The Ayoreo

The forest belonging to Paraguay's Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Indians has the fastest rate of deforestation in the world

Much of their land has been stolen and sold to cattle ranchers, forcing the uncontacted Ayoreo to live on the run, escaping the bulldozers that are destroying their forest.

Since the 1970s, Survival has been working with contacted Ayoreo communities to help them successfully gain title to 550,000 hectares of their ancestral homeland.

But the government is allowing foreign ranching companies continue to destroy the Ayoreo’s forest home to make way for cattle, and uncontacted Ayoreo may soon have nowhere left to hide.

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Of the several different sub-groups of Ayoreo, the most isolated are the Totobiegosode (‘people from the place of the wild pigs’).

Since 1969 many have been forced out of the forest, but some still avoid all contact with outsiders.

Their first sustained contact with white people came in the 1940s and 1950s, when Mennonite farmers established colonies on their land.

The Ayoreo resisted this invasion, and there were killings on both sides.

In 1979 and 1986 the American fundamentalist New Tribes Mission helped organize ‘manhunts’ in which large groups of Totobiegosode were forcibly brought out of the forest.

Several Ayoreo died in these encounters, and others later succumbed to disease.

Uncontacted Chaco

A special report from the Paraguayan Chaco. Recently contacted Ayoreo Indians are worried for the future of their uncontacted relatives.

Other Ayoreo groups came out of the forest in 1998 and 2004 as continual invasions of their land meant they constantly had to abandon their homes, making life very hard. An unknown number still live a nomadic life in the forest.

The greatest current threat to the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode is deforestation. The core of their land, where uncontacted Ayoreo live, is in the hands of five agribusiness companies that are rapidly destroying it: Yaguareté Porã S.A., Carlos Casado S.A., River Plate S.A., BBC S.A, and Itapoti S.A.

They plan to bulldoze most of the land where uncontacted Ayoreo live to create cattle ranches – this will have a devastating effect on the Ayoreo’s ability to continue living there.

How do they live?

The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode live in small communities. They grow squashes, beans and melons in the sandy soil, and hunt in the forest. Large tortoises and wild pig are particularly prized, as is the abundant wild honey.

In the forest four or five families will live together in a communal house. A central wooden pillar supports a dome-shaped structure of smaller branches, topped with dried mud.

Members of the Paraguayan Ayoreo-Totobiegosode group on the day they were contacted for the first time, in 2004.

Members of the Paraguayan Ayoreo-Totobiegosode group on the day they were contacted for the first time, in 2004. © GAT/Survival

Each family will have its own hearth around the outside; people will only sleep inside if it rains.

The most important Ayoreo ritual was named after asojna, the nightjar: when the bird’s call was first heard it heralded the arrival of the rainy season, and a month of celebrations and festivities.

An abandoned house in the Paraguayan Chaco belonging to uncontacted Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Indians

An abandoned house in the Paraguayan Chaco belonging to uncontacted Ayoreo-Totobiegosode Indians © Survival

The Ayoreo who now live in settled communities live in individual family huts. Those who have lost their land now have little choice but to work as exploited laborers on the cattle ranches that have taken over much of their territory.

The evangelical New Tribes Mission has a base near their communities, and exerts a powerful influence on their daily lives. Under the missionaries, the asojna ritual—and many others—have been suppressed.

Crisis point

Paraguay, despite its relatively small surface area, has been the second most deforested country in South America in the last two decades, second only to Brazil (Global Forest Watch, 2021). The dry forest of the Chaco is disappearing faster than any other forest on the planet.

Land inhabited by the Ayoreo is some of the last standing forest in the Chaco region, a great testament to the tribe’s conservation abilities.

However, pressure on the forest is immense. Almost all the Ayoreo’s ancestral land is now owned by private landowners, who hire work-teams to clear the forest of valuable timber and then introduce cattle. Many of these new landowners are Mennonites, but much of the Ayoreo land has now been bought up by wealthy Paraguayan and, especially, Brazilian cattle-ranching businesses.

Even though their territory covers 550,000 hectares, the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode are focusing their struggle on urgently securing ownership and protection of at least the core of it. Without their forest they cannot feed or support themselves, and they are also greatly concerned about their uncontacted relatives still living there.

Under Paraguayan law, this claim area should have been titled to the Ayoreo decades ago, as both Paraguayan law, and the country’s Constitution, recognize Indigenous peoples’ right to the ownership of their traditional lands.

But the powerful landowners, with the complicity of politicians, have trampled the law underfoot and have illegally bulldozed part of the forest already.

Crisis Point

As bulldozers and cattle ranchers encroach further into their territory the Ayoreo of Paraguay are worried for the safety of their uncontacted relatives.

International pressure

The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode have been trying since 1993 – when they submitted a formal land claim – to protect their forest in the face of a rapidly expanding agricultural frontier.

In 2013, given a total lack of political will in Paraguay to uphold the law and stop the destruction of their lands, they requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) intervene.

In 2015, the IACHR issued urgent protection measures over the Ayoreo territory while it considered its judgement on the land claim. But in 2016, the Paraguayan government requested the Ayoreo enter formal negotiations, using the Commission as mediators, for the transfer of their land titles.

However, it became clear that the government was using the “negotiation” as a strategy to continue deforesting, and in 2021, the Ayoreo pulled out of the negotiations and requested the Commission to urgently rule on the land rights case.

In the face of the imminent threat to the Ayoreo’s survival, leading Indigenous organizations across South America, with Survival’s support, have united in solidarity and made an unprecedented public appeal for action.

Beast with Metal Skin

In 1994 a bulldozer driver clearing the forest at night was attacked out of the darkness. Although he didn’t know it, he was destroying the gardens and hunting grounds of a group of Ayoreo-Totobiegosode families. One of them, Esoi, was finally forced out of the forest in 2004. Here, he recounts his attack on the bulldozer.

Act now to help the Ayoreo

The Ayoreo need your urgent support

  • Use your social media to urge the Inter-American Commission to order Paraguay to expel the companies and return the land to the Ayoreo.
  • Send an email to the government of Paraguay asking it to demarcate the Ayoreo’s land in line with the country’s laws and treaties.
  • Make a donation to Survival’s uncontacted campaign.