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PARAGUAY: Uncontacted Ayoreo Threatened by Deforestation

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCION, Nov 27 2008 (IPS) - Large swathes of native forest have been turned into pasture land in the northern part of Paraguay’s semi-arid Chaco region, as large Brazilian cattle ranchers expand their property in this country.

The ranchers and landowning companies are encroaching on the territory of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Indians, and the destruction of forests is threatening the natural and cultural heritage of the nomadic indigenous group, some of whom still live in voluntary isolation in the forest.

“Our situation is very worrisome, because we still have relatives who do not want to be in contact with white society,” Porai Picanerai, a leader of the Payipie Ichadie Totobiegosode Organisation (OPIT – New Totobiegosode Thinking), told IPS.

The Totobiegosode form part of the larger Ayoreo ethnic group.

In early November, there were reports that some uncontacted members of the group had been seen in a deforested area that belongs to Brazilian landowners, on the edge of the indigenous group’s protected territory.

Until December 1986, Picanerai was living in the bush in the northern department (province) of Alto Paraguay, which is part of the Chaco region – a vast area of dense, scrubby forest that covers western Paraguay and parts of Bolivia and Argentina.

The evangelical work of U.S. missionaries from the New Tribes Mission (NTM) and Ayoreo converts triggered a violent clash with a group of Totobiegosode who avoid contact with the outside world. Picanerai was one of the Indians who was forced out of the forest at that time.

In the late 1980s, most of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode who had left the forest lived at the NTM’s Campo Loro Mission, in the Chaco region, where they joined a mix of local indigenous groups.

In 1993, the Totobiegosode took legal action to attempt to obtain title to the remaining forest land, estimated at around 550,000 hectares, in their traditional territory. The lawsuit was aimed at guaranteeing the survival of their relatives who still live in isolation in the forests.

But “the Paraguayan state has not enforced the laws,” said the indigenous leader.

In 1998, the Ministry of Education and Culture declared preservation of that land a matter of cultural and national interest, and in 2001 it named the 550,000 hectares the Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode people. It declared that they owned the land, and that it should be protected, as the last remaining portion of the group’s traditional territory.

But the deforestation has not come to a halt.

Of the 550,000 hectares in question, the indigenous group has only gained legal title to around 100,000. The problem has become more and more complex, due to the continuing encroachment by cattle ranchers.

“The majority of the owners of farms in what is considered Totobiegosode territory are Brazilians,” OPIT secretary Nebelino Chagabi Etacori told IPS.

The farms he was referring to belong to the Yaguarete Pora company, which owns 78,549 hectares; the River Plate company (22,000 hectares); and the Lote Casado company (36,000 hectares). The first two are Brazilian-owned and the latter belongs to the Unification Church, founded by Korean religious leader Sun Myung Moon.

The land belonging to the large landowning companies is located in the southern portion of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode Heritage area. Granting legal title over the property to the indigenous group would link it in one uninterrupted stretch of land with other areas to which the ethnic group has already obtained legal ownership.

“This is land that is important in terms of the conservation of the group’s natural and cultural heritage, and it is an area into which Totobiegosode Indians living in isolation have been forced,” Gladys Casaccia, a legal adviser to the non-governmental People, Environment and Territory organisation, which is fighting for the autonomy of indigenous peoples in Paraguay’s Chaco region, told IPS.

In August, OPIT denounced massive deforestation on land belonging to the Yaguarete Pora company. Their complaints were backed up by satellite images.

The concerns reached President Fernando Lugo, who took office in August, through a letter sent in October by the Coordinator for the Self-Determination of Indigenous Peoples, which groups 15 associations from different parts of the country.

In November 2007, the Secretariat of the Environment granted a two-year environmental permit to Yaguarete Pora for the clearing of 2,500 hectares a year, later reduced to 1,500 hectares by the National Forest Institute (INFONA).

But according to the Ayoreo, more than 2,100 hectares of forest had already been destroyed this year as of Oct. 29.

The National Environmental Council and Comptroller-General’s Office recommended canceling the logging permit granted to Yaguarete Pora.

The permit was cancelled on Nov. 13 “because of irregularities in the process of issuing the license, and the refusal by the owners of Yaguarete Pora to allow the Secretariat of the Environment to monitor and oversee compliance with the environmental management plan,” the secretariat’s legal adviser, Juan Rivarola, told IPS.

Under the government of Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008), a precautionary measure was implemented to protect the indigenous group’s heritage, while allowing Yaguarete Pora to design a management plan in order to obtain an environmental permit, said Rivarola.

“Incompliance with the environmental mitigation measures is not only grounds for canceling the permit, but is a crime. If it is found that a larger area than what was authorised has been deforested, the public prosecutor’s office will have to act,” he said.

But the Ayoreo are sceptical. “We know the permit was canceled, but we don’t believe the problem will end here, because we’re talking about people who have a great deal of economic power,” said Chagabi Etacori.

The Secretariat of the Environment does not have statistics on the deforestation rate in the Chaco region, but it is estimated at around 130,000 hectares a year.

The growing forest clearing activities in western Paraguay are the cause of the salinisation of the soil, because deforestation causes a rise in the level of salty underground water, according to a study on climate change by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) office in Paraguay.

“The ecosystem of Paraguay’s Chaco region is quite fragile, mainly due to the scarcity of water and the great biodiversity. And this is the scenario in which cattle ranching activity is expanding,” Secretariat of the Environment official Ovidio Espínola told IPS.

In December 2004, Congress passed a law banning deforestation in eastern Paraguay, where only two percent of the forest area is left due to the steady expansion of soybean cultivation.

Meanwhile, cattle ranchers have moved into the Chaco region, increasing demand there for pasture land.

Over the last decade, Brazilian cattle ranchers have been buying up land in the border department of Alto Paraguay, taking advantage of the low land prices in this country.

And “in the past four years, due to developments in the international market for beef, and because Paraguay won certification as a country free of foot-and-mouth disease (with vaccination), beef production has increased even more,” said Espínola.

An estimated 90 percent of the land in Alto Paraguay is in the hands of Brazilian cattle ranchers, who live in Brazil and do not invest their earnings in the local economy.

Picanerai said the Ayoreo Totobiegosode have exhausted every avenue in their attempt to get some government agency or institution to listen to their plight. After years of struggle, they are hoping a solution will come from the Lugo administration, which has promised to help the country’s small indigenous minority (most of the population is of mixed-race European and indigenous descent).

“In the forest, when we heard the bulldozers coming, we were really frightened; we would run away and find new places to live where we would be left alone. Today, our relatives are still there,” he said.

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