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PARAGUAY
Indigenous still marginalized 200 years later
Gustavo Torres
6/9/2011
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Mired in poverty and with few land rights, indigenous groups see little to celebrate on bicentennial.

While most of Paraguay’s population was fixated on the bicentennial of the nation’s independence from Spain on May 14, there was little to celebrate for the country’s indigenous peoples.

Representatives of indigenous organizations headed to the capital, Asunción, to demand the government take immediate action to stem the severe problems afflicting Paraguay’s 20 native peoples: extreme poverty, little access to land and a loss of their culture due to migration to urban centers so they can eke out a living. 

The demonstration, called by members of the Coordinating Group of Indigenous Organizations, an umbrella group, the demonstrators arrived at the capital on the May 14 to demand that their native lands be returned to them and that the government fulfill its commitments outlined by local and international norms on indigenous peoples.

For Gabriel Fernández, a leader of the Enxet community in Bajo Chaco, the bicentennial was a perfect time to unite Paraguay’s indigenous peoples to demand the government follow its own laws, such as the Indigenous Communities Law, which aims to ensure that indigenous peoples have the right to social and cultural preservation, to defend their patrimony and traditions and to improve their economic condition.

“We are yet again demanding that the Paraguayan state … see a better life for our people and that it guarantee that our demands will stop being criminalized,” he said. “We demand that our land be returned to us; international organizations have already spoke out on our behalf but the state continues to put off complying. We can say that as an indigenous people, we have very little to celebrate.”

The organizations also demanded that indigenous Paraguayans be protected from large infrastructure projects, particularly the Ava Guaraní and Mbya Guaraní communities, living near the Binational Itaipú and Yacyreta dams, which are shared with Brazil and Argentina.

Land and food security
Mario Rivarola, secretary-general of the National Organization of Independent Native Peoples, known as ONAI, and a leader in the Coordinating Group, echoed his sentiment that the bicentennial is far from a joyous occasion for the country’s indigenous peoples.

“We don’t have enough reason to consider the bicentennial as a festive date,” he said. “Instead, we are taking advantage of it to protest.” 

In addition to demanding that their native lands be returned and recognized, he said the indigenous groups also need food security. 

“The paradox is that in 1811 we freed ourselves from the yoke of Spain so they could put a new yoke on us,” he said of the new power-holding class in Paraguay. 

In the wake of the 1865-1870 War of the Triple Alliance, fought between Paraguay and an alliance between Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the local government gave massive swaths of land to foreigners, some of the best lands in the country, said Rivarola. “We inherited a lack of access to education and health care and zero government policy for the indigenous population, making us orphans in any state project.”

He added that three rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights require that the Paraguayan state return the ancestral lands of the Enxet and Sanapaná  people of the Chaco region. 

“We also have cases in which indigenous communities have been invaded by Paraguayan campesinos, he said, alluding to the expansion of the country’s soy farming industry.

National Living Well campaign
According to Paraguay’s 2008 census of indigenous households, the country’s indigenous population totaled 108,803 people, living mainly in rural areas. But there are also growing indigenous communities in large cities like Asunción, Ciudad del Este, Encarnación, Villarica, Caaguazú, and others, due to the massive expulsion of the native population from rural areas because they lack land titles.

According to the poll, 45 percent of the indigenous communities have no guarantees to their native lands, even though the constitution states that they have a the right to community-held land that is of “sufficient” size and quality so that their way of life remains in tact.

On May 14, more than 2,000 indigenous people marched on the capital to give President Fernando Lugo a copy of their proposed National Living Well Program, which aims to help indigenous communities get out of poverty.

Rivarola said the plan outlines how to ensure food security for the country’s 603 indigenous communities.

The proposal asks for immediate government assistance to strengthen farms run by native peoples and in between eight to 10 years, so they can transition away from substistance farming to sell their products.

The right to collectively hold land that has been granted to private companies is the focal point of the fight, said Oscar Ayala Amarilla, a legal advisor to indigenous communities and coordinator of the nongovernmental organization Tierra Viva.

He said the country has advanced its own laws, based on the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169, but that laws on the books that say indigenous peoples have a right to land is not enough — they need laws to implement this.
—Latinamerica Press.


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Indigenous leader Mario Rivarola demands ancestral lands be returned to his people. (Photo: Gustavo Torres)
Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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