Indigenous rights placed above private interests at long last
Communities who have long been marginalised are finally being allowed to return to their native lands, write FIONUALA CREGANin Yakye Axa, Paraguay
ANÍBAL FLORES is smiling, standing barefoot in a tiny makeshift church, strumming a guitar. Outside, children play, sliding through enormous puddles, the product of recent rains which flooded what was meant only to be a temporary home.
This is a roadside camp called Yakye Axa in Paraguay, which features houses made of logs and plastic lining and a church which doubles up as a primary school and a meeting room. It is the site of resistance of 67 indigenous families who for 20 years have lived here demanding the return of their ancestral territory.
Earlier this year, they finally won their battle and recovered 11,000 hectares of land from the government. Now they are waiting for an access road to be built so they can move and begin to build a new life.
“We have lived through fear, desperation, hopelessness and exhaustion,” says Flores, one of the leaders of Yakye Axa. “Unable to work and without land to cultivate to produce food, we have sacrificed our health and that of our children – some people have died. But we never gave up, and now we have won.”
The resilience and determination of Flores and his community can be seen across the South American Chaco – an area equivalent in size to Egypt which spans border areas of the north of Argentina, southwest Paraguay and eastern Bolivia and is today the second largest forest remaining in South America after the Amazon. It is home to 25 different indigenous ethnic groups including Guarani, Wichi, Qom and Enxet Sur, making it the most culturally diverse region in all of the continent.
Its dense vegetation and rugged terrain, alongside the courageous and tireless resistance of its indigenous people, meant the Chaco was one of the last parts of South America to be conquered by the Spaniards. While the Aztec and Inca empires fell in 1522 and 1534 respectively, it was not until the 1820s and onwards that the Chaco came under the control of the colonial empire and indigenous people began to lose large portions of their land.
However, even then, as a region lacking in resources such as silver and gold and famous for its antagonistic terrain and hostile climate, it was of little interest to the outside world.
Today, that has changed.
Petrol and gas have been discovered recently in parts of the Chaco region of Argentina and Bolivia, while the expansion of the agricultural frontier for the meat and soya industries in all three countries is leading to rapid and uncontrolled deforestation. It is reported that an estimated average of 1,000 hectares – equivalent to 1,000 football pitches – of forest is being cut down per day across the region.