Joó struggles to look up at the camera. She is serious and sad. At times a nervous and embarrassed smile escapes her behind the milky veil of smoke that rises between her and her lens like a protective filter. She no longer wants to talk. She is 34 years old, and on her shoulders a life difficult to imagine for anyone who does not belong to her people or has made her the same tragic experience of her.
She only came into contact with the outside world in 2004, along with a group of other fleeing Ayoreo Totobiegosode. Among them was also Chicode, now the father of her children. They tried to escape the “coñone”, the foreigners who terrorized them with the deafening noise of their engines and their herds. A bulldozer had just flattened one of their houses and gardens. Together with some companions, Joó ran through the forest in search of a safe haven. When they met Porai, they decided to follow him to the village where he lived permanently together with other Totobiegosode who had already been forced out of solitary confinement. It was a chance meeting, they weren’t looking for contact, but they were afraid. They were too terrified to continue living a life on the run.
It is estimated that at least 100 uncontacted tribes exist in Brazil alone today. It is the largest concentration in the world. But the Ayoreo of the Paraguayan Chaco – a remarkably biodiverse ecosystem of savannah and dry forest – are the only uncontacted people surviving on the American continent outside the Amazon.
Theirs is a story of suffering and extraordinary resistance at the same time, like that of Joó who, with difficulty, seeks only spaces of hope and justice for himself and for his people.
The Ayoreo’s first regular contact with outside society occurred between the 1940s and 1950s, when Mennonite farmers founded colonies on their lands, bringing with them two devastating forces that would later change the face of the Paraguayan Chaco: entrepreneurship agriculture and religion. The Ayoreo opposed the invasion and there were deaths on both sides.
Many other groups were progressively forced out of the forest in the late 1960s. The most dramatic period was between 1979 and 1986, when “New Tribes Mission” (Ntm) – a US fundamentalist evangelical group now known as Ethnos360 – forcibly contacted various Ayoreo groups including the Totobiegosode, the sub-group of the Ayoreo in contact with the colonizers in more recent times.
NTM organized brutal “man hunts” during which many Ayoreo were forcibly snatched from the forest, taken to its camps, enslaved and terrorized into forcing them to renounce their beliefs. Many Ayoreos were killed in the fighting, and shortly after contact many more died of external diseases to which they had no immunity.
Some families of Ayoreo Totobiegosode who survived that violence came out of the forest later, in 1998 and in 2004. Among them, Joó and his companions. The encroachment on their land forced them to constantly leave their homes, making life extremely hard or impossible. But other families continue to lead a nomadic life in the ancestral land. The signs of their presence are unequivocal: abandoned houses, hunting spears, carved bark and tree trunks dug in search of honey. But beyond this evidence, it is their relatives who know for sure that they exist and who they are: Joó’s mother and brothers still live hidden in the forest. Together with them there are other parents, other children and grandchildren of which the sedentary Totobiegodose remember all the names and even the double family tree.
The uncontacted live together in community houses with a vaulted structure supported by a central pole and made with small tree branches covered with dried mud. They grow pumpkins, beans and melons in the sandy soil and hunt in the forest. They especially like turtles, wild boars and anteaters, and they love honey. They gave their most important rite the name of asojna, the nightjar: the first song of the bird heralds the arrival of the rainy season and ushers in a joyous month of celebrations and festivities. But the Ayoreo settled by force, this rite can no longer celebrate it. It was abolished along with many other celebrations by the NTM missionaries, still conditioning their lives from a base close to the villages.
Surrounded by deforestation, the newly contacted Ayoreo often have no choice but to work as underpaid labourers, sometimes in semi-slavery conditions, on the cattle ranches that carve up their territory. Over time, in fact, the Paraguayan government has handed over most of their ancestral land to agro-industrial companies who today occupy it and exploit it to produce meat and hides.
Many ranches are owned by the Mennonites, but a large part of the land is concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy Paraguayans and Brazilian cattle traders who relentlessly cut down the Chaco forest: first they cut down the precious trees, then they set fire to the forest and finally they introduce the cattle on deforested land. The bulldozers are advancing without brakes and the pressure on the forest is immeasurable: it is one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet.
But the Ayoreo Totobiegosode are not willing to give up. They have been fighting to legally protect their forest from the rapidly expanding agricultural frontier since 1993, when they filed a formal land claim with the government. Without the forest they cannot feed or sustain themselves, and they fear for the lives of their uncontacted kin: surrounded on all sides, they hold on in ever-shrinking green oases, but with the ruthless advance of bulldozers and herds, they may soon have no plus another place to take refuge. And that would be extermination.
An important albeit partial part of the Ayoreo ancestral territory was formally recognized by the Government of Paraguay in 2001. It measures 550,000 hectares and is known as Pncat: Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ayoreo Totobiegosode Indigenous People. But after 30 years of struggles, to date the authorities have transferred to the Ayoreo titles of ownership only on a few thousand hectares of this land while the powerful landowners, with the complicity of conniving officials and politicians, continue to level the rest of the territory and to invade the areas already returned. Despite complaints to the authorities, no effective action has so far been taken to expel the invaders and stop a deforestation that has been unequivocally illegal since 2016.
From South America to Italy
Chicode, is sitting next to Joó, coughing. He did not die immediately after the 2004 contact, as happened to others in that group, but he fell ill, and today he is too weak to work or hunt far away, where the forest is still alive, to give healthy food to his children.
Uncontacted tribes are the most vulnerable peoples on the planet. Usually, in the two years following contact with the outside world, about 50 percent of the population dies. In some cases, they all die. To kill them are the diseases introduced from outside, to which they have no immunity, or the direct violence of the invaders. And the lethal effects of contact also linger over time, like a slow-release poison dooming them to impoverishment, slavery, suicide, or death from disease. Almost all Ayoreo who are forcibly settled suffer from respiratory ailments. As temperatures drop, coughs become the soundtrack of the communities, dominated in the morning only by the lowing of the herds that surround them. Diabetes and musculoskeletal diseases caused by the new sedentary lifestyle and increasingly poor diet are also rampant. It is a story that repeats itself in time and space, everywhere in the world. And that’s what the recently contacted Ayoreo Totobiegosode want at all costs to avoid to their still isolated relatives.
Exactly one year ago, an uncontacted group from Ayoreo Totobiegosode approached a community of settled relatives at night, “chanting” their concerns about the constant invasion of strangers and bulldozers, which they call “metal-skinned beasts”.
That song crosses the ocean and reaches us. While the meat from Paraguayan farms ends up mostly in Chile and Russia, almost two thirds of the 50,000 tonnes of hides exported each year flows into Italy, to date the largest buyer of Paraguayan hides in the world. In agreement with the Ayoreo Totobiegosode, with whom it has been collaborating for decades, the global movement for the rights of indigenous peoples Survival International has filed a petition with the OECD against Pasubio Spa, the Italian company that more than any other supplies itself tanneries that trade with farms guilty of occupying their ancestral land and illegally deforesting it. Pasubio depends for more than 90 percent of its 313 million euros of annual revenues from the automotive industry to which it supplies leather for steering wheels, seats and interiors of BMW and Jaguar Land Rover cars, among others.
Despite the reassurances given to companies by a corrupt government like Paraguay’s or by private sector bodies that evidently do not trace the entire supply chain of the products they claim to certify, one thing is certain: the Ayoreos are desperately struggling to survive a that it is taking away from them everything that is rightfully theirs; everything except the determination not to give up and the hope of being able to give their children a future of freedom and independence on the land of their fathers. They have the right to live, companies the responsibility to choose, and consumers the freedom to refuse a luxury made on the skin of Joó, Chicode, their two children and all the other Ayoreo Totobiegodose, “the local people of wild boars ”.
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