Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The fate of the Indigenous Peoples

12 October, 2010 - 12:15 -- John Burton

I recently  visited Paraguay again, where the World Land Trust is helping our local partner Guyra Paraguay to initiate an innovative project with some of the local indigenous groups. The groups concerned (Ishir) are enthusiastically supporting the initiative, but this is almost despite the activities of some of those who purport to support native rights.

I also recently wrote about 'The Noble Savage' and the complexities surrounding indigenous rights (September 22). In Paraguay there are a significant number of indigenous groups, and there are also several NGOs representing these indigenous groups. There are also some indigenous groups that have avoided contact with the outside world. And there are also NGOs who claim to represent the interests of the uncontacted indigenous groups (often also described as ‘living in voluntary isolation').

However, since they have not been contacted, a] no one knows why they are in isolation, b] we cannot be certain to what extent it is voluntary, and c] we cannot know if they want to be represented by NGOs.

So a real dilemma.  Compound that with the fact that the NGOs representing the indigenous groups often do not agree,  occasionally criticise each other, and in some cases are downright antagonistic to each other, then add evangelistic protestant groups from the USA to the equation, and it is a bit of a mess.  And of course while the rest of the world may see the Paraguayan Indians as a single group, the truth is far, far different. There are actually numerous  groups, speaking many different languages, with often markedly different customs, and many of which were traditionally at war with each other until very recently.

After years of forcible settlement policies, by both the former governments of Paraguay, aided and abetted by Missionaries, Mennonite settlers and the estancia owners, there has also been a population drain with large numbers leaving the Chaco to migrate to the towns and cities, in search of education or a better life. Life in the present day villages is often miserable and squalid, with signs of inappropriate foreign aid.

The sad thing is that the habitat in which these indigenous groups live is now under a very serious threat indeed, with deforestation rates estimated at around 1000 acres or more a day. The land has been parcelled up, with titles issued, for several decades or more, and while the NGOs representing the indigenous groups, both at home and abroad, posture about whether or not these titles are valid, the land is being systematically deforested. The only hope in the immediate future is for all those with an interest in saving the Chaco, to work together. It will involve compromise. Of that I have no doubt, but standing on extreme principles, as most of the NGOs claiming to represent the indigenous groups do, will certainly lead to the destruction of the natural environment that is critical for their survival.

Meanwhile many of the NGOs claiming to representing their interests (particularly those outside Paraguay) continue to be more interested in soap-box oratory, than actually doing something practical to save the forests. Without the forests of the Chaco, there is no future for the culture of indigenous groups living there.

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