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Latin America: A new highway threatens indigenous communities

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Latin America: A new highway threatens indigenous communities
The project, strongly supported by governments, farmers and ranchers for commercial reasons, is instead opposed by the indigenous communities and by environmentalists

The Gran Chaco – the enormous plain that extends between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay, South America’s second green lung after the Amazon – will be crossed for 525 kilometers by a new highway, an infrastructural and transnational project along a total of 2,200 kilometers which will connect the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Chile.

The governments of the countries crossed (Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Paraguay) have all given their support to the project, especially Mario Abdo, the president of Paraguay, a landlocked country. “Paraguay is the fourth largest soybean exporter in the world. To reach the Pacific Ocean, soybeans must pass through the Panama Canal. Once the new highway is ready, it will generate savings for the entire manufacturing sector of about 25% on logistics costs and it will take about 14 days less to reach the big markets,” he told the BBC, who dedicated a in-depth analysis of this theme by collecting the voices of those in favor and against the project.

Egon Neufeld, a wealthy Paraguayan landowner, says the road will make it easier for ranchers like him to transport livestock and soybeans to Atlantic and Pacific port cities, from where they can then be easily shipped to overseas markets. According to Neufeld, the new road will also offer employment opportunities that will attract many workers to the area.

However, the construction of the new highway is of great concern to indigenous communities. Taguide Picanerai, young leader of the ayoreo, who are among the first inhabitants of the Chaco, spokesperson for the suffering of his community which is already suffering the effects of deforestation: a large number of trees, in fact, have been razed to make room for grazing livestock. According to Landsat satellite imagery from NASA’s Earth Observatory, about 20 percent of the Gran Chaco’s forest has been converted to agricultural land or pasture since 1985. “The new road will lead to an increase in livestock farming, with a consequent loss of biodiversity,” says Picanerai, who also fears a further loss of land for the ayoreo.

In the past, the farmers who have settled in the region have already moved to the ancestral lands of this people, limiting their access to water and reducing the spaces for hunting. Much of their land was sold to farmers and it took years of legal battles for them to partially recover it: “That territory is vital for us,” Picanerai insists.

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President Abdo admits that the new road “will lead to an increase in the population in the Chaco and more commercial activities”, but believes that, if the laws are respected, the impact will be positive. He adds that strict rules already exist for landowners, including a provision stating that “the maximum people can deforest in the Chaco is 50 percent of their land, or less if the area’s biodiversity is more sensitive.”

But for environmentalist Miguel Lovera, the measures in place are not enough: “The construction of new roads leads to further deforestation and the reduction of the forest into small patches, which puts a strain on the fragile ecosystem,” argues Lovera , who heads an organization that fights for the protection of indigenous groups in the Chaco.

Bianca Orqueda, young singer-songwriter of the indigenous group nivaclé, however, sees some positive aspects in the new road. Running a music school for children on the outskirts of the Mennonite city of Philadelphia and dividing his community between the capital Asunción – 453 kilometers away – Orqueda thinks the new road will speed connections. Furthermore, he claims that it is no longer possible for the community to continue living in isolation, arguing that i nivaclé they have to “move on,” which for some may mean leaving the Chaco and their way of life behind. “I tell the children that if they want to become doctors, architects, dentists or musicians, they will have to leave the community after school and go to another city. Here in Philadelphia there are no universities, there is nothing, unless you want to devote yourself to agriculture», says Orqueda.

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But for Picanerai, the conservation of the Chaco is not just about the lifestyle of his indigenous community: “The rich Chaco biodiversity is a global issue that everyone should care about,” and he adds that he is determined to protect his land from new arrivals who could move after the new road is finished.

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