Hello world: Paraguay’s Ayoreo Indians at risk from outside contact

13 Nov

In our modern, globalised world it is easy to assume that everyone partakes in a modern, technologically-advanced existence that revolves around computers, efficient transport, mass media and all the luxuries they entail. But earlier this week we were reminded that this is not the case as London’s Natural History Museum tackled criticism for their fact-finding mission to an area of Paraguay inhabited by an indigenous tribe.

The Ayoreo Indians who live in the forest expanse of the Gran Chaco, which stretches from Paraguay to Bolivia and Argentina, first came into contact with outsiders in the 1940s and 1950s. Today only 300 Ayoreos remain uncontacted out of a population of 2,000 according to Survival International. It is their virgin territory that the Natural History Museum’s scientists intend to visit.

Iniciativa Amotocodie, an indigenous people’s protection group based in Paraguay, has criticised the expedition saying that contact with previously isolated tribes will introduce new diseases and lead to ‘genocide’. Their spokesman said: “If this expedition goes ahead, we will not be able to understand why you prefer to lose human lives just because the English scientists want to study plants and animals”.

Professor Richard Lane, head of science at the Natural History Museum, told the BBC: “We’ve considered the whole expedition from the very beginning. We have sought local advice from our guides to ensure there will be no inappropriate contact.” But surely in this case any form of contact should be deemed inappropriate.

It seems that our modern psyche allows all manner of sins to be justified in the name of scientific research. What gives these scientists the right to trespass on the Ayoreo’s land and reject their plea for privacy? For centuries Europeans and North Americans engaged in missionary activities which interfered with indigenous cultures, believing in their responsibility to spread ‘civilisation’. By ignoring the warning issued by Iniciativa Amotocodie and other indigenous leaders, the scientists’ actions seem to hark back to the colonial era when anything was permissible in the name of progress and when, at times, intercultural understanding was of little worth. And now, perhaps as a consequence of our globalised media, we feel we have a right to know everything, including the actions of a small population the other side of the world.

It is refreshing that there are those who don’t want to partake in the modern life we have established for ourselves, and they have a right not to. The Ayoreo live nomadically, constantly engaging with their forest surroundings. They hunt, fish and gather wild honey, handling hives with their bare hands as they know which bees sting and which do not. They only sleep inside their homes, made of branches and mud, when it rains. In 2004, a contacted group described their fear when they first heard bulldozers clearing the land for settlement; they thought that outsiders had come to kill them and abandoned their territory so quickly they could only take their children with them.

The Natural History Museum’s expedition is not intended to harm the isolated Ayoreo nor their natural habitat. But the Ayoreo’s rare, unspoilt way of living is so precious in this modern age, that any scientific lessons the ‘English scientists’ may gain are not worth threatening them. There are some instances in which a thirst for knowledge cannot be justified.

Image 1: lastdaysoftheincas.com

Image 2: volunteerlatinamericablog.com

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4 Responses to “Hello world: Paraguay’s Ayoreo Indians at risk from outside contact”

  1. Holly November 13, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

    i think its nice there are people in the world who have not yet been infected (medically and psychologically) by the western world.
    but no one seems to care enough, and im sure the natural history museum will get their own way.

  2. Gordon December 28, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    I can see your points, but also wonder if the expedition may draw world attention to the greater plight affecting this area. Clearing of the Chacos on a terrible scale (for cattle etc).

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