Indigenous Groups Under Fire in Paraguay

A leader of the Paĩ Tavyterã Indigenous people says ongoing fires in Paraguay could provoke long-lasting environmental and cultural damage, and that the state is not doing enough to help his community extinguish the flames. At risk is Jasuka Venda, an ancient site at the center of the Paĩ Tavyterã origin story.

Jasuka Venda before the fires. Photo courtesy of Juan Carlos Meza, Fotociclo.

Like other areas of South America, Paraguay has seen intense blazes over recent weeks: the Paraguayan National Forestry Institute estimates that approximately 150,000 hectares of vegetation have been lost across the country. Hot, windy weather has provoked an intensification of fires, especially in the area of Cerro Chovoreca in the western Chaco region. The Pantanal tropical wetlands – an area of great ecological importance, known for being a habitat for 656 bird species – have also been affected.

On September 10, the government of President Mario Abdo Benítez declared a state of emergency in two administrative departments in the Chaco in an effort to channel resources towards tackling the blazes. Emergency teams have been working to tackle flames in these areas since they first broke out in mid-August.

As elsewhere, the fires are producing an enormous impact on Indigenous people. The Paĩ Tavyterã, who live in the north-eastern administrative department of Amambay, have already seen several of their communities devastated by fire. Their most sacred site, Jasuka Venda, is currently in flames.

Jasuka Venda is an 8,000-hectare, heavily forested area owned and protected by the Paĩ Tavyterã. It is centered around a large hill called Cerro Guasú, which sits amidst the Cerro Corá National Park. The site holds unparalleled cultural, spiritual and religious importance for the Paĩ Tavyterã, and has been a place of human dwelling for at least 5,000 years.

Luis Arce, a Paĩ Tavyterã leader, told Toward Freedom that, within the cosmovision of his people, Jasuka Venda was the setting for the creation of the world. He stated that it was in this very spot that the first ancestor brought himself into existence and where “earth, water and all the wealth of the planet originated.”

Arce stated that in recent days, three large fires have broken out in Jasuka Venda, destroying extensive areas of forest. While it has not been possible to ascertain an exact figure, the Indigenous leader estimated that nearly 500 hectares of the sacred site have so far been lost. Satellite images confirm a high number of outbreaks of flames within the area. Houses as well as materials slated for use in the construction of a temple have already been destroyed by the fire near the sacred site.

Arce claims that, to date, authorities have provided no assistance. Community members have exposed themselves to extreme danger, trying to battle the blazes wearing sandals and without proper equipment.

On September 12, Arce and the NGO Ary Ojasojavo sent a letter to President Abdo Benítez and the leaders of several other government departments. This letter clearly outlines the dire situation being experienced by the Paĩ Tavyterã and demand for urgent support in putting out the flames.

“The government just can’t keep ignoring us,” Arce told Toward Freedom during an interview in a hotel in Asunción. Upon arrival to the capital, Arce found that Asunción’s air was also thick with smoke: the wind had carried in suffocating clouds from the fires burning across the country.

The lack of attention from authorities forms part of a much wider pattern of state negligence towards Paraguay’s indigenous communities. A UN report revealed that 60 per cent of the country’s Indigenous people live in extreme poverty. According to the same report, of the country’s roughly 500 indigenous communities, 134 are landless and another 145 face problems related to land ownership.

Arce expressed marked concern over the possible repercussions for Paĩ Tavyterã cultural and spiritual traditions if further damage occurs at Jasuka Venda. He emphasized the extreme importance for his people that the sacred forest remain intact and free from human intervention.

The loss of Jasuka Venda’s vegetation would also represent a further reduction in Paraguay’s once-enormous Atlantic Forest, which has shrunk by roughly 90 per cent since the 1940s due to deforestation. Until the fires, Jasuka Venda stood as an island of solid dark green amidst areas used for intensive agriculture and cattle ranching.

José Luis Cartes, director of Guyra Paraguay – one of Paraguay’s most important environmental groups told Toward Freedom by phone that one of the main causes of the blazes in the east of Paraguay is the use of fire to get around the country’s anti-deforestation laws. Fire is used to clear protected land so that it can subsequently be employed for uses including industrial agriculture and ranching. The experiences of the Paĩ Tavyterã confirms this: on September 13, community members reported to police that they had spotted unidentified individuals starting fires within Jasuka Venda.

Cartes noted that fires occur on a yearly basis in Paraguay, however, recent dry weather has provided perfect conditions for even more extreme, large-scale blazes.

Paĩ Tavyterã leader Arce noted that they have noticed a continual warming of the climate in the region of Jasuka Venda over recent years. He claims that the heavily deforested area experiences frost much less frequently than it did previously. The Paĩ Tavyterã point to this change as greatly increasing the possibility of fire spreading.

Ricardo Morínigo, of the environmental group Tierra Viva, told Toward Freedom that the Indigenous peoples in other regions of Paraguay are also affected by the fires. He mentioned Yshyr communities in the administrative department of Alto Paraguay, who are experiencing health problems due to smoke from the intense fires burning nearby. The fires have also begun to spread to parts of the territories of Ayoreo communities. Morínigo criticised the lack of response of the state to fires that are affecting Indigenous communities.

The long-term environmental damage left by the fires will severely affect Indigenous people’s capacity to live from hunting and fishing, according to Morínigo. “People are talking a lot about how the fires are affecting ranches and cattle, but very little is being said about how the fires are affecting indigenous communities,” he said.

Author Bio

William Costa is a freelance journalist based in Asunción, Paraguay. He is especially interested in bringing attention to human rights issues affecting the country. He can be found on Twitter at will_j_costa.