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.

The area also contains one of the largest aquifers in the world – the Guarani Aquifer – and some of its native forests also contain valuable hardwood species such as the quebracho tree, which can be used for the production of tannin.

As a region spanning three countries between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts it has also become of geopolitical interest not only to national governments but also to the United States, which has carried out military operations in a base in the town of Mariscal Estigarribia in the Paraguayan Chaco.

Nowhere has the effect of this onslaught been felt more than in indigenous communities who have lived for centuries in areas which are now of immense strategic, economic and political interest. Squeezed into roadside camps and the slums of urban centres, or pushed onto tiny portions of land surrounded by wire fences and without access to water or resources to adapt and find new ways of production, indigenous people today live in conditions of extreme poverty and marginalisation.

“The forest as we once knew it will never be the same again,” says Benigno Rojas, an Enxet Sur leader from Paraguay. “The loss of thousands of species of fauna and animals, and the changing climate, is all very real to us. But what will not change is our relationship with the land – our profound respect for nature remains firm. It is the basis for our indigenous identity and the reason we will continue to fight for and defend our land.”

In contrast to the current models of extraction and deforestation in the Chaco being led by governments and private enterprises, indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land is one based on reciprocity with nature and the preservation of the delicate ecosystem of the forest on which their livelihood depends.

For many, in the face of the unprecedented deforestation and environmental degradation, the return of land to these indigenous communities is key to the survival of what remains of the Chaco.

Communities now have a new set of weapons for their land struggles – legal ones. Since the 1990s, largely due to increased organisation and advocacy by indigenous groups, both Argentina and Paraguay incorporated their rights into the national constitutions.

Article 75-17 of the constitution of Argentina, for example, guarantees “to recognise the legal standing of indigenous communities and the possession and collective ownership of lands they have traditionally occupied, and to regulate the handover of other lands suitable and sufficient for human development; none of which may be sold, transferred, or susceptible to lien”.

These peoples’ rights are also recognised in a number of international treaties such as Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labour Organisation, which requires governments to respect indigenous people’s traditional lands.

These legal instruments have been hugely significant. They recognise indigenous people not only as citizens but as people with special rights as pre-inhabitants of each country. As a result, indigenous people have begun to organise themselves more effectively politically and, with support from national and international non-governmental organisations, have developed complex legal claims for the return of parts of their ancestral territories. The process, however, is plagued with chronic bureaucracy and lengthy delays .

“Twenty years on and there is still a huge gap between the rights proclaimed in the National Constitution and the reality on the ground and in Argentinian society,” says Dr Gonzalo Garcia Veritá, an indigenous rights lawyer based in the small town of Castelli in the north of Argentina, who visits the local courts each day to follow up on land claims for Qom communities. “We are dealing with a judicial system largely in the hands of the oligarchy where in many cases institutionalised racism is deeply ingrained,” he adds.

This is echoed by community leader Mariana Ajala, who says: “Everything we have achieved has been through constant mobilisations, we have to be on top of the authorities the whole time – otherwise we will be completely ignored and abandoned.”

And yet there are signs of hope.

In Argentina, a number of indigenous leaders are working as legislators on the provincial government. In 2011 municipal elections, for the first time ever, a Qom mayor was elected in the small town of El Espinillo. The languages of the Qom, Wichi and Mocovi peoples have been recognised as official languages and a land claim by these three indigenous groups for 320,000 hectares – a territory slightly larger than Luxembourg – is in the final stages of negotiation.

If successful, it will represent a unique model of sustainable development as indigenous communities are also requesting support for production models to help them adapt to climate change and changing agricultural cycles while maintaining the native forest intact.

In Paraguay, three indigenous communities – Sawhoyamaxa, Xákmok Kásek and Flores’s community Yakye Axa – took their land claim cases to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, which ruled in their favour, stating the rights of indigenous peoples are above private interests.

After long delays, the Paraguayan government is finally complying with this court ruling and purchasing land from private owners to return to these communities, who for two decades have lived in roadside camps. “Each small advance that we have made is the result of centuries of struggle. We know that without land there is no future,” says Rojas. “Without land there is no life.”

This is a historic struggle that is set to continue and to grow. The future of a whole region may depend on it.

FIONUALA CREGANand PAUL KELLYtravelled to the Chaco region of Argentina and Paraguay with the assistance of the Simon Cumbers Media Challenge Fund