An old Indian stands in the rain in northern Argentina,
amid the charred ruins of his village. His name is Pa'i
Antonio Moreira. Over his thin sweater two strings of
black beads crisscross his chest like bandoliers, signifying
that he is a ñanderú, a shaman of his
people. They are among the last few Guaraní Indians
in this country, part of a cultural group that once
inhabited a forest stretching from Argentina to the
Amazon. Now only remnants of that forest and its creatures
and people are left.
The night before, government men in forest-service
uniforms torched the community's village. The l,500-acre
tract of semitropical woodland where they lived is only
a few miles from Iguazú Falls, the biggest waterfall
in South America. Once sacred to the Guaraní,
Iguazú is now overwhelmed by tourists. Moreira's
village was burned to make way for yet another hotel.
The next Indian village to the south is also gone, swallowed
by the waters of a new reservoir. The villages beyond
that are no longer surrounded by black laurel and ceiba
trees, which sheltered the deer and tapir the Guaraní
once hunted, but by silent forests of Monterey pine,
imported from California and planted by a nearby paper
company for its superior fiber content.
The old shaman's kinsmen huddle around a fire, while the
embers of their homes
hiss and sizzle in
the rain. The people
descend from a stubborn
band of Guaraní
who refused to be
evangelized when Jesuits
arrived here 400 years
ago. Moreira tells
us that these ills
curse the Guaranís
world because white
men ignore the true
way of God. Only the
Indian, he says, remembers
how God intended the
world to be.
Then why, we ask, has God allowed the white man to
triumph, and the Indian to suffer?
He gazes at us from beneath heavy-lidded eyes filled
with loss and compassion. "The white man hasn't
triumphed," he says softly. "When the Indians
vanish, the rest will follow."
Throughout the Americas, great changes fueled by visions
of progress have swept away the habitats of countless
plants and animals. But entire human cultures are also
becoming endangered. During the past two years, we traveled
to 15 American countries, from the United States to
Chile, to document this swift, often irreversible destruction.
Nations with growing, impoverished populations strike
a Faustian bargain with the developed world: To create
jobs and electricity for industry, they borrow hundreds
of millions of dollars from foreign banks. They build
huge dams that flood thousands of rural poor. To repay
the massive debt, they invite foreign companies to mine
their timber, gold, oil, and coal, or convert their
farmlands to produce luxury crops for consumers in North
America, Europe, and Japan. To ease pressures on overcrowded
lands, they allow poor settlers to slash and burn their
way into virgin forests, where they clash with the indigenous
people already living there—including some of
the last uncontacted tribes in the hemisphere.
For centuries the Yuquí Indians of the Bolivian
Amazon roamed naked through jungles so remote they thought
no one else existed. Their word for world translates
simply as leaves.
"When we first saw the white people, we thought
they were the spirits of our dead ancestors," recalled
Ataiba, the last of the Yuquí chiefs. He recalled
how his people had begun to encounter strange things
in the jungle—fresh fish hung from trees, sacks
of sugar, cooking pots, machetes—all laid beside
new trails. One day, at the end of one of these gift
trails, Ataiba saw light-skinned people watching him.
After many months, the pale strangers, evangelicals
from the Florida-based New Tribes Mission,. convinced
Ataiba that they could offer safe haven from the growing
violence of confrontations with loggers and settlers.
One morning late in 1989, Ataiba led his people out
of the forest forever, to become permanent wards of
the mission village.
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Often, on the heels of the missionaries, come the forces
of development. In Ecuador during the early 1970s, the
government contracted with Texaco to build an oil industry
in the Ecuadorian Amazon and help bring the country
into the global economy. Until then, many natives there
had never even heard of a nation called Ecuador, let
"We didn't know the sound of a motor," explained
Toribe, a young Cofán leader. The Cofán,
who live along Ecuador's Río Aguarico, were still
hunting peccaries and monkeys with blowguns. "We
couldn't figure out what animal could be making those
noises." The sounds were Texaco's helicopters.
Soon settlers streamed down the oil-company roads, changing
life irrevocably for the Cofán.
"With the petroleum companies came epidemics,"
recalled Toribe. "We didn't know flu, measles,
and these other illnesses. Many fled from here. Those
that stayed were finished. It was all contaminated.
There were fifteen thousand of us on this side of the
Río Aguarico. Now we are only four hundred."
Oil from Ecuador, hardwoods from Bolivia, and from
Honduras to Costa Rica to Brazil, beef cattle raised
for export where forests once stood: We had stumbled
onto another kind of gift trail, this one leading back
to the United States. The savanna surrounding Bogotá,
Colombia, with some of the finest soil in Latin America,
produces not food but bargain-priced roses, chrysanthemums,
and carnations to sell on street corners and in supermarkets
in the United States and beyond. To meet the high standards
of the international marketplace, the blossoms, along
with the women who tend them inside plastic-covered
hothouses, are regularly gassed with pesticides. The
chemicals leak into the Bogotá savanna's streams
and aquifers, which are also being depleted as business
grows and more flowers must be watered.
In Honduras, mangrove forests lining the Gulf of Fonseca's
estuaries are threatened by modern mariculture. Huge
shrimp farms restrict local fishermen's access to the
crabs, mollusks, and small fish they have netted for
In Brazil, the biggest dam in the Amazon, Tucurui,
has displaced thousands of people and created such mosquito
infestations that thousands more are leaving Tucurui
was built to power aluminum smelters owned by U.S.,
European, and Japanese companies. The ore comes from
the Amazon's largest mine, which strips away hundreds
of acres of jungle each year to provide foils and cans.
In eastern Panama, the Bayano Dam was part of a master
plan to bring new industry to the capital and, via its
new road, open jungle frontiers. Settlers quickly turned
the jungle into cattle pasture, threatening the survival
of the forest-dwelling Kuna Indians and creating massive
soil erosion. So much loose soil washes into Bayano's
reservoir that the dam's manager says eventually its
turbines will stop functioning.
On South America's second-biggest river, the Parana,
we watched men building the longest dam in the world:
Yacyreta, along the Argentina-Paraguay border. More
than $1 billion in World Bank and Inter-American Development
Bank loans was allegedly diverted from the dam project
to finance things like Argentina's Falklands war. Now
there's not enough money to relocate the 40,000 people
whose cities and farms will be flooded. As much as $30
million was spent, however, on an elevator to carry
fish like dorado, a prized local species, upstream to
spawn. Unfortunately, the elevator, built by North American
dam contractors, was designed for salmon, which go upstream,
spawn and die. Dorado need to return. And there's no
While these huge projects often collapse under their
own weight, even small, well-intended plans can falter
if they don't transcend conventional models of commerce.
The notion that a "green" market solution
will allow both consumption and conservation may be
wishful thinking. In western Brazil we visited a cooperative
founded to save both the rainforest and its people by
harvesting replenishable Brazil nuts for candy. But
when co-op members, who lack basic sanitation and electricity,
voted to pay themselves a living wage, the price of
their product rose above the world market rate. In order
to keep costs competitive, Cultural Survival, the Boston-based
nonprofit group that devised the scheme, now buys most
Rainforest Crunch nuts from commercial suppliers who
undercut the cooperative.
Our travels did reveal a few signs of hope: a land-recovery
program run by villagers in southern Honduras, a proposal
to put Kuna Indians in charge of protecting the watershed
of Panama's Bayano Dam. But these projects are exceptions.
Alone, they are not enough to halt the momentous effects
of uncontrolled development. Sustainable development
must be contoured to local needs rather than imposed
from afar by economic forces.
When we reached the Strait of Magellan, residents of
southern Chile showed us great inland sounds that soon
will be dammed to power yet more aluminum smelters—this
time, Australian. On Tierra del Fuego, they took us
to ancient hardwood rainforests, scheduled to be turned
into fax paper by Canadian and Japanese companies.
Finally, we stood with Professor Bedrich Magas of Chile's
Magellan University at the tip of the Americas, looking
out toward the growing polar ozone hole. Magas reminded
us that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
had recently discovered destructive chlorine over the
northern United States—just like that which was
found over Antarctica only a few years earlier. It was
a disturbing reminder of the warning of the Guaraní
shaman: What we do to the lives and lands of others
may ultimately determine the fate of our own.
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Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World
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Resurrecting the Zápara
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