FILADELFIA, Paraguay – The Enlhet Indians of Paraguay’s Upper Chaco region have been the victims of the Bolivian and Paraguayan armies’ repression during the 1932-1935 Chaco War, as well as of the expansion of cattle ranches, which have wiped out a good deal of the forests.
The Enlhet, one of the last surviving native communities in the Paraguayan Chaco, have lost 98 percent of their territory in the past nine decades because of atrocities during the war, which left 50,000 Bolivians and 40,000 Paraguayans dead, and the unrestricted settlement of Mennonites.
The Enlhet communities are located a few kilometers from Filadelfia, the main settlement of the Mennonities, a religious group that has focused on cattle ranching and farming since its arrival in Paraguay in the 1920s.
Since then, the stories of the Chaco Indians and the European migrants, who headed to the Americas fleeing religious persecution, have become entangled.
Hanes Kalisch, a German linguist who has been living in the Enlhet community of Boqueron for decades and speaks the Indians’ language, told Efe the remaining groups are still struggling to keep their lands, language and culture, which vanish gradually with each new generation.
“The territory lost is by now irretrievable since deforestation has reached their lagoons,” said Kalisch, who has produced documentaries to record and preserve Enlhet history. “The struggle is about subsistence, since memory and customs are lost as this people have been decimated.”
A community initiative has gained the support of the Paraguayan government, placing signs at different places in the Mennonite colonies to mark important sites in Enlhet history and culture, a project opposed by the settlers, who protest when people with cameras approach the signs.
The project, “The Country of the Enlhet,” aims to identify symbolic places where ancestors fished, hunted or gathered.
Some of the sites are outside and others inside the urban area of what is now the Mennonite settlement of Neuland.
Lack of government control over many decades allowed widespread deforestation, isolating the natives’ communities due to the absence of infrastructure in the region, Kalisch said.
The Gran Chaco, South America’s second-largest forested area and designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, is shared by Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, and it is the region of the world with the fastest rate of deforestation, affecting the ecosystem, native populations and peasants, Kalisch said.
Some 2,300 hectares (5,700 acres) of land are deforested in Paraguay each month, environmental group Guyra Paraguay said.