Museum expedition and the uncontacted Ayoreo, again

Posted on November 15, 2010

The previous news articles I posted about the London Museum of Natural History expedition and the uncontacted Ayoreo tribes in the Dry Chaco tended to emphasize the protests of the indigenous rights groups and not balance it out with the LMNH side of the story.

This article from the Telegraph is slightly more balanced, although it brings in some unusual commentators:

“Danger: The world is on its way”

But better yet, is the reporting that comes out of Paraguay.  This article is from the Ultima Hora in Paraguay:

“INDI aún no dio la licencia para expedición al Chaco/INDI still hasn’t issued the license for the Chaco expedition”

This article is dated from Friday, November 12th, and as of today the expedition did have the permission of INDI (the Paraguayan government organization responsible for overseeing consultations with indigenous peoples), but it has been suspended for other reasons.

My translation of an excerpt from the article above:

DANGER OF CONTACT.  Against the protest by the Amotocodie Initiative for a possible breach of the requirements to make a scientific expedition, the representative of Guyra Paraguay said that they have taken all precautions to avoid contact with the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode living in voluntary isolation, and to avoid possible spread of diseases to the natives, and the possibility of violent attacks.

In this regard, she clarified that the expedition will be accompanied by Ayoreos belonging to the Union of Native Ayoreos of Paraguay (UNAP), who will be responsible for guiding them through the territory.

“The danger is very low because there is a remote possibility of meeting, because we are talking about three or four groups of isolated Ayoreos, i.e. approximately 25 people in an area of one million hectares,” she said.

On the other hand, the organizers of the Dry Chaco 2010 expedition also ensures that the sampling of Paraguayan Boreal Gran Chaco will not in any way affect the native ecosystem.

They explained that in no case shall they be using the expedition to deforest or open roads in the Chaco region.  They clarified that their work is the collection of samples for biological inventory to evaluate the flora and fauna of the ecosystems and promote environmental conservation.


Through a statement, the Network of Environmental Organizations in Paraguay (ROAM) requested that the Secretariat of the Environment (SEAM) and INDI to intervene in the expedition, to ensure compliance with environmental regulations and respect of the rights of uncontacted Ayoreo groups.

The ROAM is concerned about a division that this scientific expedition has produced within the Ayoreo community, as there is a group in this community that does not support this initiative.  Therefore, they also seek an environmental impact assessment and a verdict from INDI.

A week before its commencement, the scientific expedition in the Paraguayan Chaco, sponsored by London’s Museum of Natural History and other local organizations, has not yet been approved by the National Indigenous Institute.

If you read the headlines from English language news you get the impression that this is about the LMNH and the danger they are posing to uncontacted Ayoreo groups.  But I think there is a far more disturbing storyline if you’re reading Paraguayan news: Who speaks for these uncontacted tribes?  Who really represents a group of people who don’t want to participate in the globalized world (and thereby have no way to speak for themselves)?

It seems to me that UNAP, the Union of Native Ayoreos of Paraguay, made up of contacted Ayoreo groups, is the most qualified to decide whether the expedition is acceptable and whether the measures they are taking to prevent harm are sufficient.  The expedition had the approval and cooperation of UNAP (although they were perhaps consulted rather late in the process).  Then an indigenous rights organization, Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA) (which is not run by or composed of indigenous peoples) comes in, claiming to represent a divided group of Ayoreos who did not agree with the expedition.  They lodged a complaint on behalf of the ‘other’ Ayoreos, which the Ayoreo leadership then denounces as false, and Ayoreos come forward to say that they were lied to by IA about what the expedition entailed and they didn’t know what they were signing.  And then you also have INDI, the Paraguayan government organization which oversees consultations with indigenous peoples.  Which is all well and good, but how much can you rely on an arm of the Paraguayan government to represent the interests of indigenous peoples when the government still hasn’t returned lands to indigenous peoples (and continues to try to take land away from indigenous peoples, see the Ache case) despite court orders from the InterAmerican Court on Human Rights.

The best timeline of events comes from the series of articles on the ABC Color website:

Nov. 11  Líderes ayoreo dan su apoyo a expedición y desautorizan a ONG/Ayoreo leaders give their support to the expedition and disallow NGO

La Unión de Nativos Ayoreo del Paraguay (UNAP) apoya una expedición científica prevista a zonas fronterizas del Chaco. Refuta una nota en contra, difundida por la ONG Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA), en nombre ayoreo. “No queremos que IA trabaje más en nombre ayoreo”, afirmaron./The National Union of Ayoreo Natives of Paraguay (UNAP) supports a planned scientific expedition to the border areas of the Chaco.  They refute a document against the expedition, released by the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA), on behalf of the Ayoreo.  “We do not want IA to work in the name of Ayoreos any more,” they said.

Nov. 12  UNAP no fue consultada sobre misión científica/UNAP was not consulted about the scientific expedition

Líderes de la Unión de Nativos Ayoreos del Paraguay (UNAP) indicaron que en un primer momento no fueron consultados sobre la Expedición Chaco Seco 2010, pero dan su apoyo a la misión. Señalaron que tampoco fueron consultados sobre el rechazo de la misión en nombre de su pueblo, como lo hace la ONG Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA)./Leaders of the Union of Ayoreo Natives of Paraguay (UNAP) indicated that at first they were not consulted on the Dry Chaco Expedition 2010, but they give their support to the mission.  They noted that they were not consulted about the rejection of the mission in the name of their people, done by the NGO Iniciativa Amotocodie (IA).

Nov. 12  INDI no se opone a expedición británica en el Chaco/INDI does not oppose British expedition in the Chaco

Lida Acuña aclaró que la institución a su cargo no tiene reparos con respecto a la expedición del Museo de Historia Natural de Londres./Lida Acuna [president of INDI] clarified that the institution for its part has no qualms concerning the London Museum of Natural History expedition.

Nov. 12 Preocupación ante expedición científica al Chaco/Concern about scientific expedition to the Chaco

La Red de Organizaciones Ambientalistas del Paraguay, manifiesta su preocupación ante la Expedición Científica que pretende realizar el Museo de Historia Natural de Londres y la Secretaria del Ambiente (SEAM); conjuntamente con la organización local, Guyra Paraguay./The Network of Environmental Organizations of Paraguay expressed its concern about the scientific expedition that the London Museum of Natural History and Ministry of the Environment (SEAM) seek to make; along with the local organization, Guyra Paraguay

Nov. 13 Ayoreos se sienten engañados/Ayoreos feel cheated

Ayoreos de Boquerón y Alto Paraguay, durante una reunión con la directora de Derechos Etnicos de la Fiscalía General, María José Irrazábal,  denunciaron que fueron engañados para firmar una nota en contra de la expedición científica en el Chaco. Afirman que no fueron informados  y que solo les comentaron que vienen científicos para buscar ayoreos silvícolas. “Les mintieron sobre el contenido de la nota, firmaron sin saber, no había ninguna consulta previa”, dijo Taobi Picanerei,  titular  de la Unión Nacional de Ayoreos del Paraguay (UNAP)./Ayoreos of Boqueron and Alto Paraguay, during a meeting with the Director of Ethnic Rights of the Attorney General’s Office, Maria Jose Irrazabal, reported that they were tricked into signing a note against the scientific expedition into the Chaco.  They claim they were not informed and were told that scientists were only coming to look for uncontacted Ayoreos.  “They lied about the contents of the note, we signed without knowing, there was no previous consultation,” said Taobi Picanerei, head of the National Union of Ayoreos in Paraguay (UNAP).

Nov. 14  Expedición científica no es una amenaza, afirman/Scientific expedition is not a threat, they say

Una expedición científica como la que preparan los británicos al Chaco jamás puede ser considerada un estorbo, una amenaza y menos aún un peligro para las poblaciones indígenas aisladas, que por cierto son muy reducidas, indicaron el sacerdote y antropólogo José Zanardini y el Dr. Ricardo Moreno Azorero, de la Asociación Indigenista del Paraguay (AIP)./A scientific expedition such as the British planned for the Chaco can never be considered a nuisance, a threat, much less a danger to isolated indigenous populations, which certainly are very low, said the priest and anthropologist Jose Zanardini and Dr. Ricardo Azorero Moreno, of the Indian Association of Paraguay (AIP)  [Zanardini is a big deal anthropologist in Paraguay.]

Nov. 15  Expedición británica al Chaco quedó suspendida/British expedition to the Chaco is suspended

La Secretaría del Ambiente informó que la expedición del Museo de Historia Natural de Londres al Chaco se suspendió. “Chaco Seco 2010” se convertiría en una de las expediciones más caras de Inglaterra en los últimos 50 años./The Ministry of the Environment reported that the expedition of the London Museum of Natural History to the Chaco was suspended.  “Dry Chaco 2010” could become one of England’s most expensive expeditions in the last 50 years.

Nov. 15  Cancillería pidió suspensión de expedición, según Seam/The Foreign Ministry requested the suspension of the expedition, according to SEAM

La Secretaría del Ambiente informó que la expedición del Museo de Historia Natural de Londres se suspendió debido a un incumplimiento de uno de los artículos de la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos. Guyrá Paraguay -organización coorganizadora de la expedición- aseguró por su parte que aún no recibió información oficial./The Ministry of the Environment reported that the London Museum of Natural History expedition was suspended due to a breach of one of the articles of the American Convention on Human Rights.  Guyra Paraguay – the organization co-organizing the expedition – said on its part that they have not yet received official notice.

It looked like things were going to go ahead on Friday, but as of today the expedition is suspended.  The convention from the American Convention on Human Rights that they need to fulfill, described above in that last article, requires more in-depth consultation with indigenous peoples before they can go ahead with the project.  I think the three coordinating organizations, the LMNH, SEAM (the Ministry of the Environment), and Guyra Paraguay, are still thinking about whether they are going to go ahead with the expedition or not.

It really bothers me that English-language news media just picked up and ran with the claims from Iniciativa Amotocodie, and didn’t bother to check their facts with a ‘real’ Ayoreo representative.  Indigenous peoples can speak for themselves – IA, and certain other NGOs, just need to move over and make room for them on the stage.