Controversy Rages Over Scientific Expedition to Paraguay

A 100-person-strong scientific expedition, set to head off in the next few days for remote regions of northern Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina, is causing an uproar among some anthropologists and advocates of the indigenous people who live in that area. They fear that the exploring scientists could come into contact with the isolated indigenous groups, leading to violent exchanges or exposing the locals to dangerous infectious disease to which they have no immunity.

The month long expedition, organized by the Natural History Museum in London, in collaboration with their partner organization the Natural History Museum in Asunción, Paraguay, is hoped to return with several hundred new species of plants and insects. In a description of the expedition, the U.K. Natural History Museum says that such “specimens will help scientists to understand for the first time the richness and diversity of the animals and plants in this remote region. The Governments and conservation groups are able to use such information to better understand how to manage fragile habitats and protect them for future generations”.

The British and Paraguayan-led teams of scientists and research assistants, who will target two remote regions of an area of lowland, semiarid forest known as the Gran Chaco that stretches for 647,500 km2 on the eastern side of the Andes, will be traipsing through the homelands of groups of Ayoreo Indians who live in voluntary isolation and are rarely sighted. Some members of the Ayoreo tribes have fled the forest in recent years because of threats of bulldozed houses by a Brazilian company setting up a “nature reserve,” reports Survival International, a non-governmental organization that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples. “Contact with isolated groups is invariably violent, sometimes fatal, and always disastrous,” said Jonathan Mazower, a spokesman for Survival International. “It is highly likely that there are small groups of isolated Indians scattered throughout the Chaco. The only sensible thing to do is err on the side of caution because any accidental contact can be disastrous. This has happened before [in the Chaco]. On two previous occasions, in 1979 and 1986, expeditions were sent in by U.S. missionaries to bring out Indians and people were killed on both occasions.”

Benno Glauser, director of leading indigenous peoples’ protection group Iniciativa Amotocodie, a group who aims to protect the integrity and the physical, spiritual, and cultural survival and vitality of isolated groups, says in a letter to the museum:

According to our data, the expedition you plan constitutes beyond any doubt an extremely high risk for the integrity, safety and legal rights of life and self-determination of the isolated Ayoreo, as well as for the integrity and stability of their territories . … There exists a considerable menace and risk also for the safety of the scientists taking part of the expedition, as well as the rest of expedition participants.

In an online statement reported by the Guardian, the U.K. Natural History Museum said it worked with the Paraguayan government and Ayoreo Indians to plan the expedition: “We recognise the importance of the concerns which have been taken into account during the planning of the expedition. They form part of the ongoing consultations that are still taking place with the Paraguayan authorities.”

The museum adds: “We are delighted to be working with representatives of the indigenous people. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to combine traditionally acquired knowledge with scientifically acquired knowledge to our mutual benefit. As with all expeditions, the team is continually reviewing the situation. Our primary concern is for the welfare of the members of the expedition team and the people of the Dry Chaco region.”

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