Saving threatened habitats worldwide

Controversy in the Chaco

15 November, 2010 - 11:36 -- John Burton

WLT and indigenous groups

One of the World Land Trust's (WLT) priorities has always been to ensure that the rights of local people are fully respected, and if at all possible they are included in the management and conservation activities. In some cases this is relatively easy and straightforward -- creating employment is often the most practical way of benefiting local people in areas where there are high levels of unemployment -- such as rural Ecuador or Brazil. Providing employment for hunters (often referred to as poachers), can often be a first class way of getting expert guides, while solving another problem.

However, in a few places, the local people don't want contact with the outside world. And the Gran Chaco is one of those few places left in the world where there are still isolated, uncontacted, groups of people. Living in the Dry Chaco are an estimated 100-150 indigenes, who shun contact and have ways of clearly indicating that they wish to continue to live in isolation. As recently as 1994 some intruders, with bulldozers, did get too close, and were attacked.

The WLT and its partners in Paraguay (Guyra Paraguay) believe it is critically important to respect these wishes, and protect the isolated groups as far as is possible from unwanted intrusion. The problem is that rampant deforestation, missionary activities, oil exploration and other activities all put these groups under pressure. Further complicating the issue is the fact that the indigenous groups need huge areas over which to hunt, and most of these lands are either designated as National Parks or are privately owned [This of course ignores any claims of 'ownership' that the indigenous groups might have].

The land purchases in Paraguay funded by the World Land Trust and the Netherlands IUCN were made on the understanding that the rights of indigenous peoples would be fully respected. But in order for indigenous groups to maintain any semblance of their traditional lifestyles, we need also to ensure that large areas are protected from destruction. By working with all the agencies involved we believe it is possible for wildlife and even the isolated groups, to continue to live undisturbed for a few more years. But this is only if we can fully protect the integrity of the National Parks, acquire additional lands to create corridors between them, and also ensure large areas are set aside. However, realistically, these isolated groups are unlikely to be able to maintain their isolation much longer. The pressures described above, are simply too great, and there is almost nothing that we as conservationists can do about it.

Natural History Museum Expedition into the Chaco

This all came into the public domain recently when an expedition involving British scientists going to the Chaco was announced. While the expedition had the support of many of the UNAP, the main representatives of the Ayoreo, one of the indigenous groups native to the Chaco, as well as the Paraguayan Ministry of Environment, and many other organizations, some organizations, mostly outside Paraguay, or run by non-Paraguayans spoke vociferously against the expedition. As is often the case, in attacking the expedition, they got many of the facts wrong, which only further exacerbated the situation.

So as an independent observer, I am using this space to report on the facts as I see them.

  1. The Dry Chaco is a huge area, and within it there are several National Parks and protected areas. But much of the area is privately owned, and the owners have title deeds, recognised under Paraguayan law [but in some cases disputed under territorial claims on behalf of indigenous groups].
  2. There are isolated, uncontacted groups, believed to Ayoreo Indians, estimated at around 100-150 individuals; they roam over an area of 2 million or more hectares. Because they are uncontacted, no one really knows what their aspirations are.
  3. The area where the uncontacted groups live is also crossed by roads, visible on google earth; while little used, they do allow access.
  4. The area where the uncontacted groups live has been visited by many people including oil prospectors, missionaries, scientists,  anthropologists, the military and many others
  5. Around 20 scientists from London’s Natural History Museum together with Paraguayan biologists, have established a very small camp for research, where the plants and animals will be sampled to enhance knowledge of the biodiversity of the northern Chaco, which is largely unrecorded at present.
  6. The expedition does not carry guns, as has been claimed.
  7. The expedition is fully aware of the implications relating to uncontacted groups, and taking all necessary precaution to respect their isolation.
  8. The Expedition is supported by scientific counterparts from SEAM (Ministry of the Environment in Paraguay), the Asuncion Museum and Guyra Paraguay.
  9. The expedition is supported by UNAP, the main body representing the Ayoreo of the Chaco.
  10. The knowledge gained, will enable informed decisions about the importance of the wildlife and its habitats to be made, as well as bringing to public attention the importance of the region.
  11. There is currently a serious problem with deforestation in the Chaco, which is by far the most serious threat to all indigenous groups, whether living in isolation or not.

One solution, since much of the land is privately owned, is to buy it and protect it, for the wildlife, and for the indigenous groups who have chosen to live in the forests. But this costs money. And Paraguay, after decades of a dictatorship is not a wealthy country. To be fair it will cost remarkably little money. Some of our donors have realised that a donation of £50,000 or £100,000 can have a massive impact in this region. It can buy a huge chunk of forest, and put in place real protection. The relevant government agencies and others are fully behind these initiatives, but simply do not have the financial resources themselves -- there is far too much pressure from other interest groups. But a few strategically located corridors will enable not only the wildlife, but also the indigenous human hunters and gatherers to move freely between the existing protected areas.

How you can help

Visit the WLT project pages for Paraguay to learn more about WLT's work with Guyra Paraguay

Help protect threatened Dry Chaco habitat by supporting the WLT "Defending the Chaco" Appeal

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