Disappearing world: Paraguay's Ayoreo people fight devastating land sales | Land Portal
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An Ayoreo group in the Chaco whose ancestral land was sold to international ranchers in 2012 is battling for its return – and to hang on to their way of life

By Toby Stirling Hill

Unine Cutamorajna steers his motorbike past the bulbous silhouettes of the samu’u trees. Filled with water and studded with thick thorns, they are fine examples of plant adaptation to the hot, arid climate of the Paraguayan Chaco.

“This is all our territory,” he shouts over his shoulder. “The white men tried to take it from us, but we’re here again now.”

He stops beside a dirt track. The approach leads into forest undergrowth made raucous by chirping birds and shrieking insects.

“When we first came back, I enjoyed exploring that part of the land,” he says. “But I don’t go any more. I don’t want to get shot!”

Now in his 50s, Cutamorajna was a young boy when he left the forest and went to live with missionaries. He was born into a group of indigenous Ayoreos, a semi-nomadic people from the Gran Chaco, a lowland plain encompassing parts of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.

The evangelists told them that the end of the world was close, that the forest would soon be destroyed, and that they could survive only by moving to the missionary settlements.

“It was all still there,” chuckles Carlos Etacore, president of the Paraguayan Union of Native Ayoreos (Unap). “The forest, the honey, the wild animals. We even saw signs of other Ayoreos.” Today, these other Ayoreos are among the only uncontacted groups in the Americas, outside of the Amazon rainforest.

This discovery inspired Ayoreo leaders to return to their ancestral territory. With the help of local NGOs, they occupied land and fought lengthy legal battles for titles of ownership. And they won. In 2010, 23 families, Cutamorajna’s among them, moved to 25,000 hectares (61, 750 acres) of land in an area they call Cuyabia (pdf).

“In Cuyabia, we saw how people recovered,” says Miguel Angel Alarcón, from the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie. “They put on weight, they suffered fewer illnesses, they regained their sight and began to have shamanic visions again.”

Then, in 2012, the president of Indi, the governmental body responsible for defending indigenous rights, sold off the Cuyabia land. The buyers, international ranching firms, began to cut down the forest to clear land for cattle grazing.

“It’s written in the constitution that selling indigenous land is illegal,” says Maximiliano Mendieta Miranda, a lawyer with the NGO Tierra Viva. “So it was a completely stupid thing to do, and Indi’s ex-president is now in jail.

But the damage had been done. Eleven firms now claim ownership of plots superimposed over Cuyabia. Residents report being threatened by armed security guards in areas where work is taking place.

Cutamorajna rides to a recently cleared patch of land. The silvery skeletons of freshly felled trees dot the open fields. Cows huddle for shade beneath the few that remain upright.

“When there’s forest, we have everything we need,” he says. “Wild pigs to hunt, bugs and forest fruit to eat. Honey we take from the trees. Caraguata plants give us a thread that women use to weave bags. But when the forest is cut down, kaput! We lose what we need to survive.”

It is not just a material loss, he adds. His mother-in-law remembers a historic site within Cuyabia. Before contact with the missionaries, she had lived there during the rainy season, when Ayoreo groups, nomadic for the rest of the year, settle down and take advantage of a brief period of fertility to grow crops.

“When we first arrived, she liked to visit that place,” he says. “But then a cattle ranch swallowed it. It’s gone.”

Deforestation is transforming the entire Chaco, a region described by David Attenborough as “one of the last great wilderness areas left in the world”.

From their office on the banks of the Paraguay river, the civil society group Guyra Paraguay uses satellite imagery to monitor the changes.

“The Chaco in general has the highest rate of deforestation in the world,” says Alberto Yanosky, the organisation’s president. His assessment is supported by a 2013 University of Maryland study, as well as Guyra’s own measurements. They show that, every year, a quarter of a million hectares are lost in the Paraguayan Chaco alone.

A parallel process previously cleared Paraguay’s eastern half: the lush, rain-soaked land separated from the arid Chaco by the Paraguay river. As recently as the 70s, what is now a sea of soy plantations was covered in trees. This was the great Atlantic forest, which spilled into Paraguay from Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

Today, only 7% of Paraguay’s Atlantic forest remains intact. The severity of recent flooding is likely to have been exacerbated by its loss.

In 2004, a moratorium was placed on deforestation in eastern Paraguay. The result was an intensified struggle between cattle ranches and soya plantations, the region’s two dominant industries.

Yanosky explains: “50% of the soya in the east of Paraguay is grown on land originally deforested by rancheros, which was then replaced by soya. The cattle ranchers moved into the Chaco, where land was cheap.” Paraguayan beef exports have soared over the past five years, propelled by growth in its cattle herd – a growth enabled by the deforestation of the Chaco.

Yanosky loads up a series of satellite images, where swaths of green forest are blotched with pinky-white patches. He points to one place where the ratio is particularly tilted towards the pink.

“This department is called Boquerón,” he says. “It is essentially experiencing the highest rates of deforestation anywhere in the world.” In the department’s north-east corner, he zooms in on the elongated T-shape of Cuyabia. Strips of deforested land rip across much of the territory.

Deforestation in the Chaco doesn’t just harm Ayoreo communities already in contact with society. It also threatens to wipe out uncontacted people living in the remoter regions of the forest. Iniciativa Amotocodie works with Unap to protect them from contact.

“What we see when indigenous groups move to a settled life is a complete collapse of their world,” says Miguel Angel Alarcón. “They lose their self-determination, their autonomy, their leaders, their food, their control.

“This isn’t just the case for the Ayoreo, this is the whole experience of South America.”

At Cuyabia, Indi is undertaking a measurement to determine the location of the 25,000 hectares belonging to Cutamorajna’s community. Ricardo Ortega, a lawyer with Indi, admits that, even once this process is complete, returning the land to the community will be a challenge.

“The ranching firms have huge influence in the Chaco,” he says. “We’ll have to deal with each one on a case-by-case basis.”

Still, despite the corruption and intimidation, the Ayoreo and those supporting them are ready to keep resisting.

“I remember my father saying that we used to have to fight to defend our territory,” says Carlos Etacore, gesturing to several wooden lances leaning in a corner of the Iniciativa Amotocodie office. “Now we have to fight with the ways of the white man, with documentation and denunciations and paper.

“And sometimes, it works.”

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