World Rainforest Movement

The invisible women and men who resist against the destruction of their territory in the northern Great Chaco

Living should not have to be a struggle against deadly forces. The life of the indigenous Ayoreo women and men living in isolation (without contact with our civilization) did not used to be a struggle; it was a life lived in and with the land they inhabited, over the course of many centuries. Today, however, through no choice of their own, for these women and men, living has come to mean resisting, enduring – and having to struggle – since the arrival of another world bent on invading and replacing their own world…

Haven’t we all faced this same situation, no matter who or where we are? Finding ourselves imprisoned, caught up and trapped in situations of resistance and endurance, when all we really want is to be left alone, to be happy, to live?

The women and men who make up the six or seven groups of Ayoreo living “in voluntary isolation” – a status and categorization that they have not chosen, but rather one that has resulted from a process of extermination and external pressures – currently represent a tiny but significant human minority. In the past, the indigenous peoples who lived throughout the Americas, with their diversity of worlds, were the majority, while the “isolated” minority were the first settlers and invaders.

Today, these isolated Ayoreo groups continue their way of life in the forests of the northern part of the Great Chaco region, travelling by foot throughout their particular group territories, from place to place. Along the way, they find life and give life to every corner of their rich and varied geography, which we tend to perceive through our outsiders’ eyes as merely a uniform stretch of forested area over the Chaco lowlands. In our language shaped by economic thinking, we describe their nomadic movements as a means of ensuring “resources” for their survival: water, so precious in the arid Chaco region, animals to hunt and eat, fruit that grows in the forests. But these women and men do not look at their surroundings through eyes that only see what is useful, or define everything on the basis of scarcity. To them, the forests of the Chaco are not poor, but rather full of riches. For those who “still” live in these forests, to live does not mean to survive and to struggle, and it never has -until now.  Meanwhile, for us Westerners living in “modern” societies, it is impossible to imagine a life that is not subjected to economic pressures, to the need to struggle to “earn a living”. For many of us, this is the only way to live that we know, and it consumes all of our energies.

But the forest people we refer to as isolated do not need to “earn a living”. They have earned it simply by being born, and they continue to find it, and in turn to recreate it, with every step and every new day. They do not look upon the world in which they live as an enemy, in the way that our world is viewed an enemy to us. Their world – they call it “eami”, which means forest, and also means world – contains, shelters and protects them. It is a world with which they live in intimate, mutual communication: they feel it, they see it, they recognize it, they pronounce its names. They respect it, they fear its tremendous powers, and they know how to protect themselves from those powers. They know that there is a way to coexist with the world that is the right way to live, the good way to live. And when people are able to live this way, without harming the world, communicating with it and taking only one’s share, the result is a sacred equilibrium that kept this planet alive for a very long time, before our era, the product of many equilibriums carefully maintained by women and men from many worlds. The Ayoreo world is only one of them…

Actually, we do not really know exactly how they are, at this moment in time. We have learned what their lives were like before, and had always been, through the testimony of other Ayoreo who were forcibly uprooted from their world by missionaries, and have been able to tell us about their lives. But when it comes to the groups who are still living in isolation today, no one has contact with them. All we can do is discern and gather – like fruit from the forest – the signs of their existence and their movements, and interpret them in the light of our knowledge and our intuition. In the far north and northeast areas of the Chaco, there are isolated groups who are still fairly well sheltered by relatively large expanses of intact forests. Although more and more of this forested land is being cleared, it is still a relatively peaceful area. The same cannot be said of the area to the south, which is closer to the towns and cities of the Central Chaco. The women and men living in isolation in this area now hear and receive the message of the destruction of the forests and their total and utter disappearance every day. And their daily movements are now marked by this destruction. Many of their places have become “non-places”: spots on the planet that have lost their faces and names, disappeared forever, and which in the Ayoreo world have ceased to exist. On the other hand, in our world, these dead Ayoreo places are given new names and become places on our map (a map of death?), connected by our roads, shaped by our projects, productive by our definition, classified by their degree of usefulness for our own purposes. Some become cattle ranches, others, future soy bean plantations (if Monsanto achieves the trumpeted feat of developing drought-resistant seeds).

In the meantime, these more exposed groups of isolated Ayoreo live and move among the cattle company ranches, always invisible, but with nowhere left to go to escape the noise of the bulldozers working day and night to knock down more and more trees, or the trucks roaring past on the countless roads that have carved their land up into grids.

Do these isolated Ayoreo women and men know what they are struggling against? Some time ago, they used to leave feathers and shamanic symbols along the borders of their world, in an attempt to halt its disappearance, but all in vain. They must realize that what they are facing are forces more powerful that those of their own world, forces that speak other languages. And they must be beginning to doubt their own powers, and to feel threatened and weakened.

This time of the year, the months of February and March, is the season for wild chili peppers, and it is the Ayoreo women who walk through the forests picking them. This year, these women will be harvesting them with greater fear, with greater precaution, with the incessant roar of machinery ringing in their ears. There will be fewer peppers to gather. They will no longer be able to pick the peppers that grew in places that no longer exist. Like the wild chili peppers, the caraguatá plant also belongs to the world of women, who weave its fibres into bags and other woven goods, like textile diaries that record their experiences, beliefs, hopes and dreams.

The female gatherers are endangered in the same way as the plants they harvest, just as the male hunters are endangered in the same way as the animals they hunt. And as a result, the independent, diverse and unique powers of their world are endangered.

Deforestation, an abstract word when written here, in this article, is a relentless and concrete reality in the northern Chaco, and it is slowly destroying the life and equilibrium of the Ayoreo world. It is destroying freedom and independence, life that does not depend on money or supermarkets: self-sustained and sustainable life.

To struggle does not always mean to wage war and attack. Sometimes it is a silent, invisible and peaceful flowering. The women – and men – of the isolated Ayoreo groups are struggling against deforestation. They are doing it by being there, by clinging to their way of life, inseparable from the life of their territories. Sometimes to struggle simply means to exist and to persist, to believe in oneself and be strong, to recognize and be conscious of one’s own wealth.

Benno Glauser (Iniciativa Amotocodie, Paraguayan Chaco), email: bennoglauser@gmail.com

 

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