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Paraguay halts British expedition over isolated indigenous group

November 25, 2010 |  1:26 pm

Ayoreo man chaco survival

The government of Paraguay has put the brakes on a planned expedition into a remote northern region of the country, fearing that researchers from the Natural History Museum of London could make contact with an indigenous group that wants to remain isolated from the outside world.

The museum had hoped to study the plant and animal life in Paraguay's Chaco, a dry forest region where the native Ayoreo people live in voluntary isolation. Local conservationists and indigenous rights groups warned the government that the Ayoreo's isolation could be compromised by the expedition, despite the planned use of a contacted Ayoreo guide who would have explored ahead to warn residents of approaching outsiders, reports Nature.

The Chaco region, which stretches from the north of Argentina to Brazil, is under threat from ranchers and loggers. The Ayoreo are considered the last uncontacted indigenous group in South America outside the Amazon basin. There are no precise figures on their population.

Benno Glauser, director of Iniciativa Amotocodie, a nongovernmental organization based in Paraguay's north Chaco that monitors the Ayoreo remotely, said in a letter to the museum late last month that its planned expedition was potentially unlawful and would have constituted "an intrusion and alteration of remote regions which normally remain untouched by external 'Western' human presence."

Researchers from the museum were already preparing for the trip to begin when the Paraguayan government stepped in Nov. 15, halting the expedition because of "last-minute questions" (link in Spanish).

The museum released a statement saying that it hoped the "issues can be resolved soon" and that the expedition could still take place. The museum's director of science, Richard Lane, said in a video in response to the concerns that steps would be taken to avoid unplanned contact, but also suggested that some could occur.

"We will be sharing our knowledge with them, and we'll be learning their traditional knowledge, which we'll gain from too," Lane said in the video, referring to the Ayoreo.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: An Ayoreo man. Credit: Survival International