Conservation expedition a risk to uncontacted tribes?

Posted on November 11, 2010

People around town in Asunción have been talking about this situation this week, and now it’s hit BBC News:

“Conservation expedition ‘poses risk to tribes’


“UK museum urged to stay out of isolated Latam area”

and the London Evening Standard:

“Paraguay trip by scientists ‘could wipe out natives'”

The London Museum of Natural History has been planning an expedition to explore the biodiversity of part of the Dry Chaco for about a year.  I actually heard about this expedition a week before stories about problems with indigenous rights groups broke because I came across their blog while I was trying to identify the species of the spider that lives in my closet.  (You know, to see if it was poisonous or something.  Didn’t end up identifying it because when you Google ‘Chaco’ and ‘spider’ all you get is tarantulas.)  I haven’t been able to re-locate the blog (I think perhaps the LMNH has taken it down during the media storm), but here is the summary of the expedition from their website:

“Expedition to explore biodiversity of the Dry Chaco region in Paraguay”

Just a 10 days before the planned start date of their expedition, they had trouble getting the remainder of their research permits. When I first heard about this I thought it was just bureaucracy within the Paraguayan government and or maybe a desire to assert Paraguayan rights over the specimens discovered during the expedition that was leading to the delay.  But it soon came out that indigenous rights groups are protesting that the expedition will lead to unwanted contact with the uncontacted Ayoreo tribes living in the area, and that a ‘genocide’ of infectious diseases would result.

virgin soil epidemic is when a population that has never come in contact with an infectious disease before, and therefore has developed no immunity against the disease, encounters the disease for the first time.  Yes, it is certainly possible in this situation.  Virgin soil epidemics of influenza, smallpox, and measles devastated aboriginal populations in the Americas during the period of first contact with Europeans (Wikipedia has some more information here).  But I do think it’s unlikely when great efforts are being made to avoid contact.

And the LMNH expedition is making efforts to avoid any contact with the uncontacted Ayoreo tribes.  They have the permission of an Ayoreo leader (of the contacted Ayoreo tribes) to undertake the study, and this leader will be accompanying the LMNH group and the Paraguayan Museum of Natural History group into the study area.  He will be able to tell if any uncontacted tribes are in the vicinity, and will also be sharing traditional knowledge about the Dry Chaco environment with the scientists.

Here is the response from the LMNH director to concerns about the expedition:

“Museum Science Director responds to Paraguay expedition queries”

I think perhaps the indigenous rights groups have lost sight of the larger picture in this situation (I find the following article somewhat inflammatory, but it does highlight the main issues and give context to the current conflict):

“Chaco deforestation by Christian sect puts Paraguayan land under threat: Wildlife and the world’s last uncontacted tribe both at risk as Mennonites turn Chaco forest into prairie-style farmlands”

The Paraguayan Chaco is being rapidly deforested and developed, and this threatens both the uncontacted Ayoreo and the flora and fauna.  There is an opportunity for synergy here.  Investigations into the biodiversity of the Dry Chaco will bolster arguments for its conservation; which means that this land will be preserved for the continued use of the Ayoreo, so that they can maintain their traditional way of life, and won’t be forced into unwanted contact.  So it might be a question of lesser evils: there’s a risk of contact from the group of scientists over one month, but there’s also a daily risk of contact from illegal loggers and ranchers and loss of habitat.

Remember, this contact is unwanted – if the Ayoreo hear a troupe of scientists tramping through the forest they probably won’t stick around to meet them.  If there is contact it’s very possible that the Ayoreo will attack the scientists, and the scientists will be the casualties.

I’m keeping track of the situation.