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More thoughts about the rights of the Ayoreo in the Chaco

31 December, 2010 - 11:39 -- John Burton

I have recently read “The Case of the Ayoreo”  (ISBN 978 99953 898 2 6), published in Paraguay. I ask: Does this document truly represent the views of the indigenous Ayoreo communities?

It is an interesting document that, to me, also raises far more questions than it answers. Most of the document is restating issues and facts that are already well documented in principle, elsewhere.  Perhaps the most important and new material is in pages 38 and 39. This starts with what the Ayoreo need "Because of everything we have expressed, denounced and explained in this publication:" and goes on to make a series of demands and requests.

The views of the Ayoreo?

Unfortunately, it is not at all clear as to who has actually written this part of the document, (which claims to be from "The Ayoreo People" to " the Paraguayan Government and non-indigenous* Society"). It is translated into English, and is not clear as to which language it was originally written in.

These issues are, to me,  absolutely critical to the understanding of the words themselves. The hand of outsiders is immediately evident in the wording, and in the way issues are described, so to what degree the document represents the views and aspirations of the Ayoreos is impossible to gauge. And in view of the recent controversy over Iniciativa Amotocodie, which resulted in accusations that they were misrepresenting the views of the Ayoreo, this is a very important issue.

The noble savage

While some of the requests are perfectly reasonable, there are also demands being made that are quite unrealistic, but in most cases nothing specific is actually identified. The requests and demands are so broad as to be ineffective for the Ayoreo, and impossible for the government to respond to. And I would also mention that from the (very little) contact I have had with Ayoreo, for the majority, their needs and aspirations are quite different to those identified in this document.

The document has all the markings of being written by social anthropologists who want to keep the Ayreo in a state of ‘noble savagery’, able to roam the forest with bows and arrows, hunting peccaries and harvesting honey. The reality is almost certainly very different, and the majority of Ayoreo are probably more materialistic than the publication suggests, as evidenced by the satellite dish I saw in the middle of an Ayoreo 'village', and the women clamouring to sell their weavings.

The document completely fails to recognise and accept that the damage has already been done, and it is too late to go back. The missionaries have effectively destroyed the Ayoreo culture, and made them materialistic in a very American evangelical way. They have been exposed to material wealth, they use money and they buy commodities. They want education, and they certainly need health care. It is too late to go back. It is unrealistic to expect governments and private land owners to hand back hundreds of thousands of hectares effectively acquired by conquest.  I am not condoning it, but it is a fact.

These sorts of documents have proliferated over the past half century, invariably inspired by social anthropologists, many of who live very comfortable lifestyles, quite at variance with the lifestyles they are proposing for the indigenous groups. But these documents have done little to help the people they are concerned with. By failing to compromise, the representatives of indigenous peoples have failed those peoples on a massive scale, leaving the majority far worse off than they were 50 years ago.

The future: Involving local communities in Conservation

Just as the World Land Trust believes that it is important for the Trust to always empower local conservation groups, it is probably safe to say that the same should apply to indigenous groups. But such empowerment should be direct and not through third parties, whether or not they are evangelical Christians or social anthropologists. Both have their own agendas, and as far as I can see, often at variance with the local people themselves.

Indigenous groups, local communities, all of these need to be involved in conservation, and both have rights. Such rights are those delegated by governments, and in some cases agreed under international treaties. However, these rights are not intrinsic, and do vary from place to place, and vary hugely depending on circumstances. For this reason it is essential to avoid generalisations, and to work on individual cases and situations. And this is precisely what the World Land Trust and its partner organisations are trying to do. And our partners have had significant successes in involving local communities, not only in Paraguay, but also in India and other parts of the world.


*In Paraguay the term 'indigenous' is particularly complex, since the majority of the population are a mixture of various European origins and various indigenous groups. And most indigenous groups will always include persons which are from other groups. There are consequently many different language groupings, cultural groupings and genetic groups, all with varying degrees of ‘indigenousness’. Even groups living in voluntary isolation may in fact have genes of European origin within the population as a result of historical interbreeding.

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