In the Guaraní language spoken in some parts of South America, the words “Ñembi Guasu” mean “the great hideout” or “the great refuge.” Ñembi Guasu is also the name of a new conservation area in Bolivia, covering more than 12,000 square kilometers (4,650 square miles) of well-conserved forests, more than double the size of Grand Canyon National Park in the U.S. The creation of the protected area is expected to help to offset deforestation in Bolivia’s Gran Chaco region.
The Ñembi Guasu Area of Conservation and Ecological Importance is the second-largest protected area in the Gran Chaco. It’s home to species such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), puma (Puma concolor), the southern night monkey (Aotus azarae) and the southern tamandua (Tamandua tetradactyla), a type of anteater. The creation of the protected area also safeguards the territory of the Ayoreo indigenous community, who have chosen to remain in isolation.
“We have always been conservationists of natural resources and we want to maintain the territory for future generations. We see that, little by little, people come to work on these lands, so we need to conserve these reserves,” says Rubén Ortiz, a representative of the Ñembi Guasu conservation area.
The decision of autonomous Bolivian indigenous people
Ñembi Guasu is the first conservation area created within the plan for indigenous autonomy that was established in the Bolivian Constitution in 2009. The newly protected area was officially defined on April 29, 2019, by the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government.
“The creation of the area has to do with the world view of the Guaraní community, which has a strong culture of conservation,” says Ademar Flores, a legislator and member of the indigenous government’s land and natural resources commission.
Management of the area began in 2005, according to Flores, the same year that the approval of autonomous indigenous communities was heavily considered. For this reason, when the indigenous government was established and its statutes defined, this territory was included as a proposed reserved area. “Now, we have almost 70 percent of our forest destined for conservation,” Flores says.
Because the newly protected Ñembi Guasu territory is located between two existing national parks — Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco and Otuquis — its establishment consolidates a continuous conservation area totaling about 60,000 square kilometers (23,100 square miles).
“This continuous territory has a long border with Paraguay that is linked with the Paraguayan Chaco Biosphere Reserve. So this is a binational conservation complex,” says Iván Arnold, director of Nature, Land and Life (Nativa), an organization that has worked with the Guaraní community throughout the process of consolidating the new protected area.
Arnold says the area is one of the few places in Bolivia where long-term plans can be made for the jaguar population and for other large animals that inhabit it. The territory is home to more than 100 species of mammals, 300 species of birds, and at least 80 species of reptiles and amphibians.
Arnold says this is the first time Bolivia has implemented its constitutional plan for indigenous autonomy to create a protected area. “These are new types of reserved areas that are being reclaimed all around the world. Not only do they have to do with the classic concept of conservation, but they also revive thoughts of the indigenous communities — in this case, the Guaraní.” He says the remaining work includes the development of a management plan within a governance model based on the world view of the Guaraní people.
A refuge for biodiversity
“There is a beautiful landscape and species that aren’t found in other areas. I have traveled through Kaa Iya and Otuquis [national parks], but Ñembi Guasu has particular features that contrast those of the other two parks,” Flores says. To him, the new protected area signifies “a large place where the animals can hide.”
A wide range of species have been observed there using camera traps, including the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), the weasel-like tayra (Eira barbara), the gray brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira) and the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis).
“This area is intact, although in the Chiquitanía, located to the north, there is a lot of deforestation,” says Sander van Andel, coordinator of the “Shared Resources, Joint Solutions” initiative for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in the Netherlands. “The Chaco in general, in Argentina and Paraguay, almost does not exist anymore. But in Bolivia, the Chaco is still maintained.”
Van Andel says the coordination process with local institutions began two years ago. These institutions include Nativa, the Guaraní Charagua Iyambae autonomous government, the NGO Nature and Culture International, and the World Land Trust, an international organization dedicated to the protection and management of natural ecosystems.
“Our local partners were in charge of going through the territory and setting up the camera traps. That way, we were able to see the species that are common in the Chaco, but we believe that there are large populations there because the area is intact, with a big future in terms of conservation. The landscape is incredible,” Van Andel says.
The birds observed in the territory include the undulated tinamou (Crypturellus undulatus), the American kestrel (Falco sparverius), turquoise-fronted amazon (Amazona aestiva), the squirrel cuckoo (Piaya cayana), the tropical kingbird (Tyrannus melancholicus) and more.
In a short period of time, researchers observed reptiles such as the gold tegu (Tupinambis teguixin), the red-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis carbonarius), the common boa constrictor (Boa constrictor) and the yacare caiman (Caiman yacare). Van Andel says further studies are needed to uncover the rest of the biodiversity in the area.
In terms of vegetation, the forest is home to tree species such as the red quebracho (Schinopsis lorentzii), horned red quebracho (Schinopsis cornuta), urunday (Astronium urundeuva), guayacán (Porlieria sp.), algarrobo (Prosopis spp.), lapacho (Tabebuia spp.), palo santo (Bulnesia sarmientoi), and tala (Celtis tala), along with various species of palm trees.
The Ayoreo: A community in voluntary isolation
Mariel Cabero Ugalde, an expert on environmental justice at the IUCN in the Netherlands, emphasizes the presence of the Ayoreo indigenous community. The Ayoreo have chosen to remain in isolation inside the Ñembi Guasu territory.
According to a 2016 study by the organization Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA), the Ayoreo community roam an area that covers more than 325,000 square kilometers (127,000 square miles) in Bolivia and Paraguay. It confirms the presence of the Ayoreo through testimonies, signs they leave in the area, and casual sightings by members of other groups. Additionally, the existence of these isolated groups in other parts of Bolivia and Paraguay has been corroborated by some members of the Ayoreo community who have come out of isolation.
“The first signs of the presence of isolated groups on the border with Paraguay were registered by the IA in August 2004, during a trip with Ayoreo elders who returned to their territories 50 years after being removed,” the report says. It adds that IA has recorded testimonies about the Ayoreo presence in Bolivia since 2009.
According to the study, this territory has been subject to constant pressure from the expansion of the agricultural frontier in both countries, the exploitation of natural resources, and the installation of infrastructure.
Cabero Ugalde says he’s concerned by certain threats that put the Ñembi Guasu territory at risk. One of these is the extraction of oil, since the Bolivian government approved an order that allows the extraction of oil within natural protected areas. “In Bolivia, the Chaco is one area that has many oil reserves,” Cabero Ugalde says.
He adds that illegal invasions pose another threat. Legislator Flores also notes this problem, which he says is already present in the protected area. “In an area next to the Chiquitanía, there have been land invasions, and the problem has moved into the Ñembi Guasu. There are people who come from [the departments of] Cochabamba, Oruro and Potosí who somehow obtain permission from the National Agrarian Reform Institute of Bolivia to stay in those areas,” he says.
Ortiz, Ñembi Guasu’s representative, also shares his concern, saying his organization is already having conversations with the relevant government institutions so that mechanisms are established to clear outsiders from the area. “It is a virgin forest, abundant in wildlife, and we need to protect it,” Ortiz says.
This article was first published by Mongabay Latam in Spanish on 16 May 2019.