Ayoreo environmental defender latest victim of deadly epidemic

Chagabi worked for decades alongside his people to defend their ancestral land and uncontacted relatives.

Chagabi worked for decades alongside his people to defend their ancestral land and uncontacted relatives.
© Gerald Henzinger/Survival

Chagabi Etacore, one of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode’s most-loved leaders and environmental defenders, has died. He is the latest in a long line of victims of an epidemic of tuberculosis and related diseases which has been devastating Paraguay’s Ayoreo-Totobiegosode communities.

Like many in his community, he contracted tuberculosis when he was forced out of the forest as a child and had suffered chronic lung disease ever since – a sign of the neglect of recently-contacted Ayoreo communities by Paraguay’s medical services.

In the 1970s and 1980s the fundamentalist American missionary group, New Tribes Mission (now Ethnos360), organised ‘manhunts’ in which large groups of uncontacted Ayoreo were captured in the forest and brought to the mission base. Here they were exposed to diseases to which they had no immunity. Many Ayoreo died as a direct result of these forced contacts, and many more have died over the past 40 years as a result of secondary infections.

An unknown number of Ayoreo remain uncontacted in the forest, avoiding contact with outsiders. They are the last uncontacted indigenous people the Americas outside of the Amazon, and live in the heart of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco, the forest with the fastest rate of deforestation in the world.

Survival opposes attempts by outsiders to contact uncontacted tribes. Initiating contact must be their choice alone. Those who enter uncontacted tribes’ territories deny them that choice. Some academics continue to advocate for “forced contact.” However, indigenous people including those recently contacted have attacked these ideas as “arrogant,” “dangerous,” and “genocidal.”

Chagabi worked for decades alongside his people to defend their ancestral land and uncontacted relatives from outsiders who invade their territories and steal their resources. A pillar of his community, he worked as an educator, translator, health worker and filmmaker.

Earlier this year, the Ayoreo celebrated a land victory , securing ownership papers to a portion of their ancestral land. However, the majority of it has been sold to companies that have deforested their territory to make way for cattle. The Ayoreo continue to demand full recognition and protection for their forests and their uncontacted relatives who live in them. The Paraguayan government has not done so, despite demands from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – the continent’s human rights body.

A few months before his death, speaking of the future, Chagabi told a Survival campaigner: “I think we can be hopeful, but we can’t afford to wait much longer.”