Paraguayan Indigenous Community Reoccupies Territory After Two Decades of Forced Expulsion

After state fails to fulfill international court order returning ancestral lands illegally usurped by German cattle rancher, community decides enough is enough

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Story Transcript

DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN PRODUCER: These indigenous families in Paraguay are packing up their belongings and moving to the other side of this fence. They have been living precariously on the side of a highway in Paraguay’s remote Chaco region for more than 20 years, ever since a German cattle rancher and the Paraguayan state illegally kicked them off of their ancestral lands. A 2006 Inter-American Human Rights Court ruling held the Paraguayan state responsible for returning roughly 14,000 hectares to the community Sawhoyamaxa, a small fraction of their original territories. After pursuing every legal means possible and even blocking the highway in protest to no avail, the community decided in March 2013 to take matters into their own hands and reoccupy their lands.

BELEN GONZALEZ GALARZA, COMMUNITY MEMBER, SAWHOYAMAXA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We have to do this, we have to cross the fence, because we don’t have any other option. If we stay on the side of the road like this we can’t cultivate crops, and when the state ignores us we don’t have anything to eat. They were given a three-year window to negotiate the return of our land, and in the end they didn’t fulfil their part, so the only thing left for us to do is return.

DOUGHERTY: Families living in Sawhoyamaxa are Enxet Sur indigenous peoples, but only the elderly members of the community still speak their native tongue. Most speak Guarani, one of the two official languages of Paraguay, which is spoken by the majority of the population, with prevalence in rural areas. Living conditions on the side of the road are poor. Housing is improvised, there is no space to plant crops, and there have been a number of fatal accidents where community members are killed by freighter trucks. Residents say that being forcefully separated from their land has estranged them from their culture, language, and livelihood.

CARLOS MAREJO, COMMUNITY MEMBER, SAWHOYAMAXA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): If we are living by the road we can’t recover the culture of our ancestors. We have our own language, our own festivities, our own religion, and we have seen how living without our land has degenerated all of this. And so we fight. I think it’s fine for them to have land, but it can’t be that a single family has more than 60,000 hectares while all of us must live by the road. We are humans, not animals.

DOUGHERTY: The Gran Chaco is an expansive semi-arid lowland region spanning across Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. The western half of Paraguay is comprised of Chaco, which is home to the majority of the country’s indigenous peoples, who comprise just under 2 percent of the national population.

Rapid deforestation has slammed the Paraguayan Chaco in recent years. The cleared land is used for cattle ranching, which along with the industrial production of transgenic soybeans in the country’s eastern region is a key motor of the now booming national economy. In many cases, the ranchers come from neighboring Brazil or are comprised of communities of German-speaking Mennonites.

Land distribution is one of the most contentious issues in contemporary Paraguay. A mere 2 percent of the population controls well over 80 percent of the land.

Perla Alvarez is an organizer with Conamuri, the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous and Rural Worker Women. She says the Paraguayan state encourages a model of development that prioritizes the expansion of large-scale capital over the protection of indigenous land rights and autonomy.

PERLA ALVAREZ, ORGANIZER, CONAMURI (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The state in our country has been historically characterized as catering to a model of land tendencies that favor large landowners. It favors the large estates and a productive model that utilizes the land for monocropping or extensive cattle raising, and this results in the state not guaranteeing or respecting the rights established by laws and other documents and treaties. And so it is the state itself that is permanently violating the rights of indigenous peoples.

DOUGHERTY: In the case of Sawhoyamaxa, the land has been claimed by a German national named Heribert Roedel, a cattle rancher who was wanted by Interpol for defrauding Germans in a Paraguayan land investment scheme. He is the president of the Grupo Liebig ranchers association in Paraguay and owns tens of thousands of hectares of land in the Paragauyan Chaco. Roedel has previously offered to sell the disputed lands to the state at prices well above the market rates, and he has also requested the eviction of the community since they began reoccupying their lands this past March. Without the cover of the Inter-American Court ruling, the community would likely have already been evicted, as is often the outcome in similar land disputes in the Paraguayan countryside.

The state has so far failed to complete the court’s order, which also included such measures as the payment of reparations and the construction of infrastructural projects at Sawhoyamaxa.

Ireneo Tellez works with Tierra Viva, an organization that has aided Sawhoyamaxa in the legal aspects of their case.

IRENEO TELLEZ, TIERRA VIVA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This is not an isolated case. The case of Sawhoyamaxa is the case of many other indigenous communities. And so what we see is that the state doesn’t want to set a precedent of expropriating lands from a rancher that really belong to indigenous communities.

DOUGHERTY: Now several months into their reoccupation, the more than 100 families of Sawhoyamaxa are establishing more permanent housing and planting crops. The government says it has reentered negotiations with the community to determine the legal future of the ancestral lands in accordance with the Inter-American Human Rights Court’s ruling. For this Enxet Sur community, they are finally feeling at home for the first time in two decades and are determined not to leave again.

Reporting from the Paraguayan Chaco, this is David Dougherty with The Real News Network.

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