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A Letter to the Natural History Museum, London.

"It is my duty to impress on you that the expedition carries an extremely severe risk to the integrity and rights of isolated (uncontacted) indigenous groups...."

From the Director of Iniciativa Amotocodie to Dr Sandy Knapp, Paraguay 2010 Expedition Coordinator

Dr Sandy Knapp, Paraguay 2010 Expedition Coordinator

Natural History Museum Cromwell Road,

London, SW7 5BD

CC:  Roberto Portela-Miguez, Dr Michael Dixon, Museum Director, Eleanor Bradstreet, Head of Media Relations

 Filadelfia/ Chaco, 27th October, 2010

 Ref: Paraguay 2010: expedition to the Dry Chaco

 Dear Dr Knapp

I am writing to you with urgent regard to the upcoming expedition, by scientists of the Natural History Museum, to the extreme North of the Paraguayan Chaco. It is my duty to impress on you that the expedition carries an extremely severe risk to the integrity and rights of isolated (uncontacted) indigenous groups who inhabit the regions you are proposing to visit, and indeed to the physical safety of expedition participants.

I am also bound to advise you that the expedition threatens to disregard existing national and international legislation.

I am the Director of Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA), a registered not-for-profit civil society organization based in the Central Paraguayan Chaco since 2002. Our work consists in monitoring and protecting the uncontacted (“isolated”) Ayoreo indigenous groups present in various regions of the Northern Paraguayan Chaco. This protection includes that of their legal rights, among them the right to continue living according to their own cultural patterns, the right of self- determination, and the right to their territories.

Our organization is one of seven members of the Management Board of the Biosphere Reserve of the Northern Chaco created in 2005; it is also a member of IUCN.

It is with great concern that we have learnt both through the English and the Paraguayan press about the planned expedition. It is vital that you understand that both regions to be visited by the scientists taking part of the expedition – the region of Chovoreca as well as that of Cabrera Timane – belong to the Ayoreo indigenous territory. Both of these regions serve as permanent habitat to indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation: i.e. those who have never had contact with our western civilization, and who reject and avoid all external contact.

We would like to stress the radical character of this state of isolation: it means that nobody, not even already contacted members of the same ethnic group, have contact or are able to approach the isolated groups. The isolated groups lead a life according to a cultural pattern paradigmatically and radically different to everything we know in our modern culture.

For the last eight years we have been conducting remote monitoring of all such isolated groups covering the entire Northern Paraguayan Chaco, and it is this monitoring which enables us to confirm to you that there are isolated groups in the areas you are planning to visit.

Our methodology is based on permanent patrolling trips in the field. Since 2005, the patrolling IA team in cooperation with (already contacted) Ayoreo experts, elders and Ayoreo people who have lived part of their life in the forest before contact. The trips – carried out with utmost caution so as not to provoke or induce any involuntary contact situation – serve to gather direct and indirect information on ‘signs of presence’ such as holes where honey has been recollected recently, footprints, left-behind objects, even sightings at a distance. All such information is subsequently processed with great care, and also examined within its wider context, as well as crossed with other data such as anthropological and traditional knowledge about the particular group territories and migration routes (the Ayoreo are nomads within permanent group territories). Other sources for this process leading to a correct appraisal of the significance of the collected information are satellite pictures, as well as observations about new externally originated alterations of the forests and of the habitat of the isolated groups (such as deforestation for farming). Finally, each sign of presence is assigned a credibility value and placed within a systematized database, which presently numbers over 200 certified entries covering over 10 million hectares of the Northern Chaco.

The database allows us to visualize with fairly good accuracy the shape of the respective group territories, and, most importantly, it helps to detect and determine possible risk situations.

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. At the same time, there obviously exists a considerable menace and risk also for the safety of the scientists taking part of the expedition, as well as the rest of expedition participants.

We shall be glad to share the necessary detailed information with you if you wish. To summarize, we register:

For the Chovoreca region:

  • A total of 17 certified signs of presence within a radius of 120km from the border landmark “Hito VIII”, corresponding to the presence of isolated Ayoreo between 2004 and 2009;
  • Of these, the closest 3 are 45km from the mentioned border landmark;
  • Many of the 17 signs of presence are registered on the northern edges of deforestation areas and cattle farms of that region, a fact that suggests that the habitats or territories of the isolated groups lie to the North: i.e. in the “unexplored” regions towards the Bolivian border your expedition plans to visit.

For the Cabrera Timane region:

  • A total of 29 certified signs of presence within a radius of 120km from the border landmark “Hito V”, corresponding to the presence of isolated Ayoreo between 2004 and 2010;
  • 7 of these signs correspond to the presence of isolated Ayoreo in 2010;
  • Of the total of 29, the closest sign of presence is 46.8km from the mentioned border landmark.

Please note that our monitoring is limited to places that can be reached by road. This means that the absence of signs of presence in remote regions without road access – such as the northern zones of the two regions targeted by the expedition, close to the border landmarks – does not mean there are no isolated Ayoreo there. It merely means that our monitoring – out of precaution and avoiding unnecessary intrusions that carry a risk of involuntary contact – does not reach such regions and places, which on the other hand are more likely to serve as territories for the isolated groups precisely because of the complete absence of roads and external intrusion.

This holds, as we stated, for both the Cabera Timane and the Chovoreca region. Both territories are also perceived as being cross-border territories. Indeed, the Bolivian Government is presently studying the detailed terms of a supreme decree which ‘immobilizes for 18 months’ 2.5 million hectares right on the Bolivian side of the border, including the Cabrera Timane region which you plan to explore; the proposed immobilization aims at implementing a phase of more precise determination and demarcation of the future isolated Ayoreo territories on the Bolivian side. We also send you, as an Annex, a statement by the Bolivian indigenous member of parliament Teresa Nomine, of October 26, 2010, in which she calls for protection of  the isolated Ayoreo families around the Paraguayan border, on the Bolivian side.

In the case of the Chovoreca region, the isolated group is a numerous one – a certified sighting in 2004 reports 26 persons, and no isolated group either in Paraguay or in Bolivia has established contact or left the forests since. On the other hand no precise number can be given for isolated group(s) of the Cabrera Timane region.

Expedition organizer, Guyrä Paraguay, has been reporting the presence of isolated groups in its recent internet bulletins, having found signs of presence during field visits, including a recent trip to the south of the Cabrera Timane region to be visited by you. However, Guyrä does not seem to have informed you about it. Your website and the Nature Plus blog (“Destination: Dry Chaco”) expresses doubts about “how does anything live in this place?”. It also erroneously states that both regions the expedition aims to visit are not protected areas. To the contrary, both Chovoreca and Cabrera Timane are declared public protection areas, although unmarked and unmanned. As such they form part of the state system of National Parks placed under the responsibility of SEAM. In addition, the entire Northern Chaco – including both regions you want to go to – belongs to the Northern Chaco Biosphere Reserve.

The (bio)diversity of these regions is by no means unexplored or unknown: there is a wealth of traditional and historic Ayoreo knowledge related to them. Consulted (contacted) Ayoreo leaders state that both regions are particularly rich in those gifts of nature the Ayoreo culture has used for centuries as its life resources, which explains also why both regions are even privileged habitats of the remaining isolated groups. We tell you this, in order to make it clear that setting out to do scientific research in such a territory and habitat means doing research on a vast and complex living organism, with all ethical, legal and factual implications.

What are the concrete risks brought about by the expedition? The same cited Ayoreo leaders, when confronted with the information about the planned expedition, in a communiqué addressed to the responsible Paraguayan state authorities express that the expedition poses an extremely serious threat to their uncontacted brothers and sisters in these areas; they also express the fear the scientists’ quiet ways of moving about in the forest will considerably increase the risk of a surprise involuntary contact (for full statement and analysis by the Ayoreo leaders, see communiqué text in the annex).

As a non-indigenous, external institution experienced in the appraisal of risk situations like the present one, IA wishes to complement the list given by the contacted Ayoreo with the following considerations:

  • The scientists’ presence, which is both extremely numerous and stretches over a longer time period, constitutes an intrusion and alteration of remote regions which normally remain untouched by external ‘western’ human presence. This intrusion can prompt unexpected reactions from the isolated groups: these are known as fierce warriors, yet which over the last decades seem to have adopted a strategy consisting in retiring silently when external agents come close. We however think that, as a reaction to the unusual intrusion into normally untouched and virgin territories, the isolated Ayoreo could react with violence;
  • An unusual violent situation can also occur as a cumulative reaction to the pressure created on their group territories by recent partial deforestations. The intensity of such deforestation and aggressions against their territories have increased substantially over the last years, particularly in the Chovoreca region. The constant aggressions from the outside are likely to induce a violent outburst counter reaction at some stage, although it is difficult to state when. The expedition runs the risk to trigger such a counter reaction.

IA also wishes to highlight and especially reinforce the following points contained in the Ayoreo communiqué:

  • The expedition opens new accesses and roads to hitherto inaccessible zones – in fact, such new roads/ trails are already being prepared/ cut into the forest while this document is being written. As the Ayoreo leaders also state, the new accesses and roads will remain open, and tourists, adventurers, reporters etc., will use them and intrude into the habitats long after the expedition itself will have gone. In this context, a very particular threat will come from missionaries who will take immediate advantage of the new ways of access in order to implement their long awaited for approaches in order to contact and evangelize the isolated Ayoreo
  • The expedition is taking place during the rainy season, which is also the time the isolated groups tend to remain longer in fertile places close to riverbeds, lagoons or other sources of water, in order to implement their seasonal summer plantations. In the vicinity of the expedition, which presumably also seeks to visit precisely such places etc., this cultural practice becomes now the source of great danger. In case of a not unlikely surprise encounter, the isolated group would flee and have to abandon their vital crops; lack of food amidst feelings of being persecuted and of extreme lack of security would be the consequence and would affect the groups’ stability and integrity.

Finally, we would like to mention one additional fear expressed by the Ayoreo leaders, although not contained in their written statement:

 “The expedition could want to employ willing Ayoreo individuals as guides in the forests. In such a case, due to the presence of the isolated groups, these employed Ayoreo would also be also taken and serve as a protection shield against the danger of attacks; this is a frequent practice applied by farmers afraid of the isolated groups. Yet as contacted and ‘civilized’ Ayoreo wearing clothes, to the isolated Ayoreo the Ayoreo guides would be like the rest of the non- Ayoreo, and thus they would be exposed to extreme risk.”

The last – known – violent encounters occurred in 1986, when missionaries sent contacted Ayoreo as mission agents into the forest. The result was five deaths on the side of the contacted Ayoreo, and several injured people. Although victorious in repelling the intrusion, the isolated group lost its stability and “collapsed”, following their aggressor to the mission station and abandoning their life and territory. In the nineties, there were several attacks with arrows and lancets against bulldozers tearing down the forests, as well as new farming projects to the extreme South of the Ayoreo territory. We expect there have also been a relatively high rate of unreported incidents and even armed clashes also during recent years.

We have reason to believe that, unfortunately, the crucial information about risk situations has so far been concealed to you by your local partner and organizer, Guyrä Paraguay. We must add that Guyrä Paraguay, although a known conservation organization, is not exactly known for prioritizing indigenous rights and interests.

Indeed, we need to draw your attention to the fact that the planned expedition is in collision with indigenous and human rights law as stated by the Paraguayan Constitution and Paraguayan legislation, as well as international laws and conventions.

Moreover, we note that the proceedings you plan seem to entail violation of other laws. We believe that you will not be interested in entering into illegal activities, and we leave this to your own judgement, but wish to express at the same time that respect for indigenous rights is not a mere option, as your local partner may suggest. We also hope that you will not take advantage of the fact that the degree of efficiency in enforcement of laws in Paraguay is – in spite of efforts by the current government – unfortunately and sometimes desperately low.

Returning to the specific matter of isolated indigenous peoples and groups, the United Nations system offers the governments and other involved actors detailed guidelines (“Draft guidelines on the protection of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and in initial contact of the Amazon basin and el Chaco”, see annex). These guidelines state, among others:

“Respect for the no-contact principle entails the implementation of effective measures to prevent outsiders or their actions from entering into situations that could affect or influence, either accidentally or intentionally, persons belonging to indigenous groups in isolation” (paragraph 49).

“Prohibition of access by outsiders to the lands and territories of indigenous peoples in isolation and in initial contact….” (paragraph 58.c)

Other relevant paragraphs are 13.c., 22 to 24, and section D.

For additional information, we shall send you thirty copies (one for each prospective expedition member) of our very recent publication “The Case of the Ayoreo”. Pages 18 to 31 are particularly relevant: the Chovoreca region is explicitly mentioned on page 27. The Cabrera Timane region is not mentioned explicitly. Due to its lack of access routes we did not consider it a higher risk region until hearing about the expedition plans.

In view of the exposed situation and circumstances, and the extreme risks implied, we propose formally that you cancel the expedition immediately.

We understand that this is not an easy proposal and decision for you. Unfortunately, as it is also visible in the U.N. guidelines, in this matter there are no half measures, and the necessary preventive steps need to be radical.

Meanwhile, taking into account the urgency and the extreme risk, you will understand that our institution, in accordance and together with the leaders of the (contacted) Ayoreo in Paraguay, cannot do otherwise but take all necessary contacts and formal steps without delay, both with the national authorities and internationally – with the appropriate U.N. bodies and mechanisms and with other public and private international institutions – as well as with public opinion, to ensure that the expedition does not go ahead and that the rights of the Ayoreo people are protected.

Please do not hesitate to get back to us if you feel you need further information in order to conclude the matter.

Yours sincerely,


Benno Glauser

Director (Coordinador General)

Iniciativa Amotocodie


The quality and effectiveness of our monitoring methodology has been recognized by international organizations as well as public and private actors of Latin American countries with isolated indigenous peoples. In 2009, Iniciativa Amotocodie has held workshops for government staff on request of government authorities from Bolivia and Ecuador, as well as for personnel and members of civil society and indigenous organizations in Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay.

Iniciativa Amotocodie Director Benno Glauser, together with three more experts from Brazil and Peru, has been a member of a special mission carried out in September 2009 at the request of the Government of Ecuador, charged with the appraisal of the situation and the formulation of recommendations for government authorities, after a deadly attack by isolated Tagaeri- Taromenani had occurred in the Yasuni region of Ecuador,.


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