Indigenous groups left to wait


Gustavo Torres, Latinamerica Press –

Date of publication: 
29 January 2009

Five months into Lugos government, native peoples still seek to have their basic needs met.

President Fernando Lugo took office more than five months ago, breaking 61 uninterrupted years of rule by the conservative Colorado Party, vowing to prioritize the demands of the close to 100,000 indigenous Paraguayans, one of the country´s most marginalized groups.

“The indigenous nations are waiting at the side of the road for someone to call on them to take back their lands,” Lugo said upon taking office Aug. 15. “They are the foremost owners of the natural resources and of their rational exploitation.”

Lugo had announced that the government-run Paraguayan Indigenous Institute would receive US$3.5 million this year to purchase land, and he designated Margarita Mbywangui, a member of the Aché people, one of Paraguay´s 17 indigenous ethnicities, to head the body, which returned to indigenous management following the government of former President Nicanor Duarte Frutos (2003-2008.)

But internal conflicts were bubbling beneath the surface.

Some indigenous groups in November pushed for Mbywangui to be fired, accusing her of favoring her own community. Lugo gave in the next month.

Education and Culture Minister Horacio Galeano Perrone took over the institution until indigenous organizations meet in a national congress to determine who will fill her post on Feb. 9.

“President Lugo promised to keep that post in indigenous hands,” said Néstor Flores, president of the Association of Indigenous Groups.

For Flores, a member of the Guarayo group, the partisanship of indigenous policies had long-created a division among indigenous groups and delayed the enactment of pro-indigenous measures.

“The solution to settle this problem is the [indigenous] congress, where we have to build a consensus among the delegates of every group,” Flores said. “The indigenous people recognize their rights based on natural and written laws.”

The state´s debt to the people

“Today we are engrossed in our own internal discussion, but the indigenous brothers have a willingness to correct the impasses,” said Jorge Martínez, an indigenous Makã, adding that that way the government´s indigenous institute will again return to indigenous hands. “President Lugo has shown his willingness to improve the indigenous´ living conditions, but we are also aware that one can´t do so much in such a short time.”

Paraguay gets its name from its first peoples — Paragua-y, or River of the Paraguá People. Their language, Guaraní, is spoken by 90 percent of the population, and is the only language of 40 percent. These peoples have lived for centuries on lands rich in natural resources, and have branded Paraguay with their cultures and traditions. But previous governments have left the country with enormous debts to Paraguay´s indigenous people.

Before the arrival of former Catholic bishop Lugo to the presidency, indigenous peoples here received almost no government attention or assistance.

Indigenous leaders interviewed by Latinamerica Press agreed that land reform and farming assistance are the most pressing issues for their communities as many of their lands are in the hands of the latifundistas or large plantation owners. But basic services, such as health care and education are also gravely lacking for these communities, since many of its members have not even received birth certificates and are not recognized by the state.

“It´s been a long wait,” said Martínez. “The little help we´ve had has been from nongovernmental organizations, while the state has been stuck, offering [aid] in times of elections for those of us who have had documents, [but] under false promises, one of the common practices of the traditional parties, mainly the Colorado Party.”

He added that the scarce government aid is one of the reasons why indigenous Paraguayans are begging on the streets of the country´s cities “losing their traditional values little by little and abandoning their communities.”

Gabriel Fernández, of the Enxet people in Presidente Hayes department, in the Paraguayan Chaco, said: “Paraguay is experiencing an important moment. The state owes the indigenous a lot, but we also know that the new government can´t do so much in such a short time to reverse years of delays.”

Historic demands

Among the indigenous groups´ historic demands facing Lugo´s government is that of isolated peoples. The Ayoreo-Totobiegosode people are living in voluntary isolation in Amotocodie area, in the northern Paraguayan Chaco, whose environment is being polluted by a Brazilian cattle company.

Worried about their fate, indigenous organizations sent Lugo a letter demanding an end to the destruction of their forests and greater protection of their cultural, environmental and land rights.

It´s the case also of the Enxet of the Bajo Chaco, which for 16 years have been camped out on a highway demanding their traditional lands be returned to them. Lugo, following a meeting with indigenous delegates last November, sent a bill to Congress to expropriate those lands. The measure is currently awaiting a debate and approval in the Legislative.

The indigenous Yakye Axa are demanding 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of farmland in Loma Verde, also in the Chaco, where many community members were born and raised and their ancestors are buried. On July 13, 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled against the Paraguayan state in this case, and in favor of the indigenous peoples from receiving the lands, but three years after this ruling, the government has exceeded the timeframe to carry it out.

At the moment, this community does not have a single square meter of its ancestral land and continues to live in subhuman conditions on the side of the road.

Despite the president´s support for these communities, Lugo´s government has still not implemented the deep reforms necessary to improve the living conditions and defend the rights of Paraguay´s indigenous peoples as is outlined in the country´s constitution.