Cattle company bulldozing UNESCO site, threatening uncontacted natives

Jeremy Hance
December 09, 2009

A Brazilian ranching company is bulldozing land within UNESCO Chaco Biosphere Reserve in Paraguay, home to the only uncontacted natives outside of the Amazon in South America. While the UNESCO status provides no legal protections to the area, it is meant as an international marker to protect the tribe of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode and the forest they inhabit.

The indigenous groups' organization, OPIT, has sent a plea to Paraguay's Foreign Minister to "send a letter to UNESCO in Paris so that their representatives come and see with their own eyes what is happening to our forests." The statement continues: "we thought that the creation of the biosphere could lead to respect for the forest where our uncontacted relatives live. It has not been respected. [Deforestation] kills the forest and the animals that we need to survive."

Portions of the land within the Chaco Biosphere reserve are owned by the ranching company, named Yaguarete meaning 'jaguar' in Spanish, as well as another company called River Plate S.A. Only a small portion of land is owned by contacted natives of the Ayoreo- Totobiegosode. The tribe is currently working to gain more land "with little success," David Hill of Survival International told mongabay.com.

The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode territory has been bought by land speculators and ranchers and is now being rapidly bulldozed in defiance of national and international law. Many of the Totobiegosode's water holes have since dried up. Photo © Survival International.
He explains that the situation "is not unusual: large parts of Ayoreo territory have been in the hands of private owners since the 19th century".

The Ministry of the Environment (SEAM) has revoked Yaguarete's license in the area, but the company has refused to stop its bulldozing. Recently, two representatives from the tribe and a government official were even barred by company personnel from entering the area.

"It is difficult not to conclude that the government is simply unable, or at least lacks the political will to allocate the necessary time and resources, to stop the deforestation," says Hill.

Although the government has attempted to stop the deforestation recently, Hill says that in the end they are "as culpable as the company doing the bulldozing. The government sold traditional Ayoreo land to [ranching company] Yaguarete and it agreed, in 2007, that the company could deforest 1,500 hectares in 2008 and another 1,500 hectares in 2009. This is land currently being claimed, through the courts, by the Totobiegosode."

Between Yaguarete and River Plate S.A. an estimated 6,878 hectares were deforested last year. GAT, a local organization, estimated that 3,000 hectares have been deforested by just Yaguarete this year.

The Chaco biosphere reserve, which encompasses the largest dry forest in South America, is also home to several threatened species, including the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris), the giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), both of which are classified as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red List, and the Chacoan peccary considered Endangered. The area is also home to the America's largest cat, the jaguar.

"In failing to prevent the deforestation of the Totobiegosode's land, [the government] is not fulfilling its international commitments and threatening its most vulnerable citizens with extinction," Hill says.

According to Survival International, the Totobiegosode practice small-scale agriculture of squash, beans and melons, while hunting in the forest for wild pig and tortoises.

Parojnai, an Ayoreo man who died from TB as a result of contact with outsiders. Photo © Ruedi Suter and Survival International.

Guireja, an Ayoreo woman, sits outside her former house that had been abandoned as a result of logging. Photo © Survival International.

Bulldozer clearing forest in Ayoreo land, Paraguay. Photo © Survival International.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (December 09, 2009).

Cattle company bulldozing UNESCO site, threatening uncontacted natives .