The Fourth River

The Ayoreo and our Failure of Imagination

By on March 16, 2016


By Stephanie Vega, assistant editor, The Fourth River


The Chaco region of Paraguay houses some of the most biodiverse and unique ecosystems, from the Gran Chaco thorn forest to the wetlands of the Pilcomayo. The thorn forest of the Gran Chaco is home to one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world, the Totobiegosode group of the Ayoreo tribe.

Last month, in a highly unusual move, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has ordered the Paraguayan government to protect the Ayoreo from being wiped out.

For decades, the Ayoreos have been on the run from terrifying noises of machines they cannot fathom, and falling ill to strange diseases as they are forced into contact with the modern world. In 1998, and then again in 2004, small groups of Ayoreo-Totobiegosode came out of isolation. There is evidence that isolated groups are still in the dry forest, but bulldozers are closing in.

Among regular people in Paraguay there is little sense of urgency. There is an implicit belief that nature can handle it, that the forest is somehow endless and regenerative. This view is not unique to Paraguay. All over the world, we do not understand our might.

The dry thorn forest of the Gran Chaco, long considered one of the most inhospitable environments in the world, was left alone for many decades while the subtropical rainforest that once covered most of eastern Paraguay was exploited. That jungle is now completely gone.

With improvements in technology and investors looking for options, the arid Chaco has become the new frontier.

It took two men with a double-handled handsaw a whole day or more to cut down a tree, dig out the roots and chop down the brush around it with machetes during the government-led colonization of the jungles from the 1960 to the 1980s.

In the Chaco, bulldozers today cut down 14 million trees in a month.

Investment in deforestation in Paraguay and around the world has accelerated beyond our ability to comprehend it, as finance has become global and technology widely available. Huge multinational companies, such as Brazilian mammoths Yaguareté Porã and River Plate are razing this part of the world at unimaginable speeds. Governments have done little to counter this trend.

It took three decades to vanquish the jungles of eastern Paraguay. With globally financed cattle ranching racing into the Chaco, the Ayoreo will soon have nowhere to go.

Our ease with this reflects how we see ourselves. We have not been able to shake off our traditional conceptions of being miniscule against endless wilderness and fathom the ominous power we now hold over the natural world.

The uncontacted Ayoreos, harvesting honey from fallen trees and eating heart of palm in the thorn forest of the Gran Chaco, cannot begin to comprehend this imbalance. Nature is still to them a force greater. But for us, in the midst of the modern world, there is no excuse for this failure of imagination. We are not evenly matched.


To learn more: