Environmentalists, ranchers and indigenous people battle over land rush.
An indigenous Ayoreo woman, who lives in the Chaco forest, in the village of Chaidi, near Filadelfia, Paraguay, Feb. 23, 2012. Huge tracts of the Chaco forest are being razed by local Mennonite farmers and Brazilian cattle ranchers amid a surge in the global demand for beef.
The forbidding Chaco thorn forest covers an expanse about the size of Poland. Hunter-gatherers still live in its vast mazes of quebracho trees. But while the forest has remained hostile to most human endeavors for centuries, and jaguars, maned wolves and swarms of insects still inhabit its thickets, the region's defiance may be coming to an end. Huge tracts of the Chaco are being razed in a scramble into one of South America's most remote corners by cattle ranchers from Brazil, Paraguay's giant neighbor, and German-speaking Mennonites, descendants of colonists who arrived here nearly a century ago and work as farmers and ranchers. So much land is being bulldozed and so many trees burned that the sky sometimes turns "twilight gray" at daytime, said American anthropologist Lucas Bessire. "One wakes with the taste of ashes and a thin film of white on the tongue."
At least 1.2 million acres of the Chaco have been deforested in the past two years, according to satellite analyses by Guyra, an environmental group in Asuncion, the capital. Ranchers making way for their vast herds of cattle have cleared about 10 percent of the forest in the past five years, Guyra said. That is reflected in surging beef exports.
"Paraguay already has the sad distinction of being a deforestation champion," said Jose Luis Casaccia, a prosecutor and former environment minister, referring to the large clearing in recent decades of Atlantic forests in eastern Paraguay for soybean farms; little more than 10 percent of the original forests remain.
"If we continue," he said, "nearly all of the Chaco's forests could be destroyed within 30 years."
The rush is already transforming small Mennonite settlements into boomtowns. The Mennonites, whose Protestant Anabaptist faith coalesced in Europe in the 16th century, founded settlements here in the 1920s. Towns with names like Neuland and Friedensfeld dot the map.
Buoyed by their newfound prosperity, the Mennonite communities differ from those in other parts of Latin America, like in eastern Bolivia where many still drive horse-drawn buggies and wear traditional clothing.
In Filadelfia, Mennonite teenagers barrel down roads in new Nissan pickup trucks. Banks advertise loans for cattle traders. Gas stations sell chewing tobacco and beer. An annual rodeo lures visitors from across Paraguay.
Scientists fear that the expansion of cattle ranching could wipe out what is a beguiling frontier for the discovery of new species. The Chaco is still relatively unexplored. The largest living species of peccary, piglike mammals, was revealed to science in the 1970s. In parts of the forest, biologists have recently glimpsed guanacos, a camelid similar to the llama.
More alarming, the land rush is also intensifying the upheaval among indigenous peoples, who number in the thousands and have been grappling for decades with forays by foreign missionaries, subjugation to the Mennonites and infighting among tribes.
One group of hunter-gatherers, the Ayoreo, is under particular stress from the changes. In 2004, 17 Ayoreos from a subgroup called the Totobiegosode, or "people from the place where the collared peccaries ate our gardens," made contact with outsiders for the first time. They described being hounded for years by bulldozers -- what they call "eapajocacade," or "attackers of the world" -- encroaching on their lands.
"They were destroying our forests, generating problems for us," said Esoi Chiquenoi, who believed he was in his 40s. As a result, he and others in his group, who in photographs taken in 2004 were wearing loincloths, abruptly abandoned their way of life.
As the Mennonite communities come under scrutiny, they acknowledge that big swaths of the forest are being removed. But they deny that they are to blame, contending that they abide by the law, which requires landowners to keep a quarter of Chaco properties forested.
"What the Brazilians do, acquiring land with their strong currency and deep pockets, is something else," said Franklin Klassen, a member of the city council in Loma Plata, a Mennonite town.
Across Paraguay, Brazil's sway is impossible to ignore, symbolized by an estimated 300,000 Brasiguayos, as the relatively prosperous Brazilian immigrants and their descendants are called, who have played a role in expanding industrial agriculture and ranching in Paraguay.
On Filadelfia's outskirts, the transformation of the Chaco from a vast wilderness into a ranching bastion already seems irreversible. About 80 Ayoreo live in squalor by the highway, sporadically earning $10 a day as ranch laborers. "We'll never live in the forest again," said Arturo Chiquenoi, 28, an Ayoreo man. "That life is finished."