Indigenous of the Paraguayan Chaco


This is the final article in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region highlighting the local indigenous communities and some of the challenges they face. The first post focused on Filadelfia, the area’s largest town, the second on the rural Chaco, and the third on the Mennonites. Unlike my other travelogues that emphasize tourism, this one underscores the sobering reality of life among the local indigenous.

Paraguay’s indigenous people comprise less than one percent of its population but have an outsized influence on its culture. Most Paraguayans descended from indigenous and European ancestry. An indigenous language, Guaraní, is one of two official languages of Paraguay (the other is Spanish) and is spoken by most Paraguayans. The country’s official currency is the guarani.

In 2009, an estimated 108,000 indigenous persons lived in Paraguay, 46,000 of whom resided in the Chaco. Most belonged to subgroups of the Guarani ethnic group, the largest indigenous group in Paraguay. Local Exnet communities are affiliated with the Maskoy (toba-maskoy) indigenous group.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (1)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (2)

Life can be harsh for the indigenous living in the dry western portion of Paraguay, an area prone to severe droughts. Many work for local employers such as Mennonite cooperatives or private ranches, earning wages and benefits provided by “assurance associations” that support indigenous communities with medical care, fresh water and other basic services. Some own their own land and cultivate crops that they sell as cash crops. The Paraguayan government and a few non-governmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to helping the indigenous provide fresh water, education, and other services. The remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the Chaco hinders assistance.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (3)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (4)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (5)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (6)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (7)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (8)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (9)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (10)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (11)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (12)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (13)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (14)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (15)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (16)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (17)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (18)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (19)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (20)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (37)

The indigenous I met during a visit in 2009 appeared adequately nourished and clothed. Nevertheless, many lived in poor conditions. Their homes were constructed from cinder block, wood, or available materials including aluminum sheeting, cardboard, tarps, and chicken wire. Some, particularly those living near Mennonite towns such as Filadelfia, Loma Plata, and Colonia Neuland, had access to basic services such as wells, fresh water, schools, health clinics, and community centers. Many who lived in more rural areas did not. Most lacked electricity and telephone service.

Although the International Labor Organization, U.S. Department of Labor, and some NGOs have claimed that child and forced labor occurs in the Chaco, the situation is more complicated than analysts, many of whom have never visited the region and rely on outdated information and indirect sources, have described it. While wages were generally low and some employers have used unfair tactics such as restricted freedom of movement to coerce employees, most Chaco employers in 2009 paid indigenous workers minimum wage or more with a percentage of indigenous’ salaries set aside to support local assurance associations that offered indigenous benefits such as health care. Repeated accusations that local employers committed child and forced labor abuses and the increased scrutiny over ranchers’ treatment of the indigenous led some to substitute indigenous workers with non-indigenous laborers, creating a situation in which labor abuse claims contributed to indigenous unemployment.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (21)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (22)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (23)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (24)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (25)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (26)

A pressing issue that has received little international attention because it doesn’t fit neatly into global human rights agendas is the communities’ chronic lack of fresh water caused by persistent drought cycles made worse by climate change. When I visited in 2009, the Paraguayan Chaco was having one of its worst droughts in recent memory with bone dry or contaminated water tanks and reservoirs. The region had had no rainfall for more than six months.

Although the government is responsible for providing some communities with water storage and deliveries of fresh water, distances and drought conditions make assistance difficult. Because most wells produce salty water suitable for agricultural purposes but unfit for human consumption, local communities buy fresh water with the money they earn from agriculture or rely on assistance from assurance associations for potable water.

Meanwhile, those who have advocated indigenous rights have turned a blind eye to this pressing problem to focus on more sensational — and less urgent — issues that are more apt to receive international attention and funding. It’s abundantly clear to anyone who visits the Chaco that the biggest issue affecting the indigenous is an inadequate water supply — complicated by the fact that drilling wells won’t solve the problem.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (27)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (28)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (29)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (30)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (32)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (33)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (34)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (35)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (36)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (31)

The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa Exnet communities lived in arguably the bleakest conditions of any I visited. In 2009, families from both groups were ensconced on the shoulders of rural Highway 6 near the town of Pozo Colorado, squatting next to private ranches that had annexed land once belonging to the indigenous. They had no local access to water; could not drill wells because of the salty water table; had difficulty growing crops because the sandy soil and limited space; and lacked access to electricity even though power lines passed overhead. The Paraguayan government delivered food and water weekly, but water shortages forced some to drink contaminated water from open cesspools. Some worked on private ranches for low wages and few benefits.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), to which Paraguay is a party, ruled that these communities had been unjustly evicted from their native lands by local ranchers in the 1980s and held the Paraguayan government liable. In 2005, the IACHR determined that the government had violated the rights of 64 Yakye Axa families and mandated that it remit monetary compensation and 16,000 hectares of land. It ruled in favor of the 19 Sawhoyamaxa families in 2006 and imposed similar penalties, including a remit of 15,000 hectares of land. The Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa refused to move until the government compensated them with land.

Amnesty International reported that the Sawhoyamaxa families were compensated with land in September 2011 and the Yakye Axa as well in February 2012, enabling them to relocate, at long last, to their new homes. Paraguay, to its credit, has made efforts to comply fully with the IACHR rulings. I was delighted to learn that the situation had been favorably resolved for these families and hope that they no longer live in the homes shown in the photos below.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (38)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (39)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (40)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (41)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (42)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (43)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (44)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (45)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (46)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (47)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (48)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (49)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (50)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (51)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (52)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (53)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (54)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (55)

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous (56)

A cattle ranch on land claimed by the Yakye Axa.

2009_06_20 Paraguay Indigenous

The time I spent in the Paraguayan Chaco had a profound influence on me. It made me appreciate life more and not take for granted what I have in abundance. I admire the strength and fortitude of the local residents, from the Mennonites who have worked hard to turn semiarid desert into an agriculture bread basket, to the indigenous who have struggled to eke out a living with meager means in a harsh climate.

The Chaco is a place lost in time and unknown to most. Those who live there survive, and even thrive, in obscurity. It’s my hope that my series on the Chaco has brought this fascinating place to life for readers who might never have given it another thought and highlighted the triumphs and tragedies that make it the truly unique place that it is.

More about the Chaco

How You Can Help

If you want to learn more about the indigenous in Paraguay or to lend your support, contact the following organizations. I have no affiliation or connection with them but know that they are dedicated Paraguayan NGOs.

Map picture

 

buythumbM.G. Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. He is author of Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill, a non-fiction account of his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories. His books are available as an e-book and in print on Amazon.com and other booksellers. He lived in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009 and now in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex.

For more books or stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com or his blog, World Adventurers. Contact him at me@mgedwards.com, on Facebook, on Google+, or @m_g_edwards on Twitter.

© 2012 Brilliance Press. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted without the written consent of the author.

Advertisements

The Mennonites of Paraguay


Special thanks to fiction writer Juliette Wade for hosting the third article in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region about the Mennonites of Paraguay.

Click here to read the article.

Juliette’s blog, TalkToYoUniverse, features the fabulous Writers’ International Cultural Share, a forum where writers can share their cultural experiences and insights from around the world. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute an article about the Mennonites to this cultural share.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Mennonites (7)

About Juliette Wade

Juliette is a fiction writer with several published works, including the short story, "Let the Word Take Me," appearing in the July/August 2008 issue of Analog Magazine. Her novelette, "Cold Words," appeared in the same magazine in October 2009. In October 2009, she achieved one of her major goals by signing with The Grayson Agency. "The Eminence’s Match" has since appeared in the Eight Against Reality anthology (July 2010). A novelette entitled, "At Cross Purposes" led the January/February 2011 issue of Analog, with cover art by Bob Eggleton. Originally from the Monterey Bay area of California, Juliette holds a Ph.D in Education and has lived in Japan three times, where she met her Australian husband. She has also taught the Japanese language. Visit her blog to learn more about her stories.

More About the Chaco

Earlier articles in my series on Paraguay’s western region focused on Filadelfia, the area’s largest town, and the rural Chaco. The final post will highlight the local indigenous community.

buythumbM.G. Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. He is author of Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill, a non-fiction account of his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories. His books are available as an e-book and in print on Amazon.com and other booksellers. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex.

For more books or stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com or his blog, World Adventurers. Contact him at me@mgedwards.com, on Facebook, on Google+, or @m_g_edwards on Twitter.

© 2012 Brilliance Press. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted without the written consent of the author.

The Paraguayan Chaco


This is the second article in a series on Paraguay’s Chaco region with highlights from the area. The first focused on Filadelfia, its largest town. Other posts will feature the local Mennonite and indigenous communities. Enjoy photos and stories from one of Paraguay’s most intriguing places.

If you are looking for a trip off the beaten path, try visiting the Chaco region of Paraguay. It’s quite the trip (figuratively and literally). My family and I headed to the “Wild West” of South America, in August 2008. It’s a fun destination for those who enjoy rural tourism and exploring scenic beauty. The Chaco has many hidden gems to discover — wildlife, livestock, farmland, salt lagoons, historic battlefields, dry terrain, and the local culture.

We spent a day driving in the back country on dirt and gravel roads. We passed palm trees and lapachos (jacaranda trees) with flowers that seemed to glow in the sunlight. The flowers of different lapachos bloom at different times of the year in bright yellow, orange, or lavender. We saw Mennonite ranches (estancias) with grazing cattle and crop fields. We drove through swaths of barren land with dead trees, disheveled earth, and patches of salt residue left behind by flash floods. The water table under the Chaco is salty and non-potable, so local residents must collect and preserve as much water as they can during the rainy season (November-February) in order to weather the brutal dry season (May-August). Hollow dirt mounds serve as water reservoirs for the estancias.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (1)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (2)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (3)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (4)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (5)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (6)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (7)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (8)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (9)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (10)

We headed from Filadelfia to Isla Po’i, where we toured an experimental agriculture farm run by the Mennonites. We saw fields of cotton and mustard, two crops the Mennonites planned to introduce as cash crops.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (11)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (12)

At Isla Po’I, we toured the ruins of a former Paraguayan military staging area used during the Chaco War (1932-35). The national monument is one of several dedicated to Paraguay’s victory over the Bolivians. The statue is of Mariscal José Félix Estigarribia, Paraguay’s military commander during the war and one of the country’s most celebrated heroes. The bomb shell and tank tracks were left behind by the Bolivians.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (13)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (14)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (15)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (16)

We continued on to the Yakaré Sur saltwater lagoon, a sanctuary for flamingos and other birds in the heart of the semi-arid Chaco. It’s a great place for bird watching. The view from the observation tower is gorgeous – one of the few places where you can survey the Chaco for miles in all directions.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (17)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (18)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (19)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (20)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (21)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (22)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (23)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (24)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (25)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (26)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (27)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (28)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (29)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (30)

We drove not far from Yakaré Sur to a Mennonite estancia. The scene looked idyllic with grazing cows, green pastures, windmills, and landscapes dotted with palm trees and jacarandas.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (31)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (32)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (33)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (34)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (35)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (36)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (37)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (38)

It’s easy to get lost in the back roads even with GPS, the road conditions are unpredictable, and the best places to can be hard to find. As a result, it’s advisable to hire a local guide for a half day (U.S.$90 in 2008) or full day ($150 in 2008) trip who can show you what the Chaco has to offer. Most roads are unpaved and chock full of potholes. Consider using the guide’s vehicle (an additional $150) to spare your own from wear and tear. If you drive in the Chaco, bring plenty of food and water, and be prepared for roadside emergencies. Your guide can help you navigate the myriad roads that crisscross the area.

Most of all, don’t forget to bring the tereré, a beverage made with yerba mate leaves. It’s the drink of choice in Paraguay, and you will make new friends and feel more at home in Paraguay. Enjoy a cup with your guide.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (40)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (39)

After driving more than 100 miles (160 kilometers), we opted not to visit two other attractions, Fortin Boquerón, a historic site from the Chaco War, and Fortin Toledo, home of the Tagua Reserve, a reserve for the endangered tagua boar (peccary). It’s impossible to see all the major points of interest in the Chaco in one day.

Our adventure continued when we returned to AsunciĂłn via the Trans-Chaco Highway. During the five-hour drive, we saw herds of cattle grazing amid fields of grass peppered with palm trees; fields charred by wildfires; igloo-size brick ovens; and cowboys (gauchos) herding cattle. We enjoyed taking in the wide open spaces and flatlands of western Paraguay.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (41)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (42)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (43)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (44)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (45)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (46)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (47)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (48)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (49)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (50)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (51)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (52)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (53)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (54)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (55)

If you have the opportunity to visit Paraguay and the time for a few out-of-the-way excursions, head to the Chaco. Plan to take at least four days to see sites such as Filadelfia that are easily accessible from the Trans-Chaco Highway. For more remote locations such as Cerro LeĂłn (Lion Hill) in Parque Nacional del Defensores del Chaco (National Park of the Defenders of the Chaco), set aside at least a week, hire a guide, and expect to rough it.

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (56)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (57)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (59)

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco

2008_08_31 Paraguay Chaco (58)

More about the Chaco

  • Filadelfia, the capital of BoquerĂłn Province and the largest town in the Chaco
Map picture

 

This is an update with photos of an article I posted in September 2008. Click here to read the original post.

buythumbM.G. Edwards is a writer of books and stories in the mystery, thriller and science fiction-fantasy genres. He also writes travel adventures. He is author of Kilimanjaro: One Man’s Quest to Go Over the Hill, a non-fiction account of his attempt to summit Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain and a collection of short stories called Real Dreams: Thirty Years of Short Stories. His books are available as an e-book and in print on Amazon.com and other booksellers. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife Jing and son Alex.

For more books or stories by M.G. Edwards, visit his web site at www.mgedwards.com or his blog, World Adventurers. Contact him at me@mgedwards.com, on Facebook, on Google+, or @m_g_edwards on Twitter.

© 2012 Brilliance Press. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted without the written consent of the author.