Paraguay: Indigenous community records rare land rights victory

Indigenous community in Paraguay wins battle to return to their ancestral lands, having been forcibly evicted decades ago. But justice is still far from done across rest of the country.

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The Sawhoyamaxa, who have been forced to live in makeshift slums on the side of a highway, are to be allowed to regain their ancestral lands. Photo courtesy of Getty Images via BBC.

Indigenous groups in Paraguay are celebrating a remarkable victory in a land rights dispute, after President Horacio Cartes signed into law a bill that legislated for a vast tract of ancestral land to be returned to the Sawhoyamaxa community. It marks the first time that the Paraguayan state has ruled in favour of one of its many indigenous groups in a land dispute of this nature, and brings to an end a battle carried out by the Sawhoyamaxa for more than two decades.

During the regime of the former Paraguayan dictator General Afredo Stroessner, one of Latin America’s longest-lasting strongmen with a rule that stretched from 1954 to 1989, the Sawhoyamaxa – who are from the Enxet ethnicity – were displaced from an area totalling some 14,404 hectares that formed part of their ancestral territories in the north-western Chaco region of Paraguay. This expulsion took place after the acquisition of the land by the German businessman and landowner, Heribert Roedel. The Sawhoyamaxa claimed that they had been illegally forced off their land, which had belonged to them for many generations, and in 1991 brought their case before Paraguayan courts, but failed to get anywhere.

In the meantime, they were forced to live in makeshift settlements on the side of a highway that cuts through the Chaco region, constituting an imposing border between the Sawhoyamaxa and their former land, which was instead taken over by cattle being reared for beef production. They were subjected to conditions of severe poverty, lacking in basic services such as food, water and sanitation, and their leaders claim that since then dozens of community members have died due to the poor sanitary conditions or road accidents caused by their proximity to the highway.

The precarious positioning of the community’s refuge alongside a major highway led to dozens of deaths in road accidents. Photo courtesy of Amnesty International.

After years of attempts to take legal action against their modern-day conquistadores, in 2001 the Sawhoyamaxa abandoned the narrow legal avenues provided by the Paraguayan justice system, and took their battle abroad to the Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CorteIDH – Inter-American Court of Human Rights). In 2006 the organisation, regarded as one of the foremost authorities on human rights in the Western Hemisphere, ruled that the Sawhoyamaxa had indeed been illegally removed from their land by Roedel, and gave the Paraguayan state three years in which to comply with the resolution by returning the land to its rightful owners.

However, efforts to make this happen were unsuccessful, as Roedel – who had been convicted of fraud in his home country during the 1980s – refused to comply with approaches by Paraguayan authorities to purchase his land. Instead, the government offered financial compensation to the Sawhoyamaxa, but naturally this was considered to fall far short of what the community really wanted and needed: to return to their ancestral lands where they would be able to engage in traditional agricultural and hunting practices, rather than being stuck in debilitating conditions under the unrelenting sun of the Gran Chaco.

The Sawhoyamaxa remained hopeful, though, and in the final weeks of the government of former President Federico Franco, in 2013, were able to claim a notable step forward when the government introduced a bill that would expropriate the disputed land and force Roedel to return it to its historic indigenous owners. Congress finally passed the legislation in May, leaving President Cartes free to officially sign it into law on 11 June.

Now, so long as the government complies with its own law, the more than 600 members of the Sawhoyamaxa community will be able to leave their roadside slums behind and return to their traditional way of life, hopefully ensuring their cultural survival while at the same time marking the biggest legal victory of any indigenous group in Paraguayan history. “We are very grateful to be able to return to our land, which is like our mother”, said Leonardo González, one of the group’s leaders, in conversation with BBC Mundo. “This gives us life, and allows us to have contact once again with our forests and our traditional medicines”.

Another leader, Carlos Mareco, told Amnesty International: “We Indigenous people cry only when we have achieved our freedom. Today, it is like we are coming out of a prison, so many of us are crying because it is so emotional”. Aparicia González, a community member, added: “I am very happy but I’m crying because my grandmother, my father and many of my family did not have the chance that I have today to enjoy our land. I’m grateful to everyone!”

Ricardo Morínigo, from the Tierraviva – a Paraguayan NGO dedicated to the wellbeing of the country’s various indigenous groups – told BBC Mundo that the victory was thanks to the sustained pressure placed on Paraguay’s lawmakers by campaigns in favour of indigenous land rights, not only from the Sawhoyamaxa themselves but from other advocacy groups both within Paraguay and abroad. “Paraguay is the only country in the world which has three sentences from [the CorteIDH] against it concerning cases of violation of indigenous peoples’ rights”, he added. “Even though the process has been slow, thanks to the work of the communities themselves and the NGOs accompanying them, these achievements have been made”.

Tierraviva, a local NGO, has been instrumental in helping the Sawhoyamaxa and other indigenous groups fight for their rights. Image via Tierraviva.

Morínigo’s comments testify to a situation that remains critical in Paraguay, and which makes the Sawhoyamaxa’s victory all the more impressive. Land disputes between indigenous peoples – who officially make up 1.7% of Paraguay’s population although many believe the true figure to be much higher – and landowners are common in rural Paraguay, especially in recent years with the proliferation of enormous estates often owned by multinational companies looking to cash in on the country’s booming beef and soybean industries.

In 2010 the Xákmok Kásek tribe earned a ruling in their favour from the CorteIDH, and while the government has indicated it is trying to resolve the issue with the landowners involved, four years later they are still waiting to return to their land. A similar fate has fallen on the Yakye Axa, who got their ruling from the CorteIDH in 2012. When asked by BBC Mundo if the Sawhoyamaxa’s success and moves in the right direction for other communities represented a change in attitude by the Paraguayan government towards the country’s indigenous groups, Morínigo gave the opinion that this wasn’t the case: “The state has complied [with the CorteIDH ruling], that is for certain”. “But while they are paying some communities, they continue to expel others”, he said in allusion to the fact that indigenous communities still routinely face expropriation of their land in order to make way for giant agri-businesses and other powerful land interests. Just days after Cartes signed the law giving the Sawhoyamaxa their land back, the Y’apo tribe were attacked by privately-hired security groups in an attempt to force them from their land.

Indigenous people are generally among the most deprived among a Paraguayan population which is already one of the poorest in Latin America. Paraguay is widely seen as one of Latin America’s least developed countries, as well as one of the most unequal. Political instability and weak democratic institutions have been prevalent throughout much of Paraguay’s history since it became an independent country 200 years ago, thwarting attempts at social development for the more marginalised sectors of society. The restitution of land to indigenous peoples is one way of attempting to correct some of the wrongs of Paraguay’s social history, but shifting the underlying poverty found across the country’s population will be a far taller order.

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