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Opinion: Why Paraguay?

A conservation expedition to Paraguay, organised by the Natural History Museum in London, has been criticised for the potential "threat" it poses to indigenous tribes.

Here, Professor Richard Lane, head of science at the museum, answers the critics and explains why he thinks research in the remote region is too valuable to abandon.

By Professor Richard Lane
Head of Science, NHM

Next week, 21 scientists from the Natural History Museum, together with some 40 Paraguayan partners, are due to start a month-long expedition to explore and record the little-known biodiversity of the Dry Chaco region in Paraguay.

Why? Put simply, because we are losing the Earth's biodiversity at a shocking rate and we need to gather appropriate evidence of the nature of this change as well as what's in danger of being lost.

When we think of forests in South America, we tend to think of jungle or rainforest, but the Chaco is an extensive area of dry forest.

Professor Richard Lane, head of science at the Natural History Unit
We know that when we visit any remote area there may be indigenous people present and therefore we need to carefully consider our relationship and impact on them
Professor Richard Lane

These forests are particularly fragile and susceptible to damage.

The information and specimens collected on this trip will help scientists to understand the richness and diversity of the animals and plants in this remote region and, crucially, to create a baseline so we can monitor change over time.

These changes may be large scale, such as climate change, or more local changes such as logging.

This information will be available to all, including the Paraguayan government and decision-makers, conservation groups and local people.

It can then be used to better understand how to manage the very fragile habitats and protect them for future generations.

We know that when we visit any remote area there may be indigenous people present and therefore we need to carefully consider our relationship and impact on them.

With the expedition to Paraguay this has been an extremely important component of the planning from the very beginning - not only the impact on the environment but also on the people who live there.

Ayoreo men (Image: Survival International)
Some Ayoreo communities in the Chaco have never been contacted

In parts of the Chaco, there are people who are un-contacted and wish to remain that way.

We respect their wish to remain un-contacted.

The expedition is jointly organised by the Natural History Museum in London, the Natural History Museum in Asuncion, a conservation group, Guyra Paraguay, and national authorities.

We have been assured by leaders of the local Ayoreo people, through the Union Navitas Ayoreos del Paraguay (UNAP), that not only do they welcome the expedition but that some of their people will join our expedition, including an elder with extensive traditional knowledge.

This elder will work as part of the expedition and will also go ahead when we are in the field to ensure there is no undesired contact.

It is most unfortunate that the dramatic language to describe the potential impact of contact, in effect shouting, has drowned out the real issues that need to be addressed for the benefit of indigenous people.

The world is currently facing an unprecedented biodiversity crisis.

Last month in Nagoya, Japan, 193 countries that are parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity underlined the world's failure to meet its 2010 targets to slow down the rate of biodiversity loss.

Conserving biodiversity needs effective decisions and action.

Without the science, we can't make a convincing argument for what we have, or what it is worth, or why it is worth protecting.

If we do not succeed, we are going to see further habitat losses and more and more threatened species - not to mention the last remaining uncontacted indigenous people - on the path to extinction.



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