The Gran Chaco of Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil is one of South America’s most extensive biogeographical regions. It is characterized by diverse ecosystems and is inhabited by, among others, the 10,000 indigenous Guaraní people known as the Isoceños. However, Bolivia’s Chaco, the most unspoiled portion, is being degraded by ranching, farming, commercial hunting, highway construction, and the development of Bolivia’s natural gas industry, threatening the livelihoods of the Isoceños.
In 1991, the Wildlife Conservation Society
(WCS) and the Capitanía de Alto y Bajo Izozog (CABI), an indigenous organization representing the Isoceños, began working together to protect the Bolivian Chaco. The cooperation
was highly successful, resulting in the creation of the Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco National Park and Integrated Management Area in 1995, which designates millions of hectares as a protected national park and another million as “indigenous territory.” For WCS, this successful collaboration is evidence that environmental groups and indigenous peoples can—and should—work together to maximize their influence.
More recently, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), environmental and Pygmy organizations united to press the World Bank to cease industrial logging in the DRC; grant the Pygmies greater input into forest issues; carry out a comprehensive assessment of logging’s environmental impacts; and encourage the development of environmentally friendly industries.
Conservationists and indigenous peoples have more leverage when they speak with one voice. However, there is often distrust between the two sides. Conservationists may accuse indigenous peoples of contributing to the degradation of a fragile ecosystem. Conversely, indigenous peoples can fear their livelihoods will be threatened by the creation of protected areas. In India, for instance, members of aboriginal tribes are now banned from gathering non-timber forest products such as honey, wild herbs, and fruits from parks and wildlife sanctuaries for commercial purposes. In the past, many of these tribes relied heavily on gathering and selling these products for their livelihoods.
In the future, the challenge will be finding sustainable solutions that satisfy both groups. This problem has no silver bullet. Instead, the commitment, imagination, and negotiating skills of the actors will make the difference.