Mbaracayu and the Ache

I’m writing this intermittently, as I have to stop every few moments to scratch the multiple oozy mosquito bites covering my body. I look like I’m recovering from the chicken pox, but each bite was well worth the four days I just spent exploring Mbaracayu, the largest remaining stretch of native forest in Paraguay. This UNESCO biosphere reserve, managed by the Fundacion Moises Bertoni, covers approximately  340,000 hectares, bordering Brazil to the East.

Sunrise in Mbaracayu

Sunrise in Mbaracayu

Numerous indigenous communities in varying stages of poverty and pain abut the Mbaracayu reserve. These communities, most of them Guarani, have lost much of their land to surrounding cattle ranches and the rampant deforestation that continues to afflict the native forest outside the reserve. With their land goes much of their culture – though traditions and beliefs vary from region to region, connection to nature is crucial. For centuries the indigenous people depended on nature to provide for them, and they cared for nature in return. I won’t preach to you here about the history of the conquistadors, colonialism, missionaries, and other factors that have led to the current realities faced by the indigenous peoples.
We stopped in with our video camera at a Guarani community to speak with the cacique (community leader) and his family. Even the strongest heart drops a little at the sight of how little these communities have – Tacuari is the poorest community in the region, and possibly in the country. Houses are shabbily constructed out of wood scraps, with dirt floors and a mattress if they are lucky. If there is no wood available, the homes are tents constructed out of garbage bags. This may be adequate for the scorchingly hot summers, but when the temperature drops to two degrees celsius in the winter and the rains flood the lowlands, they are literally left out in the cold. Most of the children don’t have sufficient clothing for colder weather.

An Ache woman and child

An Ache woman and child

The Cacique and his family explained that they often lack food, and have very little land. They are boxed in on all sides by large proprietors with little access to their traditional methods of subsistence. They have land specifically allotted to them by the government, which they are not supposed to rent out, but which they do, for a pittance. The Cacique says they need more assistance, more money and more food from the government. He was forthcoming in the interview, but as one learns very quickly, not every sad story is 100% true – people fall into the roles they think are expected of them, in the hopes that they will receive more in return. As one of our friends from a local NGO told us, many of the communities ask for continued assistance but don’t show any inclination to work to improve their situation. They want all their problems to be resolved through free handouts.  It’s hard to imagine that they are not telling the entire truth, but of course there are many dimensions to every problem  – back again to the “colonization and extermination” issue.
The Ache people have a slightly different story. Until not so very long ago (the mid 70’s), the Ache were a people brutally persecuted on their traditional lands. Paraguayans thought of them as nothing better than “Guayaki” or “forest rats” – a racial slur that was used for decades. They were hunted, killed, and enslaved for sport, and their communities live to bear the scars. In the face of violent discrimination, they have organized themselves and improve their circumstances. We spent a few hours speaking with leaders in the community of Arroyo Bandera.

She's got her eye on the candy

She's got her eye on the candy

Hunter-gatherers by custom, the Ache in the Mbaracayu region have maintained their traditional hunting rights within the reserve – they hunt only with their handcrafted bows and arrows. And yes, they are damn good at it. The Atlantic Forest plays an important role in their customs, and they are deeply tied to nature as a source of life. For example, a woman who is about to give birth will accompany a hunting trip into the forest for several days. Whatever she eats the most in her last days of pregnancy (armadillo, deer, wild pig perhaps) is the name given to the newborn child. Of course these names were not shared with us as outsiders. We met “Juan”, “Pablo” and “Carlos” but no one introduced themselves by their traditional name.

Loving the camera

Loving the camera

Though poor, and constantly struggling to protect the forest they depend on, the Ache always have a smile to share. (This may be because we brought them a soccer ball and school supplies.) One of the caciques invited us into his one room home to charge our camera while we played with his eight beautiful children. The gales of giggles they shared with us when they saw video footage of themselves was priceless. Sitting back here in my apartment in the city, I only hope we can make a real difference, to conserve the remaining forest so these children can continue the traditions of their people.

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Serenity in San Rafael

I am inspired over and over again by the dedication and passion that the Paraguayan environmentalists display in the face of ignorance, animosity and even violence.

Early Saturday morning (again at 4:30 am….still completely incapable of human communication), we set out to the San Rafael reserve in the eastern region of the country, part of the Upper Parana Atlantic Forest. San Rafael is owned and managed by a Swiss couple, Hans and Christina. The bright and bubbly pair saw the need for conservation and decided to buy some of the threatened area to protect it. They initiated, and continue to manage, PROCOSARA, an NGO dedicated to protecting the forest through land purchase, reforestation and environmental education.

A few of the future leaders

A few of the future leaders

The weekend was a workshop for 20 local youth who have been elected as “environmental leaders” at their schools. The youth got to learn about the Atlantic Forest and basic conservation, play plenty of games outside, and form lasting bonds with each other. It was motivating to see the enthusiasm they all showed for preserving the planet – kids really do know what’s going on, and they want to TELL you about it! And they can generally tell you in a way that will make you laugh till your abs hurt. They all had a chance to perform a little bit of environmental “theater”, demonstrating how they would teach people in their community about the environment. The results were heartening and hilarious, and got them so riled up that they didn’t fall asleep until well after midnight (though who ever does when they go to camp?)

Games in the sunshine

Games in the sunshine

Sun beams

Sun beams

The reserve was the perfect place for the kids to run around till they collapsed. The Cordillera San Rafael is a stunning location, and the first opportunity I’ve had to truly be immersed in nature here. One of the park guards –slash- forest fire fighters took us on a walk through the reserve, where our senses were overwhelmed by the active peacefulness of nature. If you stand absolutely still, you can hear the songs of birds, and monkeys jumping from branch to branch. Butterflies of every color swirl up around you as you walk, and sunlight streams down between the branches to light the cool dampness that surrounds you. It is a stark contrast to the parched, baking fields that lie only twenty minutes away.

In the green

In the green

Of course nature isn’t always so pleasant. While gazing through the canopy I managed to disturb a few ant colonies, of which I was notified by intense stinging all over my ankles and up my legs. Tiny devil’s minions, they are! After a frantic “ants in my pants” dance, I managed to rid myself of the beasts, and kept a close eye on the ground from then on.

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Niki next to a grandfather tree

Our guide Javier

Our guide Javier

According to our guide Javier, the life of a San Rafael park guard is anything but peaceful. They have to be ready at a moments notice to head into the reserve and extinguish the forest fires lit by local campesinos and indigenous – hard and dangerous work. Not only are they risking their lives to fight the fires – they are in danger whenever they go near any of the local pueblos. They are hated by many of the local residents, who have yet to understand the importance of preserving the forest, and consider it a personal offence when the fires they set are extinguished. Many of the “guardaparques” have been physically attacked, and even shot at. Christina, owner of the reserve, has also been attacked at gunpoint – luckily she ducked just in time to escape the bullet. Such dedication to a cause amazes me – to risk your life every day for something you believe in so strongly.

Bliss!

Bliss!

Oscar the Ocelot

Oscar the Ocelot

Not everything is dark and gloomy though, because I got to meet a baby ocelot!! Maybe the cutest thing I have seen in a very long time (in addition to which I wrote a paper about ocelots in the fourth grade and have been dying to see one every since.) This baby (whom I will name Oscar for now) was found stranded alone on the side of a road nearby, and was brought to the reserve, where he will be raised until he is old enough to go fend for himself in the forest again. Oscar is just about the most darling and beautiful creature I have ever had the chance to encounter, though he is very timid. He lives in a hut with rabbits, who seem quite nonchalant about his presence. They are blissfully unaware that one day he may return in search of bunny for dinner.

The new love of my life

The new love of my life