ASUNCION (Reuters) - Paraguay’s government is in talks to buy privately owned land as it races to protect an isolated tribe from the advance of cattle ranching, which could force the Indians to abandon their forest home.
The nomadic Ayoreo Totobiegosode Indians, said to number between 30 and 50 people, have had no contact with outsiders since 2004.
However, rapid deforestation to make way for grazing pastures is raising concern over their future.
“The encroachment of their territories is very aggressive,” said Gladys Casaccia of People, Environment and Territory, or GAT, a Paraguayan group which campaigns for conservation and the rights of indigenous groups.
“They’re fleeing from deforestation and it’s becoming harder and harder for them to exist as a subsistence people that avoids contact with the outside world,” she added.
The Ayoreo Totobiegosode traditionally live by hunting wild boar and tortoises, and cultivate a few crops like beans and pumpkins in the remote scrubby forests of the Chaco, which lie some 750 km (470 miles) north of the capital Asuncion.
The Totobiegosode are one of three sub-groups of the larger Ayoreo, who number several thousand. They were the last of the Ayoreo to be contacted, in 1979, and soon after U.S. Christian missionaries forcibly drove some of them from the forest, anthropologists and advocacy groups say.
GAT works with a group of Ayoreo Totobiegosode people who decided to return to the forest in the 1990s after rejecting the missionaries’ teachings. The group of some 30 families live in two settlements on the edge of the forest.
Their last contact with the outside world was six years ago when a group fleeing the path of bulldozers met with their kin living on the edge of the forest, telling them of their struggles to find water and their fears of roads being built.
Since then, the nomads have been sighted in November 2009 and again in May this year — the last time they were seen.
Paraguay is one of South America’s poorest countries, but left-leaning President Fernando Lugo has vowed to improve the rights of the country’s roughly 110,000 indigenous people — many of whom live in the Chaco.
Officials say budget restrictions have made it impossible for them to meet the demands of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode to create a reserve for their kin subsisting in the forest.
However, the government of Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who spent years working with peasant farmers, hopes a bigger budget next year will let it buy enough land to do so in the medium-term, and talks with landowners have already started.
“Negotiations are under way and there might be a possibility that land can be bought and protected,” said Lidia Acuna, president of the state-run Paraguayan Institute for Indigenous people, or INDI.
“That might be possible because after we told the landowners we’re going to have the budget for this purpose, some of those who were reluctant to sell have changed their minds,” she said.
Totobiegosode living outside the forest were given 100,000 hectares in 1997 — half of the area they say is needed in order to guarantee the survival of their kin in the forest.
However, in order to reach their goal of a bigger area that would join a number of smaller territories, purchase deals must be reached with private landholders.
One such company is Brazilian-owned Yaguarete Pora, which bought land in the region five years ago with a plan to develop cattle ranching. The Ayoreos are calling on local authorities to buy 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) — about half what the company owns in total.
Authorities have stripped the company of its environmental permit as a result of the Totobiegosode’s demands. The company has appealed the decision, which prevents it from carrying out work in the area.
Government officials say the land purchase plan is vital to protect the way of life of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode, whose name means “people from the place of the wild pigs.”
“If these lands can be protected, they could continue in isolation,” Acuna said. “But if the deforestation continues, it’s inevitable that they will come into contact with the outside world any moment now.”
Writing by Daniela Desantis and Helen Popper