Maria Eugenia Suarez66

Plants, Forests and the Wichi People

María Eugenia Suárez


The purpose of this short text is to highlight the importance of the vegetation, the forests of the Argentine Chaco and their biodiversity for the Wichí people. To this end, I present an overview of the role of native plants and ecosystems within this native culture. I will do so on the basis of the observations, results and conclusions I have obtained in the course of the research I have been carrying out for more than 15 years on Wichí ethnobiology, that is, on the relationships that this culture maintains with its environment, with the ecosystems and the beings and landscapes that shape them. These relationships include how they conceive, name, classify and use plants, animals and other beings, the different landscapes or spaces of their habitat, and natural phenomena; and why they do it as they do (both symbolically and pragmatically). 

In the Gran Chaco, the region that constitutes the territory of the Wichís in northern Argentina is characterised by its native forests which, despite the region’s lack of water, constitutes an oasis, home to countless plants, animals and other living beings of unique biodiversity. Centuries ago, the indigenous people knew how to adapt to the marked seasonality and inclemency of an area that presents serious obstacles to subsistence, and it is here that for centuries and centuries their daily lives have been lived, created and recreated in accordance with the natural environment, and vice versa. 

Plants and vegetation as a whole occupy a central place in Wichí culture and society. They are present everywhere in the different areas of their daily life. In food, for example, there are around 100 species of native plants registered as food, the vast majority of them wild. Fruits, tubers, flowers, roots, resin and herbs form the basis of the diet of this traditional gathering people. Combined with fish, meat and fats from wild animals, eggs and honey, they provided a varied diet despite the scarcity of food during the winter, the harshest time of the year. Many changes have been taking place in the diet since the arrival of the settlers and in line with the associated socio-environmental changes. Today, refined flour and sugar, sugary industrial drinks, yerba mate, fats and salt abound in daily life. The lack of free territory to hunt, fish and gather, massive deforestation due to agribusiness and other extractive activities, the loss of associated biodiversity, the shift from seasonal nomadism to sedentary (or semi-sedentary) lifestyles, the scarcity of economic resources to access quality commercial food, among other factors, have led to the current situation, where little food and nutritional impoverishment are commonplace. Thus, many forest foods have fallen into disuse and are even unknown (at least the details of their preparation and/or use) by the younger generations in many Wichí communities and families. This is true for foods that were very common in the past, such as ohnak (‘sacha sandia’ in local Spanish, Capparis salicifolia), änhyuk (‘poroto del monte’, Cynophalla retusa), newok (‘mandioca del monte’, Marsdenia castilloni), or aloja de algarroba (the fermented drink par excellence in Wichí culture), based on the fruits of jwa’ayukw (‘algarrobo blanco’, white carob, Prosopis alba), as well as, and even more so, for unusual foods that were mentioned by only a few people, such as the flowers of atsukw (‘bola verde’, Anisocapparis speciosa) or the seeds of tsemlhäkw (‘yuchán’, Ceiba chodatii). However, all these foods are interesting forest products for a varied diet of the local people and have a great potential for their projection and commercialisation for local benefits. Despite this, there is a lack of scientific information on their nutritional composition, details of their ecology, among others. 

In medicine, plants and the forest also play an important role. In the Wichí conception there is a distinction between minor ailments and real illnesses; the latter are life-threatening and must be treated not only physically but also spiritually, so that the husek (soul, goodwill) is repositioned within the body and balance is recovered. Herbs and other medicinal species have always been used to treat minor ailments or disorders, symptoms of illnesses and to help the work of shamans, healers and biomedicine to heal the illnesses. Nowadays, the number of species used for medicinal purposes has apparently increased compared to the past due to a number of socio-environmental factors, such as the Wichís’ thirst for knowledge and experimentation, the exchange of information among Wichís, Creole and other neighbours, the lack of access to careful and quality care in the state medical system, the decline of shamans (who have always been persecuted for their practices contrary to the precepts of Christian religions and hegemonic science), the appearance of new health problems and, as the Wichís themselves affirm, the worsening of the general state of health, which goes hand in hand with nutritional impoverishment and changes in diet. Phytotherapy is nowadays mostly used for prevalent diseases, such as skin disorders, digestive and respiratory problems, fever and female cycle issues. In a small portion of the Wichí territory alone, in the centre of the Chaco of Salta province, I have been able to record the use of 115 wild plant species for more than 400 medicinal applications to treat 68 ailments and/or symptoms. 

We could go on at length and explain the role of plants in other aspects of the past and present life of the Wichís. The plants of the forests and other native environments are raw materials for building houses and decorating them; for extracting textile fibres and making clothes, utensils and other objects; for dyeing textiles, such as face paints; for magic or spells; for curing and feeding animals; for repelling insects; among others. But plants are not only raw materials or elements with utilitarian importance. Their cultural importance also lies, of course, in the symbolic and metaphysical field. According to the Wichís, it is not only animals, humans, fungi and plants that inhabit and pass through the world. Metaphysical beings or “spirits” live in different parts of the cosmos and also have specific links to plants and forests. Many plants of outstanding cultural importance, such as the chitsaj (‘cháguar’, Bromelia hieronymi; food plant and central to textile art, from which fibres are extracted) or the aforementioned white carob tree (a plant with countless associated uses and symbolisms), as well as entire forests and other areas, are cared for or used by some of these beings, so that certain actions by humans (Wichís and non-Wichís) of carelessness, excessive extraction, among others, lead to undesired socio-environmental consequences. Certain stories explain and highlight particular relationships between humans, animals, spaces and certain plants from mythical times. Moreover, it is in certain places in these ecosystems of the Wichí territory that transcendent events that are preserved in the memory of the people took place: these events are reflected in countless toponyms (place names) that tell of their location and characteristics.

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Gran Chaco: el segundo bosque más grande de Sudamérica en riesgo de colapso

por Rodolfo Chisleanschi

Distribuido entre Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia y Brasil, el Gran Chaco es un conjunto de más de 50 ecosistemas diferentes tipificados por el bosque seco.

El Gran Chaco es una de las zonas más deforestadas del planeta. Cada mes se tala una superficie dos veces mayor que la de Buenos Aires.

La deforestación del Chaco se debe a la expansión de la frontera agrícola y a la caza, así como al cambio climático.

El tronco recto y fuerte de un quebracho se retorcía en el aire mientras caía al suelo, su estruendo era el último sonido de una cacofonía de golpes de hacha que lo herían cada vez más hasta que ya no podía mantenerse en pie.

Hay ciertas películas que, por diversas razones, siempre permanecen en la memoria colectiva de un país. En Argentina, una de ellas es Quebracho. Producida en 1974, la película retrata la vida, las luchas y las aspiraciones de los leñadores de las provincias argentinas de Chaco y Santa Fe a principios del siglo XX.

Los hechos de Quebracho ocurrieron hace un siglo, pero el quebracho rojo de hoja de sauce (Schinopsis balansae) sigue siendo hoy el objetivo de la tala. Sin embargo, hay una diferencia. Los lentos y metódicos golpes de las hachas han sido sustituidos por los rugidos de las motosierras y la maquinaria pesada; árboles que llevan cien años creciendo son aserrados y arrollados en un abrir y cerrar de ojos.

Las tres variedades de quebracho -el quebracho blanco, el quebracho colorado chaqueño y el quebracho colorado santiagueño- son las especies arbóreas icónicas del Gran Chaco. El Gran Chaco, el segundo bosque más grande de Sudamérica, se extiende por unos 400.000 kilómetros cuadrados y alberga especies que no se encuentran en ningún otro lugar del mundo. Sin embargo, recibe mucha menos atención que su vecino del norte, la selva amazónica.

“Se trata de un bosque seco, y la falta de agua le resta colorido. Por eso, para el público, no es muy llamativo y pasa desapercibido”, dice Verónica Quiroga, bióloga que lleva más de una década estudiando la evolución del jaguar (Panthera onca) y otros mamíferos en la región del Gran Chaco.

Según la Real Academia Española, la palabra “chaco” deriva del quechua “chacu”. “Chacu” hace referencia a un tipo de caza que históricamente practicaban las comunidades indígenas de Sudamérica, en la que los cazadores rodeaban al animal objetivo antes de acercarse a matarlo. La fauna del Chaco incluye tapires, pecaríes, charatas (Ortalis canicollis), armadillos gigantes (Priodontes maximus) y jaguares.

El Gran Chaco se distribuye entre cuatro países: Argentina (60%), Paraguay (23%), Bolivia (13%) y Brasil (4%). En su conjunto, alberga una gran variedad de ecosistemas y tres grandes tipos de bosque.

La parte húmeda del Gran Chaco está formada por dos franjas que van de norte a sur. La franja occidental comienza en las estribaciones de la cordillera de los Andes y se extiende hacia el sur desde los departamentos bolivianos de Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz y Tarija hasta las provincias argentinas de Salta, Tucumán y Catamarca. La franja oriental, que cubre el extremo sur del Pantanal brasileño, atraviesa los departamentos paraguayos de Boquerón, Alto Paraguay y Presidente Hayes, y también incluye partes de las provincias argentinas de Formosa, Chaco y Santa Fe. Entre las franjas húmedas occidental y oriental del Gran Chaco se encuentra la parte semiárida. Por debajo se encuentra la parte árida, que comprende partes de las provincias argentinas de Córdoba y San Luis.

En 2015, ProYungas, una fundación con sede en Argentina que se dedica a la conservación de la biodiversidad, realizó un estudio sobre el Chaco argentino. Descubrió que el Chaco incluía muchos ecosistemas diferentes, desde sabanas hasta bosques y humedales, concluyendo que “esto se traduce en un alto nivel de diversidad de especies animales y vegetales que hace del Gran Chaco un área clave para la conservación de la biodiversidad en la región.”

Pero esta biodiversidad está amenazada.

Más de 2,9 millones de hectáreas de bosque chaqueño fueron deforestadas entre 2010 y 2018, según Guyra Paraguay. La organización de monitoreo encontró que 34.000 hectáreas (83.915 acres) fueron despejadas solo en junio de 2018, lo que significa que un área de bosque de casi dos veces el tamaño de Buenos Aires fue eliminada en un solo mes.

El 80% de la deforestación del Chaco durante ese tiempo tuvo lugar en Argentina. Matías Mastrángelo, biólogo conservacionista y experto en el Gran Chaco, achaca el dudoso honor del país a hechos ocurridos entre finales de los 90 y 2010.

“El boom comenzó con la llegada de la soja modificada genéticamente a Argentina”, dice. “Esto provocó que la agricultura en la región pampeana desplazara a la ganadería, que a su vez fue empujada a espacios más marginales, principalmente en el Chaco semiárido”.

El cultivo de la soja, que alcanzó precios récord a nivel internacional en esa época, fue el motor de la deforestación de amplias zonas del Chaco húmedo en Paraguay y Argentina. Hacia el norte y el oeste, las parcelas de bosque empezaron a caer como fichas de dominó, desbrozadas por los agricultores atraídos por los bajos precios de la tierra de la región y las laxas regulaciones. Los avances tecnológicos han permitido a los agricultores cultivar lo que antes la escasa pluviometría de la región mantenía a raya.

Los investigadores afirman que el cambio climático también está perjudicando al Chaco.

“Los ciclos de inundaciones y sequías extremas son naturales en el Chaco”, dijo Quiroga, “pero antes, estos ciclos se medían en décadas, y ahora se miden en años. En 2013, la falta de lluvias secó el río Bermejito, y en 2017, vivimos una inundación tan grande que el agua llegó a la cintura de la gente en el [Parque Nacional] Impenetrable.”

A medida que la agricultura se afianzó en el Chaco, el paisaje cambió. Las especies vegetales autóctonas desaparecieron y fueron sustituidas por cultivos comerciales. Las poblaciones de animales salvajes empezaron a disminuir por los efectos de la fragmentación del hábitat.

Yamil Di Blanco, que investiga el armadillo gigante, dijo que la construcción de carreteras en el Chaco también está facilitando el acceso de los cazadores a nuevas zonas.

“Esto es evidentemente bueno para los habitantes [humanos], pero al mismo tiempo genera más tráfico y facilita la entrada de cazadores de provincias más lejanas a la zona”, dijo Di Blanco. “Haría falta un mayor nivel de fiscalización para combinar y compensar ambas situaciones”. Añadió que la creciente presencia de perros es otra amenaza para la fauna autóctona de la zona.

Cuando Mastrángelo investigó el comportamiento de las aves como indicador de cómo está cambiando el ecosistema en respuesta a su transformación agrícola, descubrió un punto de inflexión más allá del cual las poblaciones no podían recuperarse.

“Las aves toleran hasta un cierto nivel de disminución del volumen del bosque”, dijo, “pero cuando se supera un determinado umbral y la pérdida alcanza el 30 o el 40%, el colapso de la riqueza de especies es estrepitoso. Cambia la composición de la zona y empiezan a aparecer especies no forestales”.

No sólo las plantas y los animales de la región están sintiendo los efectos de la expansión agrícola. El Chaco también alberga comunidades humanas únicas, que habitan en gran parte de la porción argentina.

“Las culturas y rasgos de los habitantes, tanto indígenas como criollos, son muy ricos, interesantes y distintos del resto del país”, afirma Quiroga.

Sin embargo, los residentes nativos dicen haber sufrido los efectos de la conversión de tierras. Algunos residentes dicen que fueron desplazados de sus hogares por los nuevos terratenientes. Otros dicen que las nuevas alambradas les impiden acceder a las zonas de las que dependen para la agricultura de subsistencia.

Si la deforestación continúa al ritmo actual, se perderán otros 4 millones de hectáreas de bosque del Gran Chaco en la próxima década, según la Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina.

“Si la tendencia registrada entre 2007 y 2014 continúa, habrá una pérdida adicional de casi cuatro millones de hectáreas (más de 9,9 millones de acres) de bosques en la región del Chaco para 2028”, dijo el director de la fundación, Fernando Miñarro, “unas 200 veces el tamaño de la ciudad de Buenos Aires”.

Esta historia es una versión traducida y adaptada de una historia publicada por primera vez por Mongabay Latam el 21 de agosto de 2019.


Informe completo


La región Chaqueña y la deforestación

La deforestación continúa en Salta en territorios de comunidades indígenas en la zona de Tartagal. Hay medidas cautelares, hay fallos judiciales que no se cumplen. La policía no responde a las denuncias ni a los llamados de las comunidades que intentan proteger esos territorios.

Damos todo el apoyo a las familias y @radiocomunitarialavozindigena que intentan frenar la destrucción de sus territorios y riquezas naturales.

Más de dos años después de la decisión judicial, el impacto en el territorio wichí continúa. “Estuvimos hasta el 15 de marzo y la tala fue constante y permanente”, dijo Kraft a Salta / 12 al relatar su experiencia. Afirmó que a pesar de las denuncias que se presentaron ante la Policía, no hubo intervención y sólo le dijeron a la comunidad “que se organicen entre ellos.”

Uno de los temas del documental apunta a la recuperación que hace el cacique Juayuk (o Juan de Dios López, según el nombre occidental), quien “recupera árboles cortados de raíz con motosierras, o árboles quemados hasta la raíz”, dijeron los realizadores. Esto es posible gracias a los conocimientos ancestrales de Juayuk, ya que “puede combinar especies al hibridar nuevas semillas en estas raíces que aún tienen vida”.

“La ancestral cultura wichí está a punto de desvanecerse en la oscuridad del olvido”. La frase procede de la sinopsis del documental “Susurros en el Viento”, dirigido por el argentino Martín Kraft y producido por el belga François Toussaint, ambos residentes en España. Resume, a través de la experiencia de la comunidad Territorios Originario Wichí, ubicada en el kilómetro 3 de la ruta nacional 86, en el departamento de San Martín, la situación que atraviesa este pueblo originario en toda la provincia.

A los ojos de los realizadores, el hecho surgió de inmediato. A mediados de marzo, durante el rodaje, elegían un lugar de monte para realizar filmaciones. Cuando volvieron al día siguiente, vieron la devastación del lugar como consecuencia de la tala ilegal en un territorio reconocido para uso ancestral por un relevamiento del Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indígenas (INAI).

El hecho ya fue denunciado ante la Justicia en 2019 pidiendo que se ordene una acción para evitar el desmonte de las 593 hectáreas de territorio originario. El 30 de diciembre de 2019, la Justicia de Tartagal hizo lugar a la medida cautelar presentada por la abogada Cecilia Jezieniecki ordenando a quienes realizaron acciones que afectaron el territorio que se abstengan de continuar con esa actividad.

Los estragos se referían al cercado del territorio, así como al ingreso de ganado y a la tala de madera. La jueza de Tartagal Griselda Nieto ordenó la suspensión de todas “aquellas actividades/actuaciones que alteren o modifiquen la situación de hecho en el Territorio que es de ocupación comunitaria y lo es hasta el juicio principal, bajo apercibimiento de desobediencia judicial”. En ese momento, además de dar intervención a un Juez de Paz de la jurisdicción, se decidió dar lugar también al Ministerio de Medio Ambiente de la provincia, “por la extracción de madera”.

A entender de Kraft, la devastación del bosque nativo “es coordinada por los productores madereros que atacan a las comunidades”. También informó sobre una estrategia que siempre se ha utilizado en la zona y es el título catastral, a veces imperfecto, para apropiarse de los territorios “y luego plantar soja”.

En los territorios se llevan a cabo diferentes medidas para intentar desplazar a las comunidades, como la tala de árboles, el incendio de maderas, o el uso de artimañas como dar la tierra en comodato (lo que implica que quien está en el territorio firme y con ella transfiere la propiedad de la tierra a los apropiadores), y si todo falla, convocar a otras familias ajenas a la comunidad para iniciar un conflicto interno.

“Entendemos que el negocio de la provincia es la soja y no se mira más allá”, dijo Kraft, al afirmar que poco se tiene en cuenta que se trata de una zona declarada de emergencia sanitaria y “muy sensible”. “No entienden el nivel de desastre social y sanitario que se produce en poco tiempo”, agregó el realizador audiovisual.

El documental en muchos aspectos intenta rescatar el vínculo de la cultura wichí con la naturaleza, que también es parte de la cultura de todos los pueblos indígenas. “No hay otra cosa que hacer una denuncia por la violación de los derechos humanos en la zona”, dijo Kraft, al afirmar que uno de los objetivos que acompaña al documental es generar una propuesta superadora para hacer del territorio que lidera Juayuk, un santuario de la naturaleza y de cultura” . “Pero están destruyendo el territorio dónde queríamos hacer el proyecto”, dijo con desánimo.

Garantía de impunidad

“Desde hace mucho tiempo la Comunidad sufre constantemente la tala de su bosque nativo. La gente entra al territorio y hace el desmonte, lo hacen generalmente de noche, los sábados y domingos. Talan toda la noche y luego se retiran con camiones cargados. Están depredando lentamente el bosque nativo y la Comunidad”, dijo Jezieniecki, abogado de la Comunidad, en un documento difundido por ENDEPA.

“Todas estas intrusiones implican una violación de los derechos territoriales de la Comunidad originaria, que ya ha hecho varias denuncias a la policía, al Ministerio de Medio Ambiente de la Provincia de Salta, pero nunca recibió respuestas. La policía rural no va a controlar la tala que denuncian y el Ministerio sólo hizo un acta”, agregó.

El acta de inspección Nº 042-000942 realizada por el Ministerio de Ambiente, el 6 de septiembre de 2018, señala que “la Policía Rural y Ambiental Nº 4 de la localidad de Tartagal, habiendo verificado la existencia de ejemplares cortados de cebil y palo blanco en las coordenadas geográficas referidas”.

Juan de Dios López señaló con preocupación que “la tala nos obliga a retirarnos de nuestro territorio y abandonar lo que es nuestro, abandonar nuestro sacrificio y no queremos eso. Hicimos muchas denuncias porque conocemos la situación y queremos que se detenga el desmonte en territorio indígena. Para nosotros el monte es vital, es estar cerca de la naturaleza, respetando el llamado de la madre naturaleza, viviendo de manera sana”.

Sobre el constante avasallamiento al que están siendo sometidos, López afirmó que “estas acciones están destruyendo nuestra cultura y están provocando la división de nuestras fuerzas. Los indígenas durante décadas han fortalecido el territorio, han fortalecido los árboles y ahora estas empresas mandan excavadoras para avasallar todo el territorio indígena. Queremos proteger nuestro territorio, buscamos que se cumplan nuestros derechos. Somos culturales, la tierra es nuestra vida”.


Dying from hunger in food-exporting Argentina BBC

At least 10 children in the Wichi community have died from poor nutrition or a lack of food this year. That is already double the number who died from malnutrition in 2010.

Argentina is one of the world’s biggest food exporters and it has shocked the nation to discover that some of its population are not getting enough food.

Almost 30,000 people live in this region of north-west Argentina, making up around 200 communities. The tribe we visited is known for its reticence. Its members are wary of contact with outsiders.

The areas where they live are a picture of desperate poverty. The houses are mostly wooden shacks, with blankets as makeshift walls, where there are any at all.

We found hardly any access to clean water or sewage systems in the communities we visited.

“When children who lack proper nutrients also face these sorts of sanitary hazards then the risk of disease increases,” said Enrique Heredia, director of social medicine for the province of Salta, who regularly visits the indigenous communities to provide free medical attention.

“A bout of diarrhoea or dehydration can kill them in no time.”

The local authorities often do not register the fact that malnutrition is the underlying condition that links these deaths. Instead, they note down only the disease that is immediately responsible.

Locals depend on government help, but that is not always enough

But doctors admit that malnutrition is an important element in explaining these deaths.

“Undoubtedly the lack of proper nutrients is a factor that contributed to these children dying,” said Mr Heredia.

Marcelino Pérez welcomes us to his community, called Lapacho II, just outside a small town called Tartagal, near the border with Bolivia. He introduces himself as the tribal chief, leading around 300 Wichi and several stray dogs.

‘Silent killer’

“All I know is that we don’t have food. Sometimes we can’t get enough work or money to cover our needs. And what we receive from the government is not enough either,” he said.

In Lapacho II we see many children playing in the dirt, with torn clothes and telltale signs of extreme poverty.

But this is not Africa. They are not extremely thin and do not have protruding bones.

Malnutrition can be a silent killer, we are told, as it weakens the system until a minor disease can prove fatal.

This community is an image of the refugee camps you see in places hit by natural disasters. No earthquake or tsunami has hit this territory but evidently their disaster is deforestation.

“We used to get our food from the forest and now we have had to adapt to the white man’s food, which is not sufficient,” he said.

Since ancient times the Wichi have been a tribe of hunter-gatherers. For centuries the forests in the area provided them with food high in protein, like fish and fruit, which kept them in good health. But all that has changed now.

The government of Salta says that between 2000 and 2006, at least 600,000 hectares of forest – an area four times the size of Greater London – was flattened in the region by farming corporations that harvest soy beans, corn or other grains and cereals.

The public road we took was flanked by miles and miles of soybean fields, which have replaced the forests that used to grow there.

However, these commodities are not going directly to the local communities, although they are what has kept Argentina’s economy booming. Last year its GDP rose by 9.5%, a figure surpassed only by China and India.

“The deforestation was stopped a couple of years ago by a judicial ruling, but it has already changed the indigenous communities’ way of life,” said Claudia Lungu, a member of Asociana, a local organisation that deals with the social issues groups like the Wichi face in Salta.

“Although we see that these groups are now getting more help from the authorities, we believe that they are much poorer than before because of the problems created by deforestation, like malnutrition,” she added.

Some of the places we visited were tiny indigenous communities completely surrounded by crop, like little islands of human life in the middle of fields of soybeans. The only way in or out is along the farmers’ roads.

Full Report 

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Gran Chaco: South America’s second largest forest at risk of collapsing

by Rodolfo Chisleanschi

  • Distributed between Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, the Gran Chaco is a collection of more than 50 different ecosystems typified by dry forest.
  • The Gran Chaco is one of the most deforested areas on the planet. Every month, an area twice the size of Buenos Aires is cut down.
  • Chaco deforestation is driven by the expansion of the agricultural frontier and hunting, as well as climate change.

The straight, strong trunk of a quebracho tree twisted mid-air as it fell to the ground, its crash the last sound in a cacophony of axe blows that increasingly wounded it until it could no longer stand.

There are certain films that, for various reasons, always remain in the collective memory of a country. In Argentina, one of them is Quebracho. Produced in 1974, the movie depicts the lives, struggles and aspirations of lumberjacks in the Argentine provinces of Chaco and Santa Fe in the early 20th century.

The events of Quebracho occurred a century ago, but the willow-leaf red quebracho (Schinopsis balansae) remains the target of logging today. However, there is a difference. The slow, methodical thwacks of axes have been replaced by the roars of the chainsaws and heavy equipment; trees that have been growing for a hundred years are sawed through and pushed over in the blink of an eye.

The three varieties of the quebracho —the quebracho blanco, the quebracho colorado chaqueño, and the quebracho colorado santiagueño— are the iconic tree species of the Gran Chaco. South America’s second largest forest, the Gran Chaco spans some quarter-million square miles and is home to species found nowhere else in the world. However, it receives much less attention than its neighbor to the north, the Amazon rainforest.

“This is a dry forest, and the lack of water takes away its colorfulness. That’s why, for the public, it isn’t very flashy and it goes unnoticed,” says Verónica Quiroga, a biologist who has studied the evolution of the jaguar (Panthera onca) and other mammals in the Gran Chaco region for over a decade.

According to the Royal Spanish Academy, the word “chaco” is derived from the Quechua word “chacu.” “Chacu” refers to a type of hunting historically done by Indigenous communities in South America in which hunters would circle around the targeted animal before closing in to kill it. Chaco wildlife include tapirs, peccaries, charatas (Ortalis canicollis), giant armadillos (Priodontes maximus) and jaguars.

The Gran Chaco is distributed between four countries: Argentina (60 percent), Paraguay (23 percent), Bolivia (13 percent), and Brazil (four percent). As a whole, it houses a wide variety of ecosystems and three major types of forest.

The humid portion of the Gran Chaco is made up of two strips of land that run north to south. The western strip begins in the foothills of the Andes mountains and it stretches southward from the Bolivian departments of Chuquisaca, Santa Cruz, and Tarija to the Argentine provinces of Salta, Tucumán, and Catamarca. The eastern strip, which covers the southern tip of the Brazilian Pantanal, crosses through the Paraguayan departments of Boquerón, Alto Paraguay, and Presidente Hayes, and also includes parts of the Argentine provinces of Formosa, Chaco, and Santa Fe. Between the humid western and eastern strips of the Gran Chaco lies the semi-arid portion. Below that lies the arid portion, which comprises parts of the Argentine provinces of Córdoba and San Luis.

In 2015, ProYungas, a foundation based in Argentina that focuses on biodiversity conservation, conducted a study of the Argentine Chaco. It found that the Chaco there included many different ecosystems, from savannas to forests to wetlands, concluding that “this translates into a high level of diversity of animal and plant species that makes the Gran Chaco a key area for the conservation of biodiversity in the region.”

But this biodiversity is under threat.

More than 2.9 million hectares (7.2 million acres) of Chaco forest was deforested between 2010 and 2018, according to Guyra Paraguay. The monitoring organization found that 34,000 hectares (83,915 acres) were cleared in June 2018 alone, meaning that an area of forest nearly twice the size of Buenos Aires was wiped out in a single month.

Eighty percent of Chaco deforestation during that time took place in Argentina. Matías Mastrángelo, a conservation biologist and an expert on the Gran Chaco, blames the country’s dubious honor on events that occurred between the late 1990s and 2010.

“The boom began with the arrival of genetically modified soybeans to Argentina,” he says. “This caused agriculture in the Pampas region to displace livestock, which was, in turn, pushed over to more marginal spaces, mainly in the semi-arid Chaco.”

The cultivation of soy, which reached record prices internationally during that time, was a driving force behind the deforestation of large areas of the humid Chaco in Paraguay and Argentina. To the north and west, patches of forest began to fall like dominoes, cleared by farmers lured by the region’s low land prices and loose regulations. Technological advances have allowed farmers to grow crops where before the region’s meager rainfall kept them at bay.

Researchers say climate change is also damaging the Chaco.

“Cycles of floods and extreme droughts are natural in the Chaco,” Quiroga said, “but before, these cycles were measured in decades, and now they are measured in years. In 2013, the lack of rain dried the Bermejito River, and in 2017, we experienced a flood so large that the water reached people’s waists in Impenetrable [National Park].”

As farming took hold in the Chaco, the landscape changed. Native plant species disappeared, replaced by commercial cultivars. Wildlife populations began to decline from the effects of habitat fragmentation.

Yamil Di Blanco, who researches the giant armadillo, said road construction in the Chaco is also making it easy for hunters to access new areas.

“This is evidently good for the [human] inhabitants, but at the same time, it generates more traffic and facilitates the entrance of hunters from more distant provinces into the area,” Di Blanco said. “It would take a higher level of auditing to combine and compensate for both situations.” He added that the growing presence of dogs is another threat to native wildlife in the area.

When Mastrángelo investigated the behavior of birds as an indicator of how the ecosystem is changing in response to its agricultural transformation, he discovered a tipping point past which populations could not recover.

“Birds tolerate up to a certain level of forest volume decline,” he said, “but when a certain threshold is exceeded and the loss reaches 30 or 40 percent, the collapse in the wealth of species is resounding. It changes the composition of the area, and non-forest species begin to appear.”

It’s not just the region’s plants and animals that are feeling the effects of agricultural expansion. The Chaco is also home to unique human communities, which largely inhabit Argentina’s portion.

“The cultures and traits of the inhabitants, both Indigenous and Creole, are very rich, interesting, and distinct from the rest of the country,” Quiroga said.

However, native residents report having suffered due to the effects of land conversion. Some residents say they were displaced from their homes by new landowners. Others say new wire fences prevent them from accessing areas they depend on for subsistence agriculture.

If deforestation continues at its current rate, another 4 million hectares of Gran Chaco forest will be lost in the next decade, according to the Argentine Wildlife Foundation.

“If the trend registered between 2007 and 2014 continues, there will be an additional loss of almost four million hectares (over 9.9 million acres) of forests in the Chaco region by 2028 ,” said foundation director Fernando Miñarro, “— about 200 times the size of the city of Buenos Aires.”


This story is a translated and adapted version of a story first published by Mongabay Latam on Aug. 21, 2019.

Full Report


Argentina’s Indigenous People Fight for Land Rights

By Daniel Gutman

  1. TARTAGAL, Argentina , Jan 12 2019 (IPS) – Nancy López lives in a house made of clay, wood and corrugated metal sheets, on private land dedicated to agriculture. She is part of an indigenous community of 12 families in northern Argentina that, like almost all such communities, has no title to the land it occupies and lives under the constant threat of eviction.

“The indigenous people who live on the outskirts of the cities are refugees who have been displaced from their place in the forest over the past 100 years by non-indigenous farmers who arrived with their cows and, in recent decades, by agribusiness.” — John Palmer

Today, indigenous people in Argentina are struggling to preserve their way of life in a scenario made complex mainly due to conflicts over land.

Ninety-two percent of the communities do not have title to the land they live on, according to a survey published in 2017 by the National Audit Office, an oversight that depends on the legislative branch.

The scope of the conflict is huge. Approximately half of the 1,600 native communities in the country have carried out or are carrying out the process of surveying their lands that the State began more than 10 years ago, and they lay claim to eight and a half million hectares – a total area larger than the country of Panama.

The backdrop is the pattern of discrimination that persists in Argentina despite advances made on paper, as then UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples James Anaya reported after a visit to the country in 2011.

“There are still legacies from the colonial era and the history of exclusion is still highly visible,” Anaya wrote in his report.

Nancy López, a leader in her community, says children no longer want to speak Wichí, because if they do, they suffer discrimination at school, which must have a bilingual assistant teacher, according to the National Education Law in effect since 2006.

“The bilingual assistant is given jobs like making photocopies or running errands. He barely translates to the kids what the homework is. There’s a lot of racism,” Lopez said, as local children from the community played with mud in the rain.

Her community, El Quebracho, is one of dozens located near Tartagal, a city of 80,000 people in the province of Salta, on route 86, which is actually just a dirt road that leads to the Paraguayan border.

López explains that the families in her community settled six years ago in the countryside where they now live, without the owner’s permission, “because this used to be uncleared forest.”

The Wichí and other indigenous peoples of the area, who are hunter-gatherers, have historically depended on the forest for food, medicine, or wood to build their houses.

But every day there are fewer forests. Along with neighboring Santiago del Estero, Salta is the Argentine province that has suffered the greatest deforestation in recent years, due to the expansion of the agricultural frontier, pushed mainly by transgenic soy, which today occupies more than half of the area planted in the country.

“As the city of Tartagal grew, they pushed our indigenous communities out, so we go wherever we can,” explains López, who says that a couple of years ago they were evicted in an operation in which some 200 police officers participated.

“We stayed on the side of the road for about two months, until the policemen left and we went back in. We have nowhere else to go. This used to be all forest. Today we are surrounded by soy,” she says.

Since Argentina became a nation in 1853, one of its main goals was to exclude or assimilate indigenous people.

In fact, the constitution that went into effect that year called for “the preservation of peaceful treatment for the Indians, and the promotion of their conversion to Catholicism”, while, on the other hand, it imposed on the government the obligation to encourage European immigration.

The directive on the original population was still in force until just 25 years ago. Only in 1994, during the last constitutional reform, was it replaced by an article that recognises “the ethnic and cultural pre-existence of indigenous peoples” and “community possession and ownership of the lands they traditionally occupy.”

However, according to then rapporteur Anaya, the constitutional change did not modify a reality marked by “the historical dispossession of large tracts of land by ranchers and by the presence of agricultural, oil and mining companies that operate on lands claimed by indigenous communities.”

In 2006, Congress passed the Indigenous Communities Act, which declared indigenous lands in an emergency situation, ordered surveys of ancestrally occupied land and suspended evictions, even in cases with a judicial ruling, for a period of four years.

Since then, however, the survey has not even begun to be carried out in half of the communities, despite the fact that the law has been extended three times. And the great majority of the communities where the survey has been conducted still have no community property titles.

Today it is also reported that evictions are still being carried out, although the law in force prohibits them until 2021.

According to Amnesty International, which in 2017 released a study that detected 225 unresolved conflicts throughout the country, it is not surprising that the vast majority of the conflicts involving indigenous people in Argentina are over land.

“Some provinces have granted property titles, but there are no institutional mechanisms for access to indigenous community property in Argentina. We need a national law,” attorney Gabriela Kletzel, of the Center for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), told IPS.

This non-governmental organisation brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) the case of a group of communities whose ownership of 400,000 hectares was recognised by the government of the province of Salta in 2014.

This non-governmental organisation brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) the case of a group of communities whose ownership of 400,000 hectares was recognised by the government of the province of Salta in 2014.

“However, these communities are not yet able to take control of the land because they do not have title to it. And they still can’t get white families to take their cattle off their land, which destroys the natural resources that are the foundation of indigenous life,” Kletzel said.

John Palmer, an English anthropologist who arrived in Salta more than 30 years ago and married a Wichí indigenous woman, told IPS: “The indigenous people who live on the outskirts of the cities are refugees who have been displaced from their place in the forest over the past 100 years by non-indigenous farmers who arrived with their cows and, in recent decades, by agribusiness.”

“The destruction of the forests has wiped out all of the resources that their economy is based on. So, like many animals that no longer have anything to eat, they came to the cities,” concluded Palmer, who lived for years in a rural Wichí community until he moved to Tartagal with his wife and their five children.


The paradigm of a sustainable economy

The paradigm of a sustainable economy goes beyond a recycling program. Nowadays recycling isn’t enough, we have to think of the way we use natural resources.
👉🏿Reduce: implies not only consuming only what we need but also saying no to what has been shown to us as necessary.
👉🏽Reuse: recovering or giving new use to things so they don’t become obsolete.
👉🏻Repair: in a crafted way. Giving back some value to the jobs that seemed obsolete so that fixing something used overcomes the need to have something new.
👉Rot: is not just a way to recover nutrients to preserve the soil fertility, it also helps to reduce the waste treatments and avoids the methane and CO2 release.
♻️Recycling: recollection process and transformation of materials to turn them into products. Many companies use it to legitimate the overproduction of garbage.
These values, which we find so necessary today for a sustainable economy, have been for centuries part of the ancient communities’ DNA.

Chaco Region and deforestation

Deforestation continues in Salta in territories of indigenous communities in the Tartagal area. There are precautionary measures, there are judicial rulings that are not fulfilled. The police do not respond to complaints or calls from communities trying to protect these territories.
We give all the support to the families and @radiocomunitarialavozindigena who try to stop the destruction of their territories and natural wealth.

More than two years after the judicial decision, the impact on the Wichí territory continues. “We were there until March 15 and the logging was constant and permanent,” Kraft told Salta / 12 when recounting his experience. He affirmed that despite the complaints that were presented to the Police, there was no intervention and they only told the community “to organize among themselves.”

One of the topics of the documentary points to the recovery made by the chief Juayuk (or Juan de Dios López, according to the Western name), who “recovers trees cut from the roots with chainsaws, or trees burned to their roots,” said the filmmakers. This is possible due to the ancestral knowledge of Juayuk, since “it can combine species by hybridizing new seeds in these roots that still have life”.


“The ancestral Wichí culture is on the verge of fading into the darkness of oblivion.” The phrase comes from the synopsis of the documentary Whispers in the Wind, directed by Argentine Martin Kraft and produced by Belgian François Toussaint, both residents of Spain. It summarizes, through the experience of the Territorios Originario Wichí community, located at kilometer 3 of National Route 86, in the department of San Martín, the situation that this original town is going through throughout the province.

In the eyes of the filmmakers, the event emerged immediately. In mid-March, during the filming, they would choose a place with mountains to take pictures. When they returned the next day, they saw the devastation of the place as a result of illegal logging in a territory recognized for ancestral use by a survey of the National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INAI).

The fact was already denounced before the Justice in 2019 asking that an action be ordered to prevent the clearing of the 593 hectares of original territory. On December 30, 2019, the Justice of Tartagal granted the precautionary measure presented by the lawyer Cecilia Jezieniecki ordering those who carried out actions that affected the territory to refrain from continuing with that activity.

The devastation referred to the fencing of the territory, as well as the entry of cattle and the felling of wood. The Tartagal judge Griselda Nieto ordered the suspension of all “those activities / actions that alter or modify the factual situation in the Territory that is of community occupation and is so until the main trial, under warning of judicial disobedience.” At that time, in addition to giving intervention to a Justice of the Peace of the jurisdiction, it was decided to also give rise to the Ministry of the Environment of the province, “for the extraction of wood.

We give all the support to the families and @radiocomunitarialavozindigena who try to stop the destruction of their territories and natural wealth.

More than two years after the judicial decision, the impact on the Wichí territory continues. “We were there until March 15 and the logging was constant and permanent,” Kraft told Salta / 12 when recounting his experience. He affirmed that despite the complaints that were presented to the Police, there was no intervention and they only told the community “to organize among themselves.”

One of the topics of the documentary points to the recovery made by the chief Juayuk (or Juan de Dios López, according to the Western name), who “recovers trees cut from the roots with chainsaws, or trees burned to their roots,” said the filmmakers. This is possible due to the ancestral knowledge of Juayuk, since “it can combine species by hybridizing new seeds in these roots that still have life”.

In Kraft’s understanding, the devastation of the original forest “is coordinated by timber producers who attack the communities.” He also reported on a strategy that has always been used in the area and is the land registry title, sometimes even imperfect, to appropriate the territories “and plant soybeans.”

In the territories, different measures are carried out to try to displace the communities, such as logging, setting fire to wood, or using tricks such as giving the land in loan (which implies that whoever is in the firm territory and with it transfers the ownership of the land to the appropriators), and if all else fails, summon other families from outside the community to initiate an internal conflict.

“We understand that the province’s business is soybeans and not look further,” said Kraft, stating that little is taken into account of the fact that this is a declared area of ​​health emergency and “very sensitive.” “They do not understand the level of social and health disaster that occurs in a short time,” added the audiovisual producer.

The documentary in many aspects tries to rescue the link between the Wichí culture and nature, which is also part of the culture of all indigenous peoples. “There is no other than to make a complaint for the violation of human rights in the area,” said Kraft, stating that one of the objectives that accompanies the documentary is to generate an overcoming proposal to make the territory led by Juayuk, a nature sanctuary . “But they are looking at where we wanted to do the project,” he said.

Guarantee of impunity

“For a long time the Community has been constantly suffering from the logging of its native forest. People enter the territory and do the mountain, they do it generally at night, on Saturdays and Sundays. They cut down all night and then retreat with loaded trucks. They are slowly predating the native forest and the Community, ”said Jezieniecki, a lawyer for the Community, in a document released by ENDEPA.

“All these intrusions imply a violation of the territorial rights of the original Community, which has already made several complaints to the police, to the Ministry of the Environment of the Province of Salta, but never received any answers. The rural police are not going to check the logging that they denounce and the Ministry only made an act, “he added.

The inspection report No. 042-000942 carried out by the Ministry of the Environment, on September 6, 2018, states that “the Rural and Environmental Police No. 4 of the town of Tartagal, having verified the existence of cut specimens of cebil and palo blanco in the geographic coordinates referred to “.

Juan de Dios López noted with concern that “logging forces us to withdraw from our territory and abandon what is ours, abandon our sacrifice and we don’t want that. We made many complaints because we know about the situation and we want the clearing in indigenous territory to stop. For us the mountain is vital, it is to be close to nature, respecting the call of mother nature, living in a healthy way ”.

Regarding the constant subjugation to which they are being subjected, López affirmed that “these actions are destroying our culture and are causing the division of our forces. The indigenous people for decades have strengthened the territory, strengthened the trees and now these companies send bulldozers to subjugate the entire indigenous territory. We want to protect our territory, we seek that our rights are fulfilled. We are cultural, the land is our life ”.


Published by:

Agustín Giménez
Nicolas Cuadra
Paulina Neyman
Rufino Basavilbaso
Martin Kraft
Juan M Leguizamón