Paraguay’s Chaco

The New York Times posted a video report and accompanying article on deforestation in Paraguay’s Chaco. The report focuses on the government’s meager attempts to stop deforestation, the role of foreign ranchers, and the displacement of indigenous people, like the Ayoreo. Highlighting the unsettled nature of the region and the difficulty of access, the reporter/narrator added that “even the Spanish conquistadors” struggled to settle the region.

I can’t help but chuckle at the reporter’s surprise that the Spanish conquistadors indefatigable spirit was challenged: you’re darn right it was. The Chaco region was never really “settled” by the Spaniards nor was there much desire to since most natives were non-sedentary. The Chaco region was also much larger then. The Paraguay river defined a borderlands for the Spanish settlements, with unsettled territory to the west of the river (now Argentina). The norther borderlands were defined by the Jejuy and/or Apa Rivers, about 200 miles north of Asuncion. Spaniards referred to Chaco groups generically as the Guaycuru. These were non-sedentary groups that subsisted from fishing, hunting, gathering, trading, and raiding who shared in the Guaycuru linguistic family. They often traded slaves for horses and iron items from Spaniards. At the same time, they constantly attacked and raided both Guarani and Spanish settlements. In the mid-17th century, Spaniards constructed a string of forts along the Paraguay River (see image below), but these were hardly the “castles”, that Spaniards described in print and in paint. These small outposts were mainly used to spot enemies coming up the rivers and then to sound the alarm so that those left defenseless could flee.

It was only in the late 18th century that Spaniards made serious attempts to settle the region, this after Jesuits had been working apace in the region for more than fifty years. Despite military attempts at pacifying the region, Guaycuru groups still troubled the new Paraguay nation. Today, the Paraguayan government turns a blind eye to its Chaco natives, allowing foreigners, mainly Brazilians to buy-up huge tracts of land while only employing a total of three environmental prosecutors.

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About Shawn

ABD Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of New Mexico. I study Early Latin America and am currently working on a dissertation on racial relations, the many iterations of encomienda, and frontier societies in the Rio de la Plata during the 16th and 17th centuries.
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