/ 18 November 2010

Mission to extinction

Anthropologists and indigenous leaders have warned that a London Natural History Museum expedition to Paraguay could lead to “genocide” and they’re calling for it to be abandoned.

They fear that the scientists and their teams of assistants are likely to make accidental contact with isolated indigenous groups in the remote region they plan to visit and could pass on infectious diseases.

The 100-strong expedition is due to set off in the next few days for two of the remotest regions of the vast dry forest known as the Gran Chaco, which stretches over northern Paraguay, Bolivia and Argentina.

The expedition organisers hope to find several hundred new species of plants and insects. But the two sites where the British and Paraguayan teams of botanists, biologists and other scientists plan to stay for up to a month are known to be home to groups of Ayoreo Indians.

They live in voluntary isolation and avoid all contact with Westerners, according to Benno Glauser, the director of the leading indigenous peoples’ protection group, Iniciativa Amotocodie.

Glauser, with the backing of Ayoreo leaders who have left the forest in the past 20 years, has sent the museum more than 40 pieces of evidence showing the presence of isolated peoples in the Chovoreca and Cabrera Timane regions.

“According to our data, the expedition you plan constitutes beyond any doubt an extremely high risk for the integrity, safety and legal rights of life and self-determination of the isolated Ayoreo, as well as for the integrity and stability of their territories.

The risks
There exists a considerable menace and risk also for the safety of the scientists taking part in the expedition, as well as for the rest of expedition participants,” Glauser says in a letter to the museum.

Until about 1950 it is estimated that about 5 000 Ayoreo lived in the Chaco forest as isolated hunter-gatherers without contact with the ranchers and religious groups who were given land by the Paraguayan government. Since then almost all have left the forest after being targeted by missionaries.

It is estimated that there are now only six or seven isolated groups numbering around 150 people in total. It is now the only place in South America outside the Amazon where uncontacted Indians still live.

Ayoreo leaders who have settled near the town of Filadelfia in northern Paraguay this week appealed to the president of Paraguay and the museum to abandon the expedition, saying that their relatives were in grave danger. “Both of these regions belong to the Ayoreo indigenous territory — We know that our people still live in the forest and they don’t want to leave it to join white civilisation.”

Glauser said there were at least three uncontacted groups in the area. “If this expedition goes ahead we will not be able to understand why you prefer to lose human lives just because scientists want to study plants and animals.

There is too much risk. The people in the forest die frequently from catching white people’s diseases — they get infected by being close. Because the white people leave their rubbish, their clothes, or other contaminated things. It’s very serious. It’s like a genocide,” he said in a statement.

The almost impenetrable forest is home to at least 3 400 plant species, 500 bird species, 150 species of mammals, 120 species of reptiles and 100 species of amphibians. — Guardian News & Media 2010