After losing its land to ranchers 15 years ago, Paraguay’s Yakye Axa community hopes now to return to its traditional way of life: a 2005 court decision is finally being implemented.
The Paraguayan Chaco is a rugged, harsh and inhospitable region. A dry and desolate, palm-tree-dotted landscape the size of the United Kingdom, with one of the earth’s lowest population densities.
Traditionally, the Chaco is home to Paraguay’s indigenous populations, who for centuries lived on the lands, hunting, fishing and growing crops. Since the early twentieth century, and with the mass colonization of the territory by European farmers, many of these groups have been displaced.
About 370 kilometers (230 miles) from Paraguay's capital Asuncion, around 90 families live by the edge of a busy highway. Their makeshift wooden huts lie opposite 15,000 hectares of land - land that was once theirs, but is now used for cattle ranching. This is the community of the Yakye Axa and they have lived by the roadside, in exile, for over 15 years.
Outside her roughly crafted wooden shack, Innocenia Gomez sits on a fallen tree branch with a few of her neighbors. Nearby, several children are taking turns riding an old bicycle up and down the half-kilometer (550-yard) strip of makeshift houses.
Visible in the distance from the roadside settlement is a cattle ranch. The farm absorbed the group's land sometime in the early twentieth century. In 1984, having spent years working for the ranchers and suffering exploitation, the Yakye Axa community moved north to a new area of land in response to an invitation by the Anglican Church. The arrangement didn't work out, and when the Yakye Axa tried to return to their old territory, they were moved on.
In February, a deal was reached between the Paraguayan government and a private landowner. The Yakye Axa were finally given the go-ahead to return to 12,000 hectares of their traditional land. Such an agreement was long overdue - seven years ago the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Paraguayan authorities to return the land to the group. The ruling also required the government provide a $950,000 (723,000-euro) development fund to be used for housing, water and sanitation in the area.
This deal will allow the community to rebuild and return to their traditional way of life, where working the land, fishing and hunting ensured them an income and a source of food.
"The most important thing is the people can now live in peace and hope and have some perspective for the future," said Lorna Quiora, a research and field worker for Tierraviva, an NGO campaigning for indigenous Paraguayans' rights. "It's also very important because it's an example for other [indigenous] communities in Paraguay and other countries," she added.
Gomez and the rest of the community are now waiting for a road to be built to their new home, some 60 kilometers (37 miles) away from their roadside camp. In the meantime, dire conditions in the makeshift settlement continue.
Vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory illnesses are extremely common, especially amongst children. Polluted water in the nearby lake, which is used by the community for washing and cooking, is the main reason for this. A doctor is supposed to visit the commune twice a month, but realistically these visits are rare. The nearest hospital is 65 kilometers away.
"We've had many deaths here in the community," said Gomez. "People are always sick because of insufficient and poor quality water and food. The government doesn't provide the supplies we need. In an emergency situation it's very difficult to get to the hospital - sometimes we don't have fuel for our truck or by the time we do get to the hospital it's too late."
A wooden hut serves as a school - it can accommodate 40 pupils, but is rarely attended and the teacher seldom comes to teach. Most of the children are too malnourished to concentrate. Food packages sporadically provided by the government lack adequate nutrition for growing children.
Andresa Solano has three children; all they know is a life beside the roadway. She earns $46 (35 euros) a month cleaning the house of a local landowner. Her husband, like many men in the community, is forced to work as a poorly paid laborer for the farmers who occupy their former land. Other members of the community manage to make a living by collecting honey to sell at the roadside or by hunting illegally in the farmlands.
"We suffer a lot," said Solano. "We hardly have anything to eat - we're starving. When we get ill we have to wait for the doctor, but usually they don't come. This is our life."
Part of a greater problem
Sadly, the case of the Yayke Axa is neither extreme nor unique in Paraguay. According to the latest census, held in 2002, there are 87,000 indigenous people among Paraguay's six million inhabitants. Of the 182 indigenous communities, 85 have no land and live in extreme poverty.
"It's important to explain what losing land means to these people," said Rosa Lia Vega, director of Amnesty International Paraguay. "When they lose their land, they have to migrate to the big cities, and there they suffer violations of their human rights because they do not have the capacity to defend themselves in a world they do not know. We're talking about these people having the right to choose how they want to live, and when people steal their lands they don't have that choice anymore. This is prohibited by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
Author: Sam Cowie / ew
Editor: Jessie Wingard