South American Chaco
› What we do › South American Chaco
    PHOTO: Don Tatlock

    The Gran Chaco region is an immense and little heard of region in the heart of the South America. It is the biggest forest reserve on the continent after the Amazon and the largest dry forest in the world. A major eco-system, it is also a region with great cultural diversity, home to 25 different indigenous ethnic groups including communities of Guarani, Wichi, Qom and Enxet Sur who for centuries lived as semi-nomadic hunter gatherers before losing most of their land. This immense region covers almost 1 million square kilometres - if it were a country it would be similar in size to Colombia. It stretches across northern Argentina, southwest Paraguay and southeast Bolivia but is located far from the capitals of each of these countries.


    As with other parts of South America, inequality is rife in the Chaco and felt most strongly by the region's most marginalised groups – indigenous people, small farmers "campesinos" and those living on the periphery of urban settlements. The region´s relative isolation has contributed to the creation of an enabling environment for human rights violations against these groups as well as wide spread environmental destruction, in particular alarming levels of deforestation for the cattle and soy industries. Since 2011 this has ranged on average at 500 acres of forest being cut down per day – equivalent to 500 football pitches. Climate conditions in the region are unpredictable and humanitarian emergencies caused by long periods of drought or extreme flooding are not uncommon.


    The loss of forest has had a profound impact on indigenous communities who have been forced from their traditional territories. Living on ever smaller plots of land, they rely on minimal subsistence farming of seasonal crops for their survival and in many cases have little choice but to provide cheap labor for the agro-export enterprises or migrate to urban centres. The majority of indigenous communities live in conditions of social exclusion without access to basic rights such as food, water, decent work, health and education.

    For example:

    While the national rate of illiteracy in Argentina is 2.6 per cent, in indigenous communities it is 19.3 per cent (More info).

    In Paraguay the national illiteracy rate is 7 per cent while in indigenous communities it is as high as 51% (More info).

    Argentina, 0.7 per cent of indigenous youth go on to study at third level.


    Learn more about the South American Chaco Region on our interactive map.

    PHOTO: PAUL Kelly

    Known as the CWS Chaco Program, this long-term tri-national initiative began in 2005 and involves four local partners in the Chaco region of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The program works to strengthen the organizational capacity of groups of indigenous men and women to secure legal title to their ancestral territory and use the land in ways that are economically, socially and culturally sustainable. The program runs in four year cycles and is currently in phase three  2013-2017. It works on the following issues:



    32 indigenous communities and 9 inter-ethnic indigenous organizations across the South American Chaco participate in the program. Activities include legal and human rights trainings, GPS and other mapping skills as well as legal and moral accompaniment in the lengthy and bureaucratic land claim process. A small grants fund provides support for community based initiatives to improve food security and community development. Over the past nine years of the program, indigenous communities have managed to recover 1,788 square miles of their ancestral land – a territory equivalent in size Trinidad and Tobago.



    Indigenous Women

    Indigenous women face multiple forms of exclusion and discrimination due to their gender and ethnicity. Increased male migrant labour means that women often find themselves alone in their communities. The program works to increase indigenous women´s access to information and provide them with the necessary training and confidence building to enable them participate in local decision making. A series of national and tri-national meetings of indigenous women create a safe space where women can share experiences, discuss common concerns and learn from each other.



    Many young indigenous men and women are unable to finish high school –often these schools are based in urban areas and the travel costs involved as well as the need to support their family by working as labourers on estate makes it difficult for many young people to to continue their studies. The program supports a number of indigenous youth each year to finish high school as well as to access third level including teacher training and law programs. In addition more and more indigenous youth are assuming leadership roles in their communities and requested support to develop the necessary skills for this role. A survey of indigenous youth capacity and needs is being carried to define a training program from 2014 onwards.



    In 2012 an external evaluation of Phase two of the Program was carried out which recognized that the Chaco Program has contributed significantly to:

    • Transforming gender relations in communities through empowering women and their organizations
    • Strengthening indigenous leaders so that they can demand their rights and manage their land claims with greater autonomy
    • Promoting greater inter-ethnic collaboration across the region
    • Supporting the development of production activities that combine both new as well as traditional productive practices
    • Training of young indigenous professionals who are now working in both the legal and education system


    To read more about the evaluation click here.


    Links to other documents and reports.


    The goal of this program is to support sustainable food and nutritional security in 11 indigenous communities in the Gran Chaco region of Paraguay and Bolivia. The program focuses on strengthening capacity at the family, community and organizational levels leading to a sustainable increase in the number of months of food self-sufficiency for  families.


    The communities  are based in the semi arid part of the Chaco, which has an average annual rainfall of just 450-650 mm. The region is prone to prolonged dry periods, which have exasperated the already precarious food security of indigenous communities. A Food and Nutritional Survey carried out by the project revealed alarmingly high levels of chronic malnutrition in children under 5 years old.



    The Program began in 2011 with the development of production plans in all 11 communities in a process lead by communities and based on their indigenous values and vision. The implementation of these plans is being supported by the implementing partners with a strong focus on technical training to ensure sustainability. So far the communities have developed kitchen gardens that are expanding in size with new vegetables being introduced, and small livestock projects with goat and sheep population tripling in size in the first two years of the program.


    In 2013 a new phase began which will in addition to strengthening these initiatives, also focus on food processing and marketing of agriculture and livestock. Access to markets will provide the communities with additional income to purchase essential food items in periods when, due to the climate conditions in the Chaco, production activities are limited. As communities largely depend on rain water, during the dry season from April – November almost no production activities can be carried out and families often face serious food shortages.


    You can see the participating communities on the 'Chaco interactive map' tab above


    This program is carried out in partnership with Foods Resource Bank and the implementing partners are:

    Center for Regional Studies in Tarija (CERDET), Bolivia

    Churches Committee for Emergency Assistance (CIPAE), Paraguay.

    Mingara Association for Sustainable Development, Paraguay.


    In March 2013, CWS and fellow ACT Alliance member CREAS launched the South American Chaco Ecumenical Small Projects Fund. The objective is to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations and community groups defend human rights and contribute to ending poverty and inequality in the region.


    The fund supports small initiatives with priority given to women and youth in the areas of food security and economic empowerment, climate justice, accountability and quality of humanitarian aid in both urban and rural areas of the Chaco. In addition it supports the strengthening of new and emerging NGOs and community-based groups serving indigenous, "campesino" and the urban poor. There is also an emergency fund for the protection of human rights defenders providing them with rapid and practical support in situations where they are under threat, thereby enabling them continue their work as agents for change in the region. A project selection committee meets twice a year to review applications received and the maximum grant is USD 3000.


    You can read more information about the fund here.

    This content it's only available if Flash Player is installed on this device. Otherwise, visit this section using your laptop or desktop computer.

    Get Adobe Flash player