In the furthest corner of the Bolivian Chaco a Guaraní village resists Western civilization ​

By Sandra Weiss

 

Never before has anyone important visited Tentayape, this lost village in the

remotest corner of the Bolivian Chaco, situated a 12-hour drive from the provincial towns of Santa Cruz and Sucre. Once upon a time Che Guevara wanted to spread the revolution there - only to find a hero’s death, because nobody wanted to join him. Even the next one–horse town, Iguembe, is still a four hour drive away. On a bumpy dirt track one has to cross the same river, the Iguembe, 63 times, until one reaches Tentayape, assuming one doesn’t get stuck in treacherous sand and the river isn’t in flood. No one would ever take that ordeal upon themselves, no mayor, no governor, and no member of congress and that was a good thing. Hadn’t the Guarani fled here to retreat from the world’s problems, from the stress, from the consumerism, from lies and deceit?

 

And now, of all people, the President of Bolivia, Evo Morales. A crazy idea of Capitán, the tribal leader, he’s only gone and invited the head of state and his Presidential football team to the annual tournament of Tentayape. Where not even the team from the neighbouring village comes.

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The last place where a centuries-old culture still opposes Western civilisation.

Normally, Yariguira Cañani does not smoke, at least not much, but now he wants a cigarette. The stocky man with the fine moustache nervously drums his fingers on the dashboard, his eyes fixed on the track, over which the decrepit small truck jerks. Thorny scrubland passes right and left, deep gorges with muddy brown rivers. But Yari, as everyone calls him for ease, is not looking at the view. The captain has given him an order and it has to be fulfilled. These are the rock solid principles of the Guaraní Indians: be diligent, don’t steal, don’t lie, obey the elders. Even if the job seems bizarre: To get a toilet for the President.

Not an easy task, even for Yari, Capitán's assistant, who knows what a loo is because he lived in the city for nine years and graduated from high school. In three days the President will come and in Tentayape there are no toilets. In Tentayape there isn’t much: no electricity, no school, no health post, no church. Tentayape means "the last house”, a quite literal translation. This is the remainder of the proud Guaraní Empire that once stretched across parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. The last place where a centuries-old culture still opposes Western civilisation. Their ancestors were taken to settlements by the Jesuits and converted to Christianity and a settled life. In exchange the Jesuits offered protection from extermination by the Spanish conquerors. In the 1930s, Bolivia and Paraguay began the Chaco War,  slaughtering for honour, access to the sea and a piece of land. Because the Criollos, the sons of the indigenous elite, did not want to fight, the Guaraní were forcibly recruited from both sides, even though they didn’t know if they were Bolivians or Paraguayans. They fell as cannon fodder in one of the bloodiest wars in South America. The Capitán's father, Bacuire Guarindú, was also enlisted with his tribe. But he saw no sense in slaughtering his brothers and fled with some other families. To no man's land, where no one would find him.

In-between, there is plenty of time to talk, to be quiet, to chew the coca leaves and to drink the fermented corn brew, chicha.

Now ironically, into this no-man's land comes the President. "A beer would be good," Yari mumbles, wiping sweat from his forehead with a faded jaguar print towel. He looks steadily at the driver but he just shakes his head. Suggestion, is the Guaraní way. Great gestures and loud talking are not for them. The driver has nothing and there is still a long way to go before the next settlement. It is eleven o'clock in the morning and the sun burns relentlessly on the red earth, whose fine powdery dust covers the white truck like red powdered sugar.

Scattered across 20,000 hectares live 600 inhabitants. In straw-covered mud huts, hidden in the undergrowth to the left and right of the river. If you didn’t know that people live there, they would be overlooked, so smoothly do they merge with the surrounding nature.

 

They live as old Bacuire did in earlier days. In 120 extended families. The women wrapped in long, colourful dresses, the men braid their long hair, wrap the braids in a cloth and tie it around their heads. They get up with the sun and go to sleep just after sunset, like their chickens who are look for a resting place in the trees. In-between, there is plenty of time to talk, to be quiet, to chew the coca leaves and to drink the fermented corn brew, chicha. The women pound the corn by hand and thresh the beans with wooden sticks before separating the chaff from the bean kernels in reed sieves. The Women's lives revolve around children and the kitchen. The men take care of the animals, the firewood and the fields.

It is a frugal life. "I grow my beans, my peanuts and my corn and know that I can feed my family for a year," says Yari. He is 36, is married to one of Capitán’s daughters and has three children. "In the city, you have to worry about making money every day and then you go shopping and its all gone," he knows from experience. And the noise and the rush and the thieves ... No, that's no life for him. That's why he came back. In his village, where there is no rape, no divorces and where the children can laugh and play all day, because there is no school. “In the city you learn only unimportant things and it sows discord," says the Capitán. Yari came back with a diploma, some money, modern clothes, no braids and with a wristwatch and a mobile phone. This doesn’t help him to make phone calls, because in Tentayape there is no reception, but it’s something of a status symbol. Photos can be taken with it. And when you're on the road, it's a useful thing to have. Because Yari, who studied Spanish, is often on the road. He is the liaison to the outside world. That's why he has to get the toilet now.

The gorges and the red rocks have given way to a lovely, shady sandy path between tall trees. "Stop!" Yari orders. "There is the uncle." Far and wide there is no one to be seen. The "Uncle" is a handsome deciduous tree on the border of the free Guaraní empire, and he must be asked for permission if you pass by here. Yari spreads out a few coca leaves, puts a burning cigarette in the trunk, and murmurs a few evocative words in Guaraní. The Guaraní god Tumpa is good, but his assistants, the Iyas, who care for important things like water, sun, and fertility, are bitchy creatures that need to be kept in a good mood. For example, with a payment. Or prayers when nothing else works. As with the construction of the aqueduct, thanks to which each of the widely scattered Guaraní families now has clean water throughout the year, from a source in the mountains. Even during the dry season, when the river seeps away. First, the Iya in question played a lot of pranks on them, the pipes burst, the water did not make it over the mountain, even though the engineers pulled their hair and recalculated their formulas three times. Until the shaman went to the Iya and offered him some prayers and sacrifices. Since then its been fine. The water pipe was a big thing. It was repeatedly debated in endless sessions of the Wise Men's circle. Because how much modernity is allowed in the village is an existential question for Tentayape. The Guaraní want to rule over progress, not be slaves to it.

"Stop!" Yari orders. "There is the uncle." Far and wide there is no one to be seen. The "Uncle" is a handsome deciduous tree on the border of the free Guaraní empire, and he must be asked for permission if you pass by here.

More challenging than the rain, the Guarani prepare for drought. It causes the beans and corn to wither and die, then the Guarani have to sell their animals or look for work elsewhere so as not to starve. Some guard the cattle of the landowners around Tentayape. Or they go to the oil companies. Because under the thorny shrubs on the steppe are millions of cubic meters of gas. And that is highly desirable. The foreign oil companies, who have the extraction know-how, want a piece of the cake, as does the State which needs money to finance its social and infrastructure programs in the poorest country of South America. Brazil and Argentina want the gas to boost their growing economies. Only the Guaraní of Tentayape want nothing to do with oil prospecting exploits, pipelines and wells. That's why they have fought for nine years to get land titles and to have their community declared a "National Heritage" and that's why they now travel to Igüembe more frequently to see if their village will or will not be proclaimed an "Autonomous Guaraní Republic”. The new constitution, inspired by President Evo Morales, provides for such Statutes of Autonomy.

After two hours driving, having covered barely 30 kilometres,  Yari has reached modernity. The stony paths make way for a wide gravel road, with drainage and heaps of traffic signs. "Please keep right", "Top speed 50 km/h”. At the lower right corner is the logo “Kindly donated by Repsol”, the licensee of Margarita’s gas field. Yari's cell phone now has reception and while out the window passes schools, football fields, and the airport - “Repsol." Yari phones to announce his arrival to the Techint's company communications officer, who is relocating the gas pipeline.

“It’s nice to have the road, but now there are more carays, more whites", fears the little man with the many wrinkles and a scowl. "Traders, missionaries, cattle thieves."

Oscar Funes is Argentinian and has been living for a year and a half in the prefabricated buildings with showers and air-conditioned tents with a communal toilet, in the inhospitable Chaco. He's in a good mood, because the project has gone without any major hitches, and soon he will be allowed to return home. He warmly welcomes the Guaraní delegates.

"What do you need?" He asks jovially. He likes the people from Tentayape. He has no problems with them. The pipeline does not pass through their territory and the 20 men hired from there are diligent.

Repsol have other ideas about Tentayape. The Spanish energy company had sent a delegation to the village some time ago and then offered a paper to Capitán for signature. "Just a confirmation that we were here and talked," they said.

The Capitán, almost blind and unable to read and write, placed his fingerprint, unknowingly giving approval for petroleum prospecting. When the first seismologists came and started detonating, there was a great commotion - but legally, the Guaraní could do nothing. A delegation traveled to La Paz to petition the President.

 

Evo Morales iis a Highland Indian and understands that the mining of resources is the basis for the development of Bolivia. But his political instinct told him that he should show solidarity with the lowland Indians, and in gratitude they invited him to a football game. "As you know from our previous conversation, the President will come with a large delegation, and it is not easy for us, ..." Yari mummers in a low voice. In his community, he is one of those who will speak up if he has something to say. But he does not like begging for favours, to owe someone. "Do you have a written list?” asks Funes. Yari nods and presents a hand-written sheet. Funes scans the list, makes a few phone calls and puts a stamp on the paper. "I have gasoline for your bus, I can lend you chairs, tables, chairs and mattresses, but unfortunately I have no tents," says Funes. Other papers like Yari’s pile up on his desk.

"Just a confirmation that we were here and talked," they said.

The Capitán, almost blind and unable to read and write, put his fingerprint, unknowingly giving approval for petroleum prospecting.

The oil companies are king in this godforsaken area. The surrounding communities want schools, soccer fields, common rooms, health posts, building material for houses, fountains. A road and electricity came in the same package with the oil field. Things that the state does not do and that are recorded on the expense bill by the transnational corporations. Social investment in exchange for calm, and everyone is satisfied. Only not Yari, not yet.

 

“And the toilet?" He asks carefully. "Well, we have some, but they are not complete, the water cistern is missing," says Funes. Yari beams. He wants the toilets anyway. A task is a task. “we’ll pick everything up on the way back," he agrees. It is now two o'clock in the afternoon and he’s thirsty. “We go here," Yari decides again next to a small, dust-covered house on the roadside. Fabián, the miracle healer, lives here. He is greeted twice with a handshake and a hug, then coca is chewed together and one, two, three beer cans are emptied before Yari gets down to business. As the custom demands. Fabián is cordially invited to the Presidential visit. And if he doesn’t mind, Yari wants to ask for his help, because the President would be coming to a football game, and the team of Tentayape could use some spiritual support. Fabián knows what it's all about, but first of all he complains loudly that the brothers from Tentayape have not been to see him for so long. Then he wants to know who are the players, in what condition are they - and then the price must be negotiated. But for the ceremony an essential medicinal plant is still missing. Yari says goodbye with a new job.

Social investments in exchange for calm and everyone is happy. Only not Yari, not yet.

Finally, at four in the afternoon, he arrives in Palos Blancos, a dusty little place with no more than 100 inhabitants. First he goes to eat, then gets on with the list of things to buy: sugar, pasta, cooking oil, salt, cheese, beer. Until everything is done, the sun goes down and Yari has to start the return journey in the dark. On the way back, they stop again at the healer’s for the summoning ceremony, a Guarani ritual, where oil rubbed between fingers and holy pictures play an important role. Then at the oil camp, the toilet, a sink and chairs are collected. The night is freezing cold and starry. While in the middle of the night the driver stops on the way again and again to pee behind a tree, or even to pick up passengers and load more cargo onto the already full truck, Yari talks. About the city, about the discrimination that led him to cut off his braids, about how he is torn between modernity with its amenities, and tradition with its security. "The Capitán steers us towards our future, but he doesn’t know the world out there and cannot really understand it or appreciate it much" he says.

It’s like with the phone, there was a long wrangle over it and only when someone in the community became so ill that even the healer could no longer help them, did the Capitán accept the need for communication with the outside world. So Tentayape came to have a solar-powered telephone booth, which was installed directly in front of the Capitán’s hut. Only he answers the incoming calls. With him, is the radio to talk to the more remote outer settlement of Los Sotos and he’s in charge of the only gun in the village, it hangs over his bed. It has never been used as the Guaraní are a peaceful people, fights are rare and raised voices are hardly ever heard. But you never know when the old shotgun might prove useful, if the oil companies come, perhaps it will scare them off.

After the piped water came the telephone, the radio and small truck, followed by plastic. It has arrived in many different forms. Bottles, canisters, tarpaulins and sacks are slowly replacing the pumpkin gourds and clay pots. The latest achievement of Western civilisation is pushchairs. Brought by those who work for the oil companies or sometimes go to the village to sell corn and animals. Whether it suits Nanité or not, civilisation is on the rise, unstoppable. It rubs away at the values of the Guaraní who do not want to lose their identity. “The timing with which the innovations come is crucial," says sociologist Edgar Sánchez. "It is desirable that it happens slowly enough so that the Guaraní can incorporate things into their values and reinterpret them accordingly, without losing the essence of their culture, generosity, brotherhood, peacefulness, family cohesion." That is the task that old Bacuire gave to his son Guayari. The silent, skinny Capitán hiding behind dark sunglasses.

"The Capitán steers us towards our future, but he doesn’t know the world out there and cannot really understand it or appreciate it much.”

"One often has the impression that there is only ever talk, but it’s happened after all"

The next morning the truck is unloaded. There it is, the toilet, bright white on the sandy ground in front of the mud hut of the Capitán, who eyes it critically. Meanwhile, the vanguard of the Presidential visit has arrived, a delegation of the governor, one of the mayor, representatives of the Red Cross and a member of the Guarani parliament. Everyone has something to say. "The missing cistern could be replaced by buckets," says one. "But the President won’t come across the river to the Capitán’s hut, but is sure to remain on the football field," another points out. "And there we would first have to lay an extra branch off the main water pipe." "The cement might not dry quickly enough and then the toilet would wobble and the President could lose his balance," warns a third party. A delegate of the Red Cross pleads for a latrine and scribbles the blueprint with a stick in the sand. The Capitán spits loudly on the ground, a thick green mass that is the coca ball he had hidden all this time in the pocket of his cheek. Then he briefly talks to Sandro, who is in charge of the sanitary installation, a decision has been made: the toilet will not be installed.​

Instead, President will get an outhouse. Yari doesn’t flinch. He has fulfilled his mission and that is of primary importance, although he secretly knows that the carays in the city will tear their hair out and blather on about inefficiency. The Capitán has more important things to decide today: how the reception should proceed and who should say what and when. The meeting was scheduled to start at twelve o'clock, with the sun at it’s zenith. At one o’clock, still only the delegates from outside sit around the small wooden table in front of Capitán’s hut, putting on a polite face. With growling stomachs, they debate what to ask of the President. "There has been a lot of drought here in recent years, an irrigation system would be useful," says the governor's delegate and is met with nods all round. Capitán sits next to him and says nothing. At two o'clock in the afternoon the elders finally arrive, followed by a group of younger men and adolescents, the session can begin. After one and a half hours it is decided that only the Capitán and the captain of the team will speak. That the President will be asked to donate an adjoining piece of state land, because that's where the remains of a great forefather of Tentayape rest. The idea comes from Nanité. The question of the irrigation system is dropped. But at least, even before dark, the wooden outhouse is ready. The governor's delegate looks admiringly at it. "One often gets the impression that everyone is just talking, but things get done," he says in surprise. For privacy, however, there was not enough time to build a screen. But that does not seem to bother anyone. Privacy is kept to a minimum with the Guaraní, their huts are open at the front. 

 

The big day finally arrives. Before sunrise the women begin cooking corn and beans around the campfire, grilling meat on skewers and, whilst doing all this, find the time to put on make-up, weave the colourful ribbons into a flowered band to tie around their heads, and wrap the long, heavy chains of glass beads, pearls and coins around their necks. The solar telephone rings shrilly. It is the Presidential palace: Evo Morales is occupied and unfortunately cannot come. Shortly before, he had inaugurated a new gas processing plant in the vicinity of the Margarita field and declared an alliance with Repsol-YPF. The Capitán communicates the news to the bystanders with a closed expression. It’s a political setback.

"The cement might not dry quickly enough and then the toilet would wobble and the President could lose his balance"

But the men and women are happy, lots of buckets of chicha, a fermented corn drink, have been going round since sunrise. Football is played and celebrated anyway, the beautiful, golden trophy has to be awarded after all. So just two youth teams from Tentayape compete against each other. At some point, the governor comes, brings four footballs and a new set of jerseys, he is happy with the feast and promises what he always promises everywhere: that he will personally take care of what is needed in Tentayape, a school maybe or electricity?

"No thank you, we don't need anything”, answers the Capitán with polite extravagance. A little later he disappears behind the bushes, in order to relieve himself, like they all do. Nobody pays attention to the outhouse. The beautiful, white porcelain bowl behind the Capitán’s hut is only of interest to the pigs and chickens. It might be installed one day, or a new use will be found for it. Maybe as a flower pot.

This report has been logistically supported by the Swiss Red Cross