Withstanding a Pandemic in South America's Second Largest Forest

19 de Noviembre de 2020
By: Santi Carneri.  

The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode are the only indigenous people in the Americas outside of the Amazon Basin who are living in voluntary isolation. In Paraguay, as obligatory guardians of their forest home, South America´s Gran Chaco, they continue to struggle to protect thousands of trees from illegal logging, even in the midst of the global crisis caused by COVID-19.
 
On March 10, 2020, Paraguay was one of the first nations in the Americas to close its borders and declare a total quarantine to stop the spread of COVID-19. Despite the country’s precarious situation in terms of health care, its response was recognized in the first two months of the pandemic as among the 45 best in the world and the three or four best in the Americas, according to data collected by the New England Complex Systems Institute (Necsi), Harvard, the University of California at Los Angeles and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Although a recent surge has placed it among the countries that "should take action," the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) considers Paraguay’s handling of the situation to be "very positive”. In fact, it has had the second lowest COVID mortality rate in the Americas, along with Uruguay.

However, in March, as Paraguay’s cities ground to a halt, cattle ranchers and loggers in the western half of the country, which is home to South America’s second largest forest, increased their activity, as opposed to slowing down.  In doing so, they heightened the risk for the nearly 140,000 indigenous people whose ancestors lived there long before the country existed. 
 
Paraguay, which is the size of France but with a population of only seven million inhabitants, had reported 33.520 confirmed cases of COVID-19 by September 21, including 18.117 cases where the infected person recovered and a death toll of 659.
 
"Thousands of indigenous people in Paraguay are suffering from hunger and abandonment, making their living conditions even more precarious, which were already difficult before the arrival of COVID-19," assures the Paraguayan NGO Tierraviva, which specializes in providing legal aid to the indigenous communities in El Chaco. The latest government survey (2017) indicates 65 percent of the indigenous population live in poverty and more than 30 percent suffer extreme poverty.
 
Up to now, very few of Paraguay’s indigenous people have  been diagnosed as positive for COVID-19, but indigenous communities complain the Paraguayan government has forgotten them and failed to provide support or preventive health brigades or food. For example, the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo, who are the only Native American group outside the Amazon Basin with family members in voluntary isolation, have received  merely half a kilo of non-perishable food as the only form of government aid provided to them during the more than five months of the economic and health crisis. A severe drought has forced them to buy water for the first time in their history, and the only guidance they have received was from the Attorney General's Office on one occasion during the entire pandemic, despite the fact that they reported new incursions into their territory during that period.
 
- There is a logic that everything stops, except the private sector, which always continues to operate with the idea of producing and producing. And, deforestation goes hand in hand.

Tagüide Picanerai, age 30, speaks Spanish and is also fluent in Ayoreo, Guarani and Portuguese. He is tall, with black hair and a broad back. A fan of the Cerro Porteño soccer club, he is a senior year student at the National University of Asunción, where he is studying to become a teacher. Tagüide is the son of the current leader of the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo, Porai Picanerai, who hails from the community of Chaidí, in the Alto Chaco region, which is closer to the border with Bolivia than to Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. Chaidí means "refuge" in their mother tongue, because it is where most of those who were expelled from the forest by missionaries and the military have been residing for the last 20 years. This community lives in what anthropologists call "a state of initial contact with the surrounding society," which includes the rest of us; namely, journalists, cattle ranchers, loggers, missionaries, people from the capital, public officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), sects, real estate companies and foreign investors.
 

Porai Picanerai, Tagüide’s father, at the Paraguayan Congress in 2015. On that occasion, the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo had come to demand that licenses allowing deforestation on their ancestral lands be revoked.

Photo: Santi Carneri.

The first and only case of COVID-19 Iin Chaidí was detected on September 8.The patient was an Ayoreo man who went to the hospital for an emergency and became infected there.  Since then, he has been in quarantine and isolated from the others, according to the Payipie Ichadie Totobiegosode Organization (OPIT).

Tagüide is the only Totobiegosode-Ayoreo living in Asunción and he is their spokesperson at most meetings with Paraguayan authorities. He also sells his community's products in the capital, such as honey, textiles, wooden artwork and his powerful chili bell peppers. We have known each other since 2014. I have accompanied him to Chaidí three times from Asunción. It is an eight hour trip on a rickety bus operated by a Mennonite company called N.A.S.A., which is a more than appropriate name for the Transchaco route. The road extends all the way to Bolivia, but its asphalt does not. A thoroughfare akin to the surface of the moon, it moves across the landscape, with the wheels of our bus get bogged down in potholes, as we leave behind palms and cactuses, giant trees and dry brush.
 
Chaidí is far off in time and space. After traveling for about 500 kilometers from the capital, passing through wetlands visited by parrots, crows, jaguars, anteaters, armadillos and snakes, one reaches the city of Philadelphia, the largest town in El Chaco, which is the least populated region of Paraguay. There are still about another two hours of rough travel to go, along almost one hundred kilometers of muddy road.

Together with his father and the other adult males in the community, Tagüide patrols with a shotgun and a GPS (global positioning system) the communal lands that were deeded to his people after a legal battle lasting more than two decades. At the request of the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo, a non-governmental organization known as GAT took legal-administrative action against the country of Paraguay in 1993, calling for the restitution of 550,000 hectares of virgin forest in the department of Alto Paraguay. However, this is only a portion of their ancestral homeland, which is estimated at some 2.8 million hectares. The area was recognized by the Paraguayan government in 2001 as a Natural and Cultural Heritage site (tangible and intangible) of the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo, but they have gained title to only about 140,000 hectares so far.  These are virtually the country’s last remnants of virgin forest in El Chaco. The patrols spread out across an area brimming with hot air and dry land to document incursions and drive out the loggers and cattle ranchers who abuse their power by stripping away the forest with their machines and enclosing the land with their fences.
 
My most recent visit to Chaidí was in 2016. And, the only thing that has changed since then, according to Tagüide's August 2020 video call, is that there is less and less forest. More and more trees are being cut every day. You do not see or hear this logging in the capitals of the world, but it is like an earthquake to the people who live inside the forest. The same is true of the flora and fauna in Gran Chaco and throughout the Americas.  There is less and less forest. There is always less.

In June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo discovered 800 hectares in their ancestral territory that had been logged.

Photo: Tagüide Picanerai.

The quarantine caught Tagüide by surprise in Asunción. He gathered as much information as he could and returned to Chaidí with all the provisions he could carry. He told the members of his community to stay put and avoid working in urban areas or on ranches, so as not to get infected. Since then, he has coordinated with other leaders to seek humanitarian aid to survive the economic crisis and the drought that has damaged their crops. The lack of resources and fuel also limits the possibility of traveling through their territory by vehicle and guarding it.

Still, on one of their patrols in June, a group of Totobiegosode-Ayoreo environmental rangers discovered yellow tractors and bulldozers similar to those used to knock down buildings. In less than 48 hours, these thundering machines destroyed 800 hectares of forest, an immense area now littered with broken branches, disturbed soil, roots turned upside-down, and century-old trucks lying uprooted and broken. Not even the birds remain. The Ayoreo took pictures and filed a claim with the Prosecutor's Office. However, by August, they still were waiting for someone from that office to show up to verify the facts and prosecute the culprits.

This devastated area is a corridor normally travelled (or formerly so) by the Jonoine Urasade, a subgroup of the Totobiegosode -Ayoreo and direct relatives of Tagüide, his father, Porai, and other Ayoreo groups, such as the Garaygosode and Guidaigosode. The Jonoine Urasade are, as far as we know, the only human group in the Americas, outside of the Amazon Basin, who are living in voluntary isolation. They reside in the heart of Gran Chaco, in groups of about fifty people, hunting and gathering, exercising their right to self-determination, and continuing their nomadic way of life within the forest, as recognized by the Inter-American System of Human Rights and in the Paraguayan Constitution itself.

-What were once jaguar tracks are now the marks of bulldozers. Our brothers merely want us to save the forest,” says Porai Picanerai, speaking in Ayoreo.  

Tagüide translates his words for me into Spanish. It is 2016 and we are in Chaidí. The village looks like a temporary refuge and is perched at the gateway to the forest. The elders tell stories around a campfire. Young Totobiegosode-Ayoreo men and women, girls and boys sit on colorful sheets of cloth and chat. A bird typical of the Chaco region, the carancho, with a red beak and a black feathered head, stops its flight to rest on a branch and observe a pot of spicy goat stew simmering on the fire.  

None of those gathered here left the forest voluntarily. In Chaidí, they try to lead a life as similar as possible to the one they had before, but with some new community services, such as a school, and with cattle ranching  and small-scale farming.  However, there are far fewer animals and plants. These people watch for and heed the signs left behind by their relatives who live in the forest, while dodging the roar of the engines of the cojñones, which is their term for the non-Ayoreo, those who do not know the forest, the "people who don’t think right". 

Theirs is a unique case in the Americas, outside the Amazon Basin, since they have  managed to remain isolated up to now. There are only 120 isolated villages left in all of South America; most are along the Brazilian border with Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. They know what is out there: armed ranch guards, drug traffickers and timber smugglers, religious missionaries and corrupt prosecutors. And, they don't like it. Environmental conservation specialists agree with the Ayoreo: their survival depends on halting deforestation in the area and gaining title to their land. 

​Chaidí is a refuge used by the last Totobiegosode-Ayoreo who could no longer live inside the forest. Many of their relatives remain in voluntary isolation within the forest and have no contact with them.

Photo: Santi Carneri. 

The Ayoreo are one of nineteen indigenous groups in Paraguay and, like the others, they have become forced guardians against deforestation. In their case, they are trying to protect the second largest forest in South America, the Gran Chaco, which is shared by Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, with 60, 23, 13 and 4 percent, respectively.

This immense forest mass has one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organizations (FAO) says Paraguay was the most deforested country in South America between1990 and 2015. It now ranks second, according to the Global Forest Watch (GFW) satellite system. Since 2010, Guyra Paraguay – a NGO - has monitored all the land in Gran Chaco that has undergone a change in the way it is used; specifically, 2,925,030 hectares by June 2018. That month, 33,959 hectares of forest were lost; this is almost twice the size of the city of Buenos Aires and more than three times the size of Asunción, all in one month.
 
Guyra Paraguay estimates approximately 250,000 hectares of forest are destroyed every year. About 1,400 hectares per day, or roughly seven trees per second, are cut down in the Chaco, where large landowners like former Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes, or Spanish real estate companies such as Grupo San José, or Brazilian ones like Yaguareté Pora buy ancestral lands that have yet to be deeded to indigenous groups and obtain environmental licenses to clear forests without prior consultation or any planned reparations for the native communities that claim them.
 
Who are the Ayoreo?

Four Ayoreo hunters run among quebracho and carob trees trying to escape from a yaguareté (jaguar in Guarani) weighing almost 100 kilos. Jaguars are the largest cats in the Americas. The huge animal killed one of them by sinking its fangs to his face. The victim’s brother, Esoi Chiquenoi, took revenge by plunging a spear into the American tiger's chest with both hands. Hunting is the favorite activity of the Ayoreo, but their preferred prey are wild pigs and turtles, not jaguars.
 
This story is best told by Chiquenoi himself, in Chaidí, with his spear in hand and a jaguar-skin band on his forehead. The anecdote dates back to the late eighties, when he was still living in the forest without ever having seen a cojñone. Now, the hunting trips are less frequent, the animals flee further and further away, the cattlemen fence in more and more land, and their guards shoot to kill whoever they see passing by, even if they are just hunters looking for pigeons. What they continue to do every day is to patrol the community’s land so no more loggers will enter illegally with their tractors and chainsaws.
 
And so, these feats are now a thing of the past for the nearly five thousand Ayoreo living in Paraguay. Only small groups, divided into family clans, continue to exist as they did before Columbus arrived in America, taking refuge in the last untouched forest lands in the far north of Paraguay.

Ingoi Etacori is one of the last Totobiegosode-Ayoreo to be displaced from the forest in the Gran Chaco. In 2004, he was left outside the forest, with his father, on a road that was built by local ranchers.

Photo: Santi Carneri. 

The Ayoreo’s ancestral lands within the 3.4 million hectares of Kaa Iya National Park in Bolivia and the one million hectares of Defensores del Chaco National Park in Paraguay are the only continuous virgin forests that remain, as illustrated in satellite maps of the area, such as this one from the University of Maryland, which monitors changes in soil temperature and shows areas of arson and illegal logging. The rest are like green carpets cut up and gnawed by rats, with yellowish patches.

In Defensores del Chaco National Park, which has only one forest ranger, thousands of palo de santo trees, prized for their wood, fill the furrows of the Cerro León, the sacred mountain of the Ayoreo in Paraguay, which looks like a gigantic brain when seen from outer space. The ideal number of park rangers in Paraguay is 500; however, the country has 64 rangers, in all, to cover 2,426,552 hectares of protected wildlife areas.

Up to the middle of the 20th century, the Ayoreo inhabited a territory in the north of the Chaco encompassing more than 30 million hectares (300,000 km). They occupied practically the entire area within the Boreal Chaco bordered by the Paraguay, Pilcomayo, Parapetí and Rio Grande rivers.

Until the beginning of contact forced by the surrounding society, at around 1945 in Bolivia and a little before 1960 in Paraguay, both the extent of that territory and the number of inhabitants (about five thousand people) remained unchanged.
 
- It is a sign of the equilibrium in which these people coexisted with their living environment.
 
So it is explained by Miguel Lovera, a coordinator of the Paraguayan NGO known as Iniciativa Amotocodie and an agronomist by training. 
 
In the traditional life of the Ayoreo, there were numerous systems and mechanisms in the forest to ensure everything that was hunted, gathered or harvested was redistributed within the family and the local group. In this way, members of the group (elders, widows, orphans, etc.) who could not carry out a materially productive task themselves, for whatever reason, also participated and benefited, Iniciativa Amotocodie points out in this article.

The Ayoreo were divided into seven clans. The names of the clan to which they belong gives each member a surname to this day.

"As gatherers and hunters, the Ayoreo do not try to dominate or transform nature or the world. They depend entirely on what nature offers them. Consequently, the Ayoreo do not destroy or change their environment, because their survival is possible only if the state of nature is not altered," indicates studies done by the Amotocodie Initiative.

The territory of a local group was so large that land exploited for animals and vegetation had enough time to regenerate before the group's next incursion. The Ayoreo’s culture of life complied with the modern notion of 100 percent sustainability.

The Totobiegosode first became familiar with our society in 1979, through the New Tribes Mission, an American evangelical group that entered their territory to "evangelize" them by force and, in the process, converted them into a source of semi-slave labor for cattle ranching. 
 
The missionaries are still obsessed with influencing the daily lives of the Ayoreo.  They visit them regularly and operate a post in the area where they try to attract them with the excuse of "teaching them the word of God.

One of the many Ayoreo who were forced to leave the forest was Porai Picanerai himself, who said the missionaries obliged him to abandon his habitat and way of life in 1986, along with other family members. Porai recalls how the New Tribes Mission forced them to live in a settlement of converted Indians called Campo Loro, where many died because they did not have the antibodies to fight western diseases and where they were obliged to engage in semi-forced labor. Ironically, they were deprived of the right and privilege of isolation, which is now so sought after.
 
That same year, the missionaries provoked a confrontation that led to the death of at least four members of the indigenous community and the departure of another 40 from the forest. This is according to data from Iniciativa Amotocodie and GAT; both are Paraguayan NGOs.
 
Since then, more and more Totobiegosode have been forced to leave the forest, either as a result of violent confrontations or because they have nowhere else to go. Such is the case of Ingoi Etacori, age 40, and Carateba Picanere, age 70, who left the forest in 2004 when they were abandoned alone at the side of a road that had been constructed by local ranchers.  Etacori still has marks on his head from braids he used to wear, as dictated by the culture of his people. His father and three brothers continue to live in the forest, he says, as he holds a couple of green parrots in his hand while standing in front of the door to his wooden hut.
 
Tagüide sums up the situation accurately:
 
- With no land, there is no future. We would no longer exist; we would be exposed to extinction. For the isolated, it is even more dramatic, because they do not want to leave the forest and, when the machines come in, they are afraid.

Deforestation has not stopped, even during the worst pandemic of the 21st century
 

The sound of the engine of a pickup truck roars across the Chaco wetlands. Hundreds of green parrots and black crows take flight from an oasis. Five Totobiegosode-Ayoreo leaders walk in front of the vehicle, hacking their way through the dense vegetation of spiky caraguatá brush and cactuses that block the dirt road. They remove just enough to get the truck through. This is how they watch over the land their community successfully gained title to after a legal struggle with the state lasting more than two decades. Yet, it is only a small part of what they claim, which is around 550,000 hectares.
 
They began patrolling at sunrise and, at around noon, they arrived at a spot they had been unable to inspect two months earlier, because the road was flooded. What they found was a yellow bulldozer with a huge shovel bucket. Everything around it had been cut down. And, although this happened in 2014, the same scene is repeated month after month, year after year. The damage is irreparable, and the territory where their relatives live is getting smaller. I ask Tagüide how the isolated will feel when they hear the chainsaws. He remains silent for a few seconds, then answers:
 
- The ones who are isolated are seriously affected, because they depend on water and food from the forest. They don't need material things to live in the forest. Since there is a drought now, I imagine they will be very frightened about trying to get water. 

In June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo discovered 800 hectares in their ancestral territory that had been logged.

Photo: Tagüide Picanerai. 

The Chaco began to be colonized after the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) in which Brazil and Argentina destroyed an autonomous and independent Paraguay. At the time, Paraguay had an economic surplus and the highest literacy rate in the region. However, in addition to riots during the war, which cost millions, and the twelve-year occupation of the country, the regional powers forced Paraguay to incur a huge debt to repair the damage, which was impossible to pay with funds from the nation’s treasury.
 
The solution to dealing with this bellicose extortion was to sell almost all of the Chaco region on the international market. Since then, large landowners and rich families from Argentina, Brazil, Spain, England and even Korea have bought up huge tracts of land without ever allowing for the opinion of the indigenous population.
 
- This process of surrender and privatization has been carried out behind the backs of the communities and indigenous people who inhabit the region, and has led to absurd situations, such as sale and resale of the land with them on it and without them being able to voice an opinion.

This is how Óscar Ayala, a lawyer for the Paraguayan Human Rights Organization (Codehupy), sums it up.  He has been working for more than two decades to help the indigenous people of Paraguay recover their lands. According to Ayala, neoliberalism did not appear in the 1970s in the region, but in Paraguay in the 19th century.
 
- Within this framework, economic models alien to the indigenous world have been applied in the Paraguayan Chaco. The Mennonite communities are an example. Theirs is an economic emporium linked to the dairy industry and meat production, which is being expanding across areas that are ancestral homelands for indigenous peoples. This creates extremely adverse conditions for these groups.

Ayala says companies with foreign capital have viewed the region as a place where they can log without restraint, perhaps because the presence of the public authorities is so limited and protection for indigenous people is fragile, or because there is not much of a tax burden.  Consequently, areas claimed by indigenous communities are being occupied and these people are being pushed increasingly into a corner as a result of the prevailing environment.
 
The Ayoreo say this is the case of at least two hundred thousand hectares acquired by Carlos Casado S.A., originally an Argentine company, which purchased indigenous territory from Paraguay in the late 19th century, with the inhabitants still on the land. Since 2007, the company has been owned by Jacinto Rey and Grupo San José, which could perfectly be the name of a Christian cumbia band. In reality, Rey is one of Spain's richest men and Grupo San Jose is his real estate and construction company. These foreign firms occupy two hundred thousand hectares of ancestral land in the Paraguayan Chaco that belong to several indigenous groups, including the Ayoreo. While these people see their forests destroyed, Jacinto Rey spends his summers on a yacht in his native Galicia. And, in Tres Cantos, one of the cities in Spain with the highest income per capita, an imposing, fenced-off building is being constructed to house the offices of his real estate and construction company.  In January 2020, Grupo San Jose was cited in the press as being “the jewel of the Spanish stock market”.
 
The great-grandson of Carlos Casado, Diego Eduardo Leon, who is currently Vice President of the Argentine company, answered Agenda Propia in a statement indicating "[our] relationship with the indigenous communities is one of respect, as it is with anyone or group in Paraguayan society.
 
"Our economic goal is to produce efficiently within the bounds of the nation’s laws, including those on social and environmental issues, but also to participate in social investment that facilitates the well-being of the neediest people. It is important to emphasize the countless donations of lands for settlement of the indigenous communities in the Chaco, so they can develop their social, cultural and subsistence activities," reads the statement.
 
With respect to the Ayoreo, Leon indicated his company maintains "an institutional relationship through the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs (INDI). On the other hand, he said they would be willing to exchange with the state some of the lands claimed by the Ayoreo. "We are willing to negotiate," he added by phone.
 
According to the law in Paraguay, once an environmental license is granted, 75 percent of the forest on the land in question can be removed. In Lovera’s words, this does not help to maintain the continuity of the forest required to preserve its flora and fauna: 

- Who guarantees the forest mass is unified? From a legal and scientific point of view, all the licenses are questionable. The government has specialized in selling environmental licenses instead of evaluating them critically. And, in doing so, it has condemned the entire country to deforestation by facilitating extreme salinization of the soil and creating ever-larger deserts in what was once the heart of the forest.
 
In 2015, a group from Survival, a British NGO, staged a protest in front of the Spanish company's headquarters after its subsidiary, Carlos Casado S.A., was caught illegally deforesting ancestral lands belonging to the Ayoreo and opening roads and reserves in the area. According to Survival, the company also tried to forge the signatures of several Ayoreo leaders in order to build an access road through their land.
 
The three Sánchez Ávalos sisters, daughters of the founder and Jacinto Rey’s partners in the company, control 21.05 percent of the group; 5.4 percent of this stake is domiciled in Luxembourg, a tax haven, through the firm Caroval Holdings S.A., as reported by the Galician newspaper Economía Digital.
 
Apart from Grupo San José, the other major landowners in the Paraguayan Chaco include the well-known Moon Group, a Korean religious organization that owns 590,000 hectares of land there, and former President Horacio Cartes. During his time in office (2013-2018), he purchased several media organizations in the name of his sister Sarah, and his business group expanded its activities to include supermarkets and more cattle. This is according to research done by the Paraguayan organization Base-Is. Lovera definitely believes it is so:
 
- All the environmental licenses are seriously flawed. They are an exercise in copy paste. There is no real analysis of environmental conditions and no common sense in the recommendations.
 
Not until the beginning of July did the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development (Mades) announce publicly that 250 environmental licenses were about to be revoked. Although no details were released on how many concern the Gran Chaco, the last ones issued for the area almost always involved cattle or the forest industry. 
 
In 2018, GAT accused several cattle companies - Cooperativa Chortitzer Ltda., Yaguareté Pora, BBC-Monte Pora and River Plate - of logging on indigenous land without authorization. This is according to data from the National Forestry Institute (Infona).

In 2013, the Totobiegosode were fed up with government institutions that failed to act, particularly those responsible for protecting the indigenous population, and had exhausted all possible legal recourse in Paraguay. So, they turned to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for help. The situation of the Ayoreo is so pressing the Commission issued precautionary measures to force Paraguay to react to the destruction of their habitat.  According to the IACHR, the right to life, territory and their particular culture is at stake.
 
The IACHR demanded the Paraguayan government secure the Ayoreo’s territory by giving them title to the land and by banning land innovation, something the companies do not comply with and the government is not controlling. The Commission made it clear "these communities are in a grave and urgent situation, as are their rights to physical and cultural survival, and those in voluntary isolation would be threatened and at serious risk.” In 2005, El Chaco was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve. However, "this has not served to protect it from mass deforestation,” states the IACHR document.
 
International justice also requested the creation of a mechanism to prevent third parties from entering the territory, something that has not been done either. It is useless for the Ayoreo´s lawyers to go to the Prosecutor's Office every so often to file complaints or for their leaders to travel to Asunción and meet with representatives of the Paraguayan government, or for them to block off streets in cities near their communities, since the bulldozers continue to enter their territory. 
 
The threats to El Chaco’s immense natural wealth are increasing. Its 53 different territorial ecosystems; its more than 3,400 species of unique plants and trees (such as the lapacho or samu'u, known as drunkenwood); its 150 species of mammals (twelve of them unique in the world) and animals such as the mythical jaguar (yaguareté in Guarani, the largest feline in the Americas); and its hundreds of species of birds, insects and other animals biologists from all over the world are trying to discover are not safe, even with strong support from the ruling conservative Colorado Party and the country’s president, Mario Abdo Benitez. In fact, the government intends to build a new road that will link Paraguay to Bolivia, with no consideration for the environmental impact it will have in the region near the voluntarily isolated Ayoreo.

However, in spite of everything, the Ayoreo continue to resist. In 2019, they gained title to 19,000 hectares of their land, which is still a long way from the 550,000 they must title to create an environmental cordon around these isolated communities. Tagüide insists this is not only for the sake of their families, but also for the good of everyone: 

- It is not only important for us, but for all of humanity. If we didn't take care of the forest, it would no longer exist.

Tagüide Picanerai is the only Ayoreo who is living in Asunción and has served as an official liaison between the Totobiegosode-Ayoreo and the authorities.

Photo: Tagüide Picanerai.

Tagüide is an example of the many key leaders and young Ayoreo trailblazers who are managing to convince Paraguayan society to recognize their rights and mobilize with them, to listen to what they have to say, and to meet their demands. Such was the case in 2015, when the Cartes government tried to promote a rock mine in Cerro León. For the first time, people in the nation’s capital joined the Ayoreo´s demonstrations and, together, they managed to stop (or at least delay) mining exploration. 
 
The Ayoreo now have a radio program as well. It is a tool of brotherhood and communication for everyone and has done an excellent job during the COVID-19 pandemic by rebuffing rumors and offering indigenous communities useful information. "They are expanding their voice and seeking the truth, with solidarity," summarizes Lovera of Iniciativa Amotocodie.
 
It is precisely this nonprofit organization that carried out one of the most effective private initiatives to preserve the Ayoreo´s territory. Fifteen years ago, with the government doing nothing, Iniciativa Amotcodie decided to support the Ayoreo by seeking donors from around the world to acquire plots of land in their ancestral territory. Some 25,000 hectares were acquired this way and deeded to the community, but they are still not safe from neighboring ranchers who are eying the land. This approach is becoming less and less feasible, given the constant increase in land prices due to considerable real estate speculation in the region.

The pandemic has reached Chaidí and it is already traveling, silently, the immense Chaco, despite the rigorous compliance with the isolation that its members have practiced, who abandoned their only source of income, which came from extremely hard work on neighboring ranches. 
 
−      Fortunately, we are isolated from everything.
 
Replying by phone from El Chaco, Tagüide says what now worries them most is not the virus, but the start of the season when local ranchers burn off their pastures, causing fires to spread.