many have died, reports Survival.
In the last manhunt 25 years ago, they captured over two dozen of the tribe’s members, and killed five, reports Survival. The US-based fundamentalist missionary organization the New Tribes Mission was involved in the manhunt, and faced a storm of criticism. Listen to the moment the uncontacted Indians were attacked (mp3 audio file).
After rising TB deaths last year Survival wrote to Paraguay’s Ministry of Health asking it to prevent the needless deaths of indigenous Ayoreo, and called on ranching companies to put an immediate stop to all work on Ayoreo land.
Contacted indigenous Ayoreo voiced their opposition to forest clearing in a December statement released by the Ayoreo organization OPIT, stating, “Today with the change in our diet, our adults die young … We are protecting the forests that provide for us. This way we don’t need the white people’s food to survive. We want to continue using the forest, and for the ranchers to stop harassing our relatives who remain there.”
These contacted tribal members “work tirelessly,” reports Survival, to secure legal title to the land inhabited by their uncontacted relatives, which is just a fraction of their territory. Without their forest, they cannot feed or support themselves, and they are extremely concerned about their uncontacted relatives still living there.
Under Paraguayan law, this claim area should have been titled to the Indigenous Peoples years ago, as both Paraguayan law, and the country’s Constitution, recognize their right to the ownership of their traditional lands.
In an urgent appeal sent December 19 to the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, the Ayoreo organization OPIT said, “(For the Ayoreo and their uncontacted relatives), protecting the forest and their territories constitutes life itself.” Kayla Wieche, a Survival International spokesperson based in the U.S. said James Anaya, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for indigenous Peoples has not yet responded to the appeal.
“For how much longer will Paraguay boast two UNESCO biosphere reserves?” questioned Stephen Corry, director of Survival International in a statement. “With the world’s highest rate of deforestation, the Chaco won’t last forever: with it, the country’s only uncontacted tribe will be obliterated. The government must stop Brazilian ranchers destroying its peoples heritage before it’s too late for the Chaco, and too late for the Ayoreo.”
When U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Kyung-wha Kang visited Paraguay in early 2011, she said, “The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – of which Paraguay is a signatory – is the guide and the solution to ensure that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are respected.”