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Virtually invisible
Mike Ceaser
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Despite widespread use of the Guaraní language, indigenous groups remain marginalized.

Paraguay is known as "the Guaraní nation." Ethnically, however, it is anything but indigenous. The nation’s approximately 17 indigenous groups, of which the Guaraní are the largest, constitute only about 2 percent of Paraguay’s 5.5 million people. Overwhelmingly poor and isolated, they are virtually invisible politically and economically.

Indigenous people tend to receive national attention only when they block roads or clash with landowners, or when a mysterious disease strikes them, as it did in January.

"There is poverty, marginalization and discrimination. There is no health care, and there is a lot of illness," said Francisco Mora, an indigenous leader from Nivacle in the department of Bocarón. "On the radio they say that indigenous people have development and a better quality of life. That’s a lie."

Paraguay’s indigenous people are caught in the same bind as non-indigenous campesinos. They have too little land, while a few people, often relatively recent immigrants, own huge tracts (LP, Jan 28, 2002). Mora’s impoverished 1,500-member community is surrounded by colonies of Mennonites, whose success with large-scale agriculture has caused resentment.

Paraguay’s high rate of deforestation, which has made the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle impossible, aggravates the problem.

"Historically, their land was taken over, so they just used land nearby. But that has become more difficult recently because of lack of land, and more of them have had to go to work for the Mennonites," Asunción anthropologist Rodrigo Villagra said.

Although a 1981 law recognized indigenous communities’ land rights, the law has never been put into practice. The 1992 Constitution recognized indigenous peoples as cultures predating the Paraguayan state and ordered restitution for their lands. Since then, however, titles have been awarded for only 165,000 hectares of land.

The Enxet, who traditionally lived in the Chaco region, along the western bank of the Paraguay River, have waged a long battle to regain control of their ancestral lands. Once hunters and gatherers and subsistence farmers, they began to lose territory in the 1880s to immigrant settlers wielding guns and displaying legal documents the Enxet did not understand.

One Enxet group is demanding title to 14,000 hectares of Chaco land, which leaders say is about 10 percent of their traditional territory. They began court action in 1990 and have since squatted on the land, which belongs to an agricultural company that they accuse of clearcutting forests there in an effort to discourage them.

When he worked as a lawyer, Judge Tadeo Larrateo, who now specializes in property cases, helped indigenous groups gain title to their lands.

"For indigenous people, deforestation is the end of the world," he said. "The forest is their temple, their home, their supermarket. When the forest disappears, their world ends."

Gregorio Gómez, coordinator of Tierra Viva, a non-governmental organization that helps indigenous peoples regain land, said cultural factors have hindered native Paraguayans in their struggle.

Indigenous peoples traditionally had no concept of individual land ownership, making them vulnerable to law-wise immigrants. They also have been accustomed to organizing only at the community level.

"Traditionally, they organize as communities. They’re practically islands," Gómez said. "They don’t know how to pressure as larger communities. That process of organization is new for them."

But government agencies, including the National Institute of Indigenous People (INDI), which has recently been involved in a series of scandals, are notorious for corruption and cronyism. In January, INDI director Olga Rojas de Bais resigned after indigenous people protested to demand greater participation in the agency. She was replaced by Col. Oscar Centurión.

Serious health problems compound the indigenous people’s troubles. Villagra estimates that 80 percent of Paraguay’s indigenous people have Chagas disease, a sometimes fatal illness spread by reduviid bugs, and said tuberculosis rates are among the world’s highest.

In January, five members of one Chaco community died of a diarrheic illness apparently caused by contaminated water. Paraguay’s Indigenous Hospital has only two doctors and lacks a laboratory, X-ray machine and surgical equipment, according to press reports.

For indigenous Paraguayans who migrate from the countryside to the capital, the jarring transition to urban life often ends with them begging or picking through garbage cans.

Ironically, while the Guaraní people have suffered, their language has thrived.

A land of white and mestizo cattle raisers, cotton farmers and contraband dealers, where German faces and surnames are common and Arab communities abound on the Brazilian border, Paraguay seems an unlikely place for widespread use of an indigenous tongue.

The last census, in 1992, showed that nearly 80 percent of Paraguayans spoke Guaraní. The language originally took hold because most of the original Spanish colonists married indigenous women who raised their children to speak their native tongue.

Today, Guaraní, an official language in Paraguay, is heard after dark on city street corners, on the radio, even in presidential speeches. In recent decades, a vigorous Guaraní literature has also developed.

The Guaraní, however, are in danger of losing their culture, anthropologist Villagra says, because lack of land is forcing them to leave their communities for cities or to work for their Mennonite neighbors.

"In many Mennonite colonies, indigenous people are not allowed to practice their traditional celebrations and festivals," Villagra said.

Some Ayoreo hunter-gatherers of the Chaco area continue to cling, at least tenuously, to their traditional lifestyle. During the past few years, several groups of Ayoreo have shifted to ranch life, but other families continue to follow their traditions, although anthropologists wonder how long they will be able to withstand the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

Paraguay’s recently appointed ombudsman, Manuel María Páez Monges (LP, Dec. 3, 2001), said he plans to support indigenous groups, which have often been ignored by a government whose attention has been monopolized by better-organized groups.



Ayoreo people attempt to maint
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