The South America’s Gran Chaco region covers almost 400,000 square miles in the border areas of Northern Argentina, SW Paraguay and SE Bolivia. Locals sometimes divide it simply by the political borders, giving rise to the terms Argentinian Chaco, Paraguayan Chaco and Bolivian Chaco.
The Gran Chaco is home to dozens of indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples. It is also an ecological region with great biodiversity. It is the biggest forest area of South America after the Amazon. Besides the autochthonous ecosystems, it has biological elements from the Andes, the Paraná jungle and the Brazilian Matogrosso.
The Gran Chaco has remarkable cultural diversity. It is said that at least 25 indigenous peoples inhabit this region, including communities of Guarani, Wichi, Tobas, Moqoit, Weenhayek, and several smaller groups which makes of the Gran Chaco an area of great cultural gathering and exchange. Its rural population is estimated in 1,404,000 people, including indigenous (at least 200,000) and “criollos” or people of European descent.
For thousands of years these indigenous peoples lived in harmony with their eco-system before losing most of their land. The Gran Chaco is victim of the depredation of natural resources, mainly deforestation for soy and sugar cane cultivation by big agricultural and exploitation companies). This activity does not consider native peoples’ rights to that land and their ancestral environmental practices of sustainable land use and management.
All parts of the Gran Chaco are located far from the respective national and even provincial capitals, which translates into little or no institutional presence from the Government. Today, in addition to living in extreme poverty, the indigenous peoples are victims of great discrimination from the local and national governments, the companies established in the region and, many time, a large part of the “criollo” population.
In the CWS Chaco program, CWS LAC and its partners in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay are strengthening the organizational capacity of groups of indigenous men and women in the Gran Chaco to secure legal title to their ancestral territory and to use the land in ways that are economically, socially and culturally sustainable.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey