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FILADELFIA, Paraguay — The Chaco thorn forest, a domain with 118-degree temperatures so forbidding that Paraguayans call it their “green hell,” covers an expanse about the size of Poland. Hunter-gatherers still live in its vast mazes of quebracho trees.
José Luis Casaccia, center, an environmental prosecutor, leads a raid against an illegal team clearing land.
But while the Chaco forest has remained hostile to most human endeavors for centuries, and jaguars, maned wolves and swarms of biting insects still inhabit its thickets, the region’s defiance may finally be coming to an end.
Huge tracts of the Chaco are being razed in a scramble into one of South America’s most remote corners by cattle ranchers from Brazil, Paraguay’s giant neighbor, and German-speaking Mennonites, descendants of colonists who arrived here nearly a century ago and work as farmers and ranchers.
So much land is being bulldozed and so many trees are being burned that the sky sometimes turns “twilight gray” at daytime, said Lucas Bessire, an American anthropologist who works here. “One wakes with the taste of ashes and a thin film of white on the tongue,” he said.
At least 1.2 million acres of the Chaco have been deforested in the last two years, according to satellite analyses byGuyra, an environmental group in Asunción, the capital. Ranchers making way for their vast herds of cattle have cleared roughly 10 percent of the Chaco forest in the last five years, Guyra said. That is reflected in surging beef exports.
“Paraguay already has the sad distinction of being a deforestation champion,” said José Luis Casaccia, a prosecutor and former environment minister, referring tothe large clearing in recent decades of Atlantic forests in eastern Paraguay for soybean farms; little more than 10 percent of the original forests remain.
“If we continue with this insanity,” Mr. Casaccia said, “nearly all of the Chaco’s forests could be destroyed within 30 years.”
The rush is already transforming small Mennonite settlements on the Chaco frontier into boomtowns. The Mennonites, whose Protestant Anabaptist faith coalesced in Europe in the 16th century, founded settlements here in the 1920s. Towns with names like Neuland, Friedensfeld and Neu-Halbstadt dot the map.
Buoyed by their newfound prosperity, the Mennonite communities here differ from those in other parts of Latin America, like the settlements in eastern Bolivia where many Mennonites still drive horse-drawn buggies and wear traditional clothing.
In Filadelfia, Mennonite teenagers barrel down roads outside town in new Nissan pickup trucks. Banks advertise loans for cattle traders. Gas stations sell chewing tobacco and beers like Coors Light. An annual rodeo lures visitors from across Paraguay.
Patrick Friesen, communications manager for a Mennonite cooperative in Filadelfia, said property prices had surged fivefold in recent years. “A plot of land in town costs more than in downtown Asunción,” said Mr. Friesen, attributing the boom partly to surging global demand for beef.
“Eighty-five percent of our beef is exported, to places including South Africa, Russia and Gabon,” he said. Citing concerns in some countries over foot-and-mouth disease, which Paraguay detected in its cattle herd in 2011, he continued, “We are currently focused on some of the less-demanding markets.”
Paraguay’s Chaco forest lies in the Gran Chaco plain, spread across several nations. Scientists fear that the expansion of cattle ranching could wipe out what is a beguiling frontier for the discovery of new species. The Chaco is still relatively unexplored. The largest living species of peccary, piglike mammals, was revealed to science here in the 1970s. In some areas, biologists have recently glimpsed guanacos, a camelid similar to the llama.
More alarming, the land rush is also intensifying the upheaval among the Chaco’s indigenous peoples, who number in the thousands and have been grappling for decades with forays by foreign missionaries, the rising clout of the Mennonites and infighting among different tribes.
One group of hunter-gatherers, the Ayoreo, is under particular stress from the changes. In 2004, 17 Ayoreo speakers, from a subgroup who call themselves the Totobiegosode, or “people from the place where the collared peccaries ate our gardens,” made contact with outsiders for the first time.
In Chaidi, a village near Filadelfia, they described being hounded for years by bulldozers encroaching on their lands. The Ayoreo word for bulldozer, “eapajocacade,” means “attackers of the world.”
“They were destroying our forests, generating problems for us,” one Totobiegosode man, Esoi Chiquenoi, who believed he was in his 40s, said through an interpreter. As a result, he and others in his group, who in photographs taken in 2004 were wearing loincloths, abruptly abandoned their way of life.
Mr. Chiquenoi and others in Chaidi have spoken of Totobiegosode relatives who remain in the forest and continue to live in the traditional ways, making them possibly the last uncontacted tribe in South America outside the Amazon. Their numbers are estimated to be around 20 or more. Some researchers speculate whether they are actually uncontacted or merely hidden, as they live amid the vast cattle ranches created around them.
A March report by the Paraguayan Indigenous Institute confirmed their existence on land controlled by River Plate, a Brazilian ranching company, citing evidence of footprints and holes dug to capture turtles for food.
As the Mennonite communities come under scrutiny for the deforestation, they acknowledge that big sections of the forest around them are being removed. But they deny that they are to blame, contending that they abide by Paraguayan law, which requires landowners to keep a quarter of Chaco properties forested.
“What the Brazilians do, acquiring land with their strong currency and deep pockets, is something else,” said Franklin Klassen, a member of the city council in Loma Plata, a Mennonite town.
Across Paraguay, Brazil’s economic sway is impossible to ignore, symbolized by an estimated 300,000 Brasiguayos, as the relatively prosperous Brazilian immigrants and their descendants are called, who have played a role in expanding industrial agriculture and ranching in Paraguay.
Tension already simmers over the growth of Brazilian landholdings. Tranquilo Favero, a Brazilian soybean farmer and rancher who is one of Paraguay’s richest men, enraged many Paraguayans when he said in remarks published in February that landless peasants had to be treated “like a swindler’s woman, who only obeys when beaten with a stick.”
Mr. Casaccia, the prosecutor, said that Mr. Favero alone controls an estimated 615,000 acres of land in the Chaco, in addition to huge tracts in eastern Paraguay. Neither Mr. Favero nor directors at his company in Asunción responded to requests for comment.
Still, other Brazilian ranchers confirmed that they have aggressively expanded their holdings in the Chaco, effectively contributing to the deforestation.
Nelson Cintra, a rancher from the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, said he and his brother were among the first Brazilians to put down stakes in the Chaco, acquiring about 86,000 acres in Alto Paraguay, near the Brazilian border, in 1997.
“Environmentalists complain about deforestation, but the world has billions of mouths to feed,” said Mr. Cintra, mayor of Porto Murtinho, a Brazilian border town. “There are now 1 million heads of cattle in Alto Paraguay, whereas 15 years ago there were just 50,000,” he said.
On Filadelfia’s outskirts, the transformation of the Chaco from a vast, untamed wilderness into a ranching bastion already seems irreversible. About 80 Ayoreo live in squalor in one spot on the side of the highway, sleeping under plastic bags draped from trees.
Sometimes ranchers in pickups stop to hire the Ayoreo men as laborers, paying them about $10 a day. But such work is sporadic. On most days, the Ayoreo lean on a fence, sipping a tea made from yerba maté leaves, watching trucks barrel past carrying cattle that grazed where peccaries once roamed.
“We’ll never live in the forest again,” said Arturo Chiquenoi, 28, an Ayoreo man who works occasionally as a ranch hand. “That life is finished.”
Noah Friedman-Rudovsky contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in print on March 25, 2012, on page A8 of the New York edition with the headline: A Forest Under Siege in Paraguay.