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  HOME | Latin America (Click here for more)

Indians Struggling to Survive Along Highway in Paraguay

By Ricardo Grance

POZO COLORADO, Paraguay – Members of several Indian tribes in Paraguay’s piece of the Chaco region are struggling to survive by selling handicrafts along the only highway connecting the country with neighboring Bolivia.

Indians from the Toba-Qom community are camped out along the road like other groups of indigenous people living beside the Ruta Transchaco, which crosses the Chaco from northwest to southeast, linking Santa Cruz, Bolivia, to Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital.

Chief Ramon Gonzalez, 62, told Efe in Guarani – an Indian tongue that enjoys official status in Paraguay – that a few years ago they found themselves forced to abandon their lands because of lack of water and food, and they settled near a farm and now are living in rickety shacks.

“The poor man, to feed his family, has to try very hard, because here they don’t give us any work. We make hats, baskets, bags, fans of palm leaves and we live (along the roadside) because that way we can show our wares” to passersby, he said.

Gonzalez, who along with his wife, children and grandchildren, lives in this desolate spot on the Chaco plain, said – however – that his main source of food continues to be hunting animals like armadillos, deer and wild boar.

“If we get sick and it’s not serious, we have our medicinal plants, but in other cases we have to depend on ourselves to get to hospitals, since at times we don’t have anything for the (bus) fare. The medical centers are rather far away,” he said.

To get water to drink, they depend exclusively on the goodwill of nearby ranchers who allow them to enter their land and draw water from the ponds and breakwaters, which during times of rain collect water for the cattle.

There is practically no state presence here, Gonzalez said, though he added that sometimes they are visited by an official or two, but those encounters don’t provide them with any benefits.

“They visit us, promise things, but they never return. They see how we live, how we suffer because we’re near the road and now it’s winter (in the Southern Hemisphere), the children are cold, they don’t have coats and go barefoot, but (the officials) don’t do anything,” he said.

Gonzalez also recalled that last summer – December through March – and in the cyclical drought that hits the Chaco region he and his neighbors started feeling very uncertain about “not knowing where to go,” but he acknowledged that on that occasion they received a visit from some officials from the National Emergency Secretariat who gave them drinking water.

Another example of the meager existence lived by the Indians can be seen in the Yakye Axa tribe, whose members have been abandoned to their fate despite the fact that the Inter-American Human Rights Court ordered the Paraguayan state almost four years ago to reintegrate them onto their ancestral lands.

In August 2004, the Yakye Axa were dispered with gunfire from their settlement, covering 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres), and currently they are living along the Transchaco highway while their former home is occupied by agribusiness concerns and individual farmers and ranchers.

In another ruling, in mid-2006, the Inter-American Court ordered the Paraguayan state within three years to restore lands of 18,000 hectares to the Sawhoyamaxa indigenous community.

That ruling, which has not been adhered to, obligates the state to provide potable water to the Indians and ongoing medical care for members of that tribe, which forms part of Paraguay’s slightly more than 100,000 ethnic Indians.

Ninety-five percent of the poor, landlocked nation’s 6.7 million people are mestizo: mixed European and Indian.

In Asuncion, the situation of several indigenous communities who left their settlements seeking better living conditions is also not encouraging.

Hundreds of members of several communities remain camped out after several months in precarious tents in minimal subsistance conditions in a public plaza right in the capital’s downtown.

And dozens of indigenous children and mothers with babies in their arms beg for coins at Asuncion’s busiest intersections. EFE

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