The Razing of One of the World’s Wildest Places

August 1, 2011 by

News & Alerts, Things To Do

Vast wilderness of the Gran Chaco - Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

The vast and almost impenetrable plains of the Gran Chaco (“Big Hunting Ground”) spread from Northern Argentina in a low, sweltering swath through parts of Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil. Though the admittedly more charismatic Amazon gets all the attention, the Chaco is the second-largest forest on the continent, and even more remote, covered with dry tropical forest thick with thorn trees, cactus, and dozens—perhaps hundreds—of endemic species as yet unknown to science.

The few travelers who make their way into its solitude, most with tour operators based in Buenos Aires, Asunción, or La Paz, compare it to the Australian outback.

The Chaco was, until this past century, almost untouched by modern civilization, though more than 30 indigenous tribes, some in contact with Hispanicized South America, others still isolated hunter-gatherers, roam freely across the roughly 650,000 square kilometer (250,00 square miles) territory.

It is a seemingly borderless terrain, about the size of France or Alaska. Unsurprisingly, it is also a biodiversity hot spot on par with the Amazon, home to at least 150 mammals, including monkeys, taugas (Chacoan peccaries), jaguars, giant anteaters, and at least 20 types of armadillo; 500 birds; 220 reptiles and amphibians; and more than 3500 types of plant, many of them endemic, endangered, or as yet unknown to science.

There have been a few notable efforts to domesticate this naturally fortified wilderness, the first during the Spanish Conquest (abandoned as potable water proved too scarce to support exploration), and more recently, during the brutal, which pitted Bolivia and Paraguay against each other in contest for the northern Chaco, which they mistakenly believed to be rich with oil.

Though there was no fuel beneath the fragile topsoil, which easily erodes to true desert when native vegetation is removed, that has changed with the widespread use of biofuels.

Within a decade of the Chaco War, two groups of primarily German-speaking immigrants arrived to the region, a group Mennonites who settled in the center of the Paraguayan Chaco and began converting it to farmland, and wealthy German war refugees who built sprawling ranches throughout the Brazilian sector. Today, their descendants control about 5 million hectares (19,305 square miles), an area larger than Costa Rica. They have been joined in recent years by agribusiness corporations from nations facing severe food and water shortages, such as Saudi Arabia and China.

Despite laws protecting the Chaco, settlers are using fire, bulldozers, and other heavy equipment to clear the dry forest at an unprecedented rate, a million hectares of virgin forest in Paraguay alone over the past four years—nearly 10% of the Chaco Boreal. The rate of deforestation has been estimated at 15,000 hectares (58 square miles) per month.

In response to this sudden environmental devastation, the British Natural History Museum began planning a £500,000 expedition into the Chaco outback. The international scientific team included more than 100 Argentine, Paraguayan, and British scientists, who were to conduct the most thorough scientific study of the region in history. Participants agreed to brave the 48°C (118°F) temperatures and the thorny understory to catalog hundreds of new species, many of them endemic.

Sadly, the expedition has been cancelled. A small group of indigenous Ayoreo leaders successfully argued that sending in the scientists was tantamount to genocide. “People in the forest die,” they wrote in a prepared statement to the press, “because the white people leave their rubbish, their clothes, or other contaminated things around.”

In addition to stopping a genocide, this cancellation also benefits foreign and local agribusinesses, who could have their quasi-legal, multimillion-dollar operations shut down if it could be proven they threatened endangered species. Neither the corporations nor the indigenous people need worry any longer. Director of Science Dr. Phil Rainbow has already diverted the money elsewhere: “The Museum remains keen to explore…but cannot hold last year’s funds indefinitely.”

Tour companies, however, are continuing to offer treks into the South American outback, including at least a dozen operators based in Buenos Aires. If you’re concerned about hurting native peoples, consider visiting via Bolivia’s Kaa Iya del Gran Chaco National Park operated by indigenous Izoceño Guaraní, Ayoreode, and Chiquitano peoples. You could also contact the World Land Trust which purchased 2.5 million hectares in Paraguay, to see if it’s possible to arrange a visit. If you’re not up for such a strenuous trip yourself but still want to help, the Wildlife Conservation Society is also working to preserve parts of the Chaco.

-Paige Penland

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