Wildlife and the world’s last uncontacted tribe both at risk as Mennonites turn Chaco forest into prairie-style farmland
Deforestation in Paraguay is forcing the people of the Ayoreo tribe to leave land they have occupied for generations.
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Hitler was said to have fled there, the Spanish conquistadores failed to penetrate it, and the only uncontacted tribe outside Amazonia lives within its borders. But now the vast Paraguayan wilderness of thorn trees, jaguars and snakes known as the Chaco is being transformed by a Christian fundamentalist sect and hundreds of Brazilian ranchers.
Worldwide food shortages and rock-bottom land prices in Paraguay have made the Chaco the last agricultural frontier. Great swaths of the virgin thorn forest once dubbed Latin America’s “green hell”, are being turned into prairie-style grasslands to rear meat for Europe and grow biofuel crops for cars.
Recent satellite imagery confirmed that about one million hectares, or nearly 10%, of the virgin, dry forest in northern Paraguay has been cleared in just four years by ranchers using fire, chains and bulldozers to open up land. By comparison, Brazil claims to have nearly halted its deforestation of the Amazon.
Landowners in the Chaco, the second-largest South American forest outside the Amazon, must by law leave trees on 25% of their land but the region’s remoteness and the government’s lack of resources for monitoring or prosecuting law-breakers has encouraged rampant, illegal felling of the dense, slow-growing forest.
The consequence, say conservationists, including David Attenborough, is a growing ecological disaster with widespread erosion and desertification taking place in one of the world’s most fragile and diverse environments.
“This is one of the last great wilderness areas left in the world. It is vital that we save the incredible biodiversity of these habitats,” said Attenborough, who made some of his earliest wildlife films in the region.
The barely populated expanse of almost impenetrable forest, twice the size of the UK, is home to about 3,400 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles, and 100 species of amphibians. Jaguars, pumas, giant anteaters and otters make it one of the most diverse in the world.
In November the Natural History Museum will send 60 scientists to investigate two areas of the forest. They expect to find several hundred new species.
About 20,000 Indians lived in the area for centuries but the land was never colonised by western groups until the 1930s when fundamentalist Mennonite sects from Russia and eastern Europe were given large areas, to allow them to avoid communist persecution.
As in Brazil, the indigenous people were largely wiped out and then deprived of their ancestral land.
The Mennonites, who include the traditional Amish sect of Pennsylvania, believe in a strict interpretation of the bible and often seek isolation in remote areas. But the Chaco land rush, which has seen prices rise from under $10 a hectare to over $200 in a few years, has made the sect worth at least $500m.
The large Mennonite families and powerful co-operative farm groups have bought an estimated 2m hectares of land in the Chaco. What also used to be modest meat and dairy enterprises have grown into formidable agri-businesses dominating Paraguayan livestock farming.
Mennonite communities, where an old German dialect is mostly spoken, now sport new pick-up trucks and have north American-style hypermarkets and restaurants.
“We intend to expand in the Chaco as much as the law allows. Not just physically but by making the land more productive,” said Heinrich Dyck, finance director of the Neuland co-operative of Mennonite farmers based in Filadelfia, the largest Mennonite community, of 4,000 people. The co-operative is one of Paraguay’s largest meat and milk exporters and owns the country’s biggest slaughterhouse.
Dyck added: “Religion is at the heart of everything we do. The Christian faith is fundamental to us. God made it clear in the bible that we should take care of the land and use it as a source of sustainability and production.”.
The Mennonites, who until recently paid no taxes, run their own schools and police. They have been joined in the Chaco by hundreds of Brazilian ranchers. These are mostly the descendants of German émigrés who established themselves in southern Brazil after the war. The Brazilians are now believed by government to own nearly 3m hectares.
“The Brazilians are now exporting deforestation,” said one government spokesman.
The two groups, which both speak German, now control nearly a third of the Paraguayan Chaco and have rapidly developed a $100m-a-year meat and dairy agri-business which exports meat to Chile, Europe, Israel and Russia.
Ignacio Rivas, a conservationist with the Paraguayan group Guyra, said: “The fate of the Chaco lies with these groups. At this rate 75% or more of the Chaco will have disappeared in a generation. Both groups are expanding aggressively. Their style of farming is totally unsuited to the fragile soils of the Chaco and will lead only to desertification and erosion.”
Mennonite and other large landowners this week defended the deforestation, arguing that it created jobs. “The Chaco was for sale a few years ago. No one wanted it. Why did not the conservationists buy it then?” said Massimo Coda, a spokesman for the Rural Association of Paraguay. “The reason why so much land is being cleared now is that we fear that more restrictions will be put on how much forest we can fell. We fear we will be stuck with a forest which pays nothing. We accept there is ecological damage, but we are prepared to leave more land forested.”
A spokesman for the environment ministry said: “We know what is happening in the Chaco but there’s little we can do. This land is very fragile. It will take many years to recover. The most important thing we can do is to try to conserve as much as possible. But we need the help of the international community to stop the losses in the most fragile areas.”
Concern is building over the future of isolated Indian groups. The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode is the only uncontacted tribe in South America outside Amazonia, but earlier this year bulldozers hired from a Mennonite transport company were found illegally destroying thousands of acres of the land they regularly use.
According to Survival International American fundamentalist churches helped organise “manhunts” in which large groups of Totobiegosode were forcibly brought out of the forest as late as the 1986 to be converted to Christianity.
“Everyone knows about the Amazon but this is one of the last unknown places on earth and it is being destroyed for the sake of a few hamburgers before we even study it. This is short-term gain with desertification the only long-term prospect. It will cease to work as an ecosystem if we allow this destruction to carry on,” said John Burton, chief executive of the Word Land Trust.
The Chaco has a history of surviving anything that man can throw at it, including war and a proposal that it become a global nuclear waste dump. During the 16th century, Spanish conquistadores tried to penetrate it but the vegetation, harsh climate, lack of water and indigenous tribes defeated them and the Chaco was largely ignored.
In 1932, following a rumoured oil strike by Shell, Bolivian troops invaded the region but were defeated by a lack of water and searing temperatures. More than 2,000 people died in the three-year war and the outlines of trenches are still clear, with pieces of metal from tanks still littering the countryside.
Explorers hope for new species
Sixty British and Paraguyan scientists are to spend a month in unexplored northern Chaco in a biodiversity expedition expected to discover several hundred new wildlife species.
The Natural History Museum’s expedition will be the largest scientific exercise ever mounted in Paraguay and one of the most ambitious by British scientists in 30 years.
Specialists in several fields, including spiders, birds, microbes, plants, mammals, and fossils, will spend two weeks in two of the remotest northern regions, close to the Bolivian border.
The army-backed expedition of 100 scientists, cooks and logistics experts will have to endure extreme conditions. “Temperatures are expected to reach 48C, humidity will be 100%, floods are possible and mosquitoes, ticks and other biting insects are certain,” said Alberto Yanosky, chief executive of the Paraguayan conservation group Gwyra, which is helping to organise the trip. “We have no idea what we might find. No one has researched these areas.”
The Chaco, which stretches over nearly 240,000 sq km, is similar topographically, and in places climatically, to the Australian outback. Covering parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, it is a mix of forest, palm woodland, shrubby steppe, and swamp. It is the second largest biome in South America after Amazonia.
5 Responses to Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguayan land under threat
Dr. Albrecht Glatzle’s comment seems very important to me in order to understand where Guardian’s John Vidal simply got it wrong. It really helps to better understand what is happening with the Chaco and the Indians and the Mennonites there.
I think much is left unsaid about what happens in the Chaco, and it is time for some more open discussion. I have no idea how accurate the above website is, but it does raise interesting questions.
nice being here.
we are looking to connect with environmentalists out there.
we have planted trees and also do support biomass gasifier technology
please do connect with us
I HATE THIS STUPID PROJECT!
While I always appreciated the independent views of The Guardian on topics related to climate change and others, with respect to the above mentioned article I must clearly state that it does not represent an objective analysis of the realities in the Paraguayan Chaco.
There is no historical evidence whatsoever that Hitler could have hidden in the Chaco after WW II as you speculate in your introductory sentence, – obviously just to discredit the Mennonite settlers in the Chaco, many of whom had barely escaped Stalin’s terror in the former Soviet Union. In reality, this “Christian Sect” you refer to, has little in common with the Pennsylvanian Amish people. The 18,000 Mennonites who live in the Chaco Paraguayo are fairly open-minded, very successful farmers and ranchers, partly engaged in national politics, responsible for most of the well developed infrastructure of the region including a grid of roads of more than 5000 km. They contribute most of the 40% of the national beef and all of the 50% of the national dairy production which the Paraguayan Chaco accounts for. The Mennonites finance and manage the biggest aid program for the local Indians who increased in numbers from a few hundred in the 1930s to well over 30,000 today in the Central Chaco. This includes the only functioning health care and insurance system for Indians in Paraguay and is provided by the Mennonite cooperatives. Furthermore, they are the biggest employer in the region attracting into the Chaco thousands of laborers form other provinces of Paraguay.
As far as the “only uncontacted Indian tribe” outside the Amazon (the Ayoreo-Todobiegosode you refer to) is concerned, it has been quantified by anthropologist Dr. Volker von Bremen (who lived almost two years among the Ayoreos) in the early 1990s to about 30 individuals. Meanwhile 18 members of this group gave up their traditional life as hunters and gatherers voluntarily and joined their relatives in one of the Ayorean territories (this was in 2004, if I remember correctly). Nobody knows for sure, if uncontacted individuals still live in the bush, but one thing is sure: Reserving a territory of half the size of Britain for a handful of Indians under European pressure (or incentives given generously to Paraguayan political decision makers) would create a social conflict situation with tremendous explosive potential. These days there is no indigenous community in the Chaco whose hunting and gathering activities contribute more than 5% to a maximum of 10% to their living. Therefore Indian leaders of almost all communities are highly concerned on recent attempts to pass a zero-deforestation law for the Chaco in parliament which they consider as an attack on their livelihood.
On the basis of my professional experience in Natural Resources Management in the Chaco for 20 years, I cannot share David Attenborough´s view whom you cite in claiming growing ecological disaster and widespread desertification taking place in the Chaco. Mistakes in land management have been made in the past, assuredly. However, within more than 20 years of intense applied research we did make tremendous progress in defining a list of good land use practices which not only prevent soil degradation but allow the restoration of the original fertility of run down soils. These technologies are increasingly adopted by the land owners as it is also in their own interest. So far I have not seen irreversible land degradation in the Chaco. Soil degradation to any significant extent is and remains exceptional.
Your article speaks disparagingly of the land users claiming wide-spread law-breaking by them. However, Paraguay has pioneered some of the most forward thinking environmental regulations for land use on the continent, which other
countries like Argentina are only now beginning to introduce. While some individuals may have flouted the law, many more, including the Mennonites, are fully committed to respecting the environment, the indigenous peoples and the wildlife, and have reason to feel abused by Vidal’s article. According to the laws in effect, farmers have to leave half (50%) of their farms in pristine condition, and as such practically without economical use (25% as natural reserve and another 25% in form of ecological corridors, bush islands and wind breaks). Farms developed in that way do embrace a diversity of habitats and therefore more biological diversity than does the relatively monotone, closed bushland, as studies have shown. These important ecological services provided by the land owners are exclusively on their own account, of course. At this point I think it would be legitimate to mention that European farmers are generously compensated for legal land use restrictions with 400 Euro per hectare and year.
The present land use situation is as follows: About one third of the area of the Paraguayan Chaco is used as grazing land, 19% is natural rangeland, and just 15% has been sown to pastures on previously cleared bushland so far. Arable lands are marginal, covering just the insignificant portion of about 1‰ of the Paraguayan Chaco. Therefore, your claims that biofuels are grown in the Chaco to any appreciable extent are incorrect. Sixty-five percent of the Chaco is still covered by native bushland and dry forests. Almost exactly 10% of the Paraguayan Chaco has been declared as public and private nature reserves (at a world wide scale, only 2.6% of the land surface has been declared as such). According to the regional plan for the Chaco, completed in 2008 under the leadership of the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, a net surface of another 20% of the Chaco is still available for land clearing and pasture development. This means that even when totally developed, well over half of the Chaco will remain under pristine conditions or with minimal alterations. In that way the Paraguayan Chaco always compares very favorably with any other region of this planet, particularly with Europe (excluding the Russian Federation) where 99.7% of its native forests have been cleared.