Some of the world’s most sophisticated technology is being used to protect indigenous people who’ve entirely avoided the industrial world.

By studying satellite photographs of Paraguayan forests inhabited by still-uncontacted aboriginal tribes, activists have spotted evidence of illegal deforestation carried out between October and December of last year.

The deforestation violated a logging moratorium on land claimed by both ranchers and the Ayoreo, a tribe that lives on the Gran Chaco, a vast arid plain of scrub forest and seasonal waterways.

Prolonged contact between the nomadic Ayoreo and outsiders began only in the mid-20th century, when Mennonites fleeing religious persecution and compulsory military service in Russia and Eastern Europe settled in the Paraguayan Chaco. Several hundred members of an Ayoreo subgroup known as the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode have almost completely avoided contact, but it’s not easy.

The Mennonites have since become a major agro-industrial force, joined by Brazilian ranchers evading that country’s crackdown on Amazon deforestation. Between 2006 and 2010 they cleared a full one-tenth of the Paraguayan Chaco’s forest for ranches, a practice with disastrous long-term consequences for Chaco ecology and short-term consequences for Ayoreo still living in the forests. Much of that deforestation occurred on contested and ostensibly off-limits land, but government enforcement of the moratorium is inconsistent.

In 2009, tribal-advocacy group Survival International published satellite photographs documenting illegal logging by Brazilian company Yaguarete Pora, which was subsequently fined and delicensed. The clearing seen in the latest photographs was was conducted by the companies River Plate and BBC S.A., and has been verified by government officials, said Rebecca Spooner, who works on Survival International’s Latin America campaign.

According to Spooner, the image analysis was conducted by an Ayoreo supporter from Canada whose work involves satellite imagery. There is, however, no systematic tracking of Gran Chaco deforestation. Much of the clearing visible in the new photographs — not just the latest activity — was illegal.

“The new deforestation may not be big in itself, but it simply adds to the massive deforestation going on in the Chaco that is, bit by bit, removing the very life source of the Ayoreo,” said Spooner. “This is going on illegally and nothing is being done to prevent it.”

This article is by Brandon Keim, written for Wired Science.