THE GRAN CHACO REGION
In the heart of Latin America, squeezed between the Paraguay and Paraná rivers and the Andean plateau, and spanning across Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, lies a plain of 1,300,000 square kilometres. This is the Gran Chaco.
Hosting vast areas of virgin forests, the Gran Chaco is the largest forested area in South America, second only to the Amazon and storing tens of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is a reservoir of extraordinary biodiversity: 3,400 botanical species, 500 species of birds, 120 reptiles, 100 amphibians and 150 mammals, including the giant armadillo, anteater, jaguar and tapir.
The region is home to a multitude of indigenous communities that are strongly attached to their traditions, craft techniques and nature. The Gran Chaco counts 25 ethnic groups and 10 linguistic groups: a mosaic of cultures, different from each other but with common characteristics.
The climate varies from arid to semi-arid and from humid to tropical, depending on the region. However, it is generally characterised by high heat and high temperature variation during the day and the whole year. Freshwater is rare and underground water is often brackish.
The vegetation is varied, including forests with palm trees, xerophilous woodlands and savannahs. Livestock farming has developed mainly in the eastern region.
The main source of wealth is quebracho wood, used to make railway sleepers or coal. Agriculture is only progressing in the Paraguay and Paraná regions.
The region is politically divided between Argentina (Southern and Central Chaco), Bolivia and Paraguay. The Gran Chaco territory has been disputed since 1810, when Paraguay began to drive out the native populations and establish local settlements. The territory was then disputed by Bolivia and Paraguay, with tensions between the two countries eventually leading to the 1932-1935 Chaco War. The real cause of the conflict was probably the suspected presence of oil. In 1936, a first agreement was reached with the Buenos Aires Protocol. A peace treaty was signed in 1938, granting Paraguay three quarters of the Chaco Borealis and Bolivia a corridor to the Paraguay River.
In 1995, the Kaa Iya of the Gran Chaco National Park was created in a Bolivian area of the Chaco. The park is administered entirelt by indigenous peoples, including the Izoceño Guaraní, Ayoreode, and Chiquitano.
This territory is 3.5 times bigger than Italy but has one of the lowest population densities on the planet. There are relatively few human settlements: some urban centres and a myriad of indigenous communities belonging to 40 ethnic and 10 linguistic groups. These people are the custodians of rich cultural heritage, craftsmanship and ancestral traditions, little of which is known to and valued by the outside world.
Presently, indigenous peoples organized aroung hunting, fishing and gathering, and only to a lesser extent on agriculture, have partly disappeared. Their way of life has been transformed by a relentless process of Western acculturation. The ecosystem of the Gran Chaco is unique but it is slowly being destroyed by colonisation, along with the introduction of extensive farming, fires and irresponsible agricultural decisions.
The name ‘Gran Chaco’ probably comes from the Quechua word ‘Chaku’. There are two possible interpretations: ‘hunting territory’ or, alternatively, ‘union’/’company’ as indigenous people from different regions joined forces here affter fleeing from the Inca conquest .