Conflict escalates over land and resources in the Chaco

by Sandra Weiss

Hungry vultures circle over the dried riverbed. Nothing stirs at 40 degrees in the shade in the arid dry forest of the Bolivian Chaco. The next village, Camiri, is three hours away by car, six large gates to open and close again, are on the way. When it rains, the dusty track turns into an impassable muddy hell. The Alto Parapeti region in southeastern Bolivia is far from civilisation and is still contested. On the one hand are a few farmers who run livestock on thousands of acres in the valleys. On the other hand, the demand for land of about 2700 Bolivian Guaraní Indians: a people that spread to Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, who were evangelised by the Jesuits in so-called missions in the 17th century, the protection of the Church allowed them to escape the exploitation of the Spanish landlords. After the dissolution of the missions in the 18th century by the Spanish crown, the Indians were once again on their own. They scattered and founded widely dispersed settlements. Later, "new owners" appeared, fenced in pastures and suddenly numerous groups of Indians were trapped in "private property".

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Later, "new owners" appeared, fenced in pastures and suddenly numerous groups of Indians were trapped in "private property".

As happened in Yaiti (“thick scrub” in Guaraní), where Andrea Cerezo lives: First you have to drive through a cattle paddock, then past the owner's whitewashed house until you come to her thatched reed hut, open on three sides. Andrea lives here with her husband, son, daughter-in-law and grandson: Two beds with saggy mattresses, a few belongings in plastic bags, next to a clay oven and a mortar from an old tree stump, in which Andrea grinds the corn to bake cakes from. Between her legs run a few chickens in search of food. There is no electricity or water. The 58-year-old  fills her bucket at the Parapeti River half a kilometre away. Cooking with a few black pots, eating from coconut shell bowls. Over a clothesline hang wet, worn out clothes to dry. The hot wind stirs up dust. Dance music rattles off a battery-powered radio. Corn and beans are grown by the family themselves on a plot as big as a semi-detached garage. The landowner has assigned them the poorest piece of land with the most stones. If they want to eat something different or need sugar or soap, they have to work for the landlord - only to spend their wages afterwards in the shop of the hacienda. One litre of cooking oil costs 15 bolivianos (around two euros) - that's the price of a whole day’s labour. "It has always been like this," recalls Andrea, who helped as a child with the planting and harvesting on the estate. Meanwhile, she and other rebellious parishioners no longer get jobs on the hacienda. Human rights organisations call this bondage a "modern form of slavery"
 

 

The health centre is the only stone building of the Guarani settlement - built with the consent of the landlord, "In 2006, inaugurated by Mayor Ramon Cusaire" emblazoned on the bronze plaque. Inside, yawning emptiness rules. Nurse Elsa has to get along with a worn dentist's chair, a scale, a bar, sterile dressings and painkillers. Vaccines are non existent and the toilet has never worked for lack of water. "If it were not for the Swiss Red Cross, which occasionally delivers medicines and vaccinates the children, we would perish miserably here," says Elsa. 90 percent of Guaraní live below the poverty line, and 78 out of every 1,000 children die at or shortly after birth.

A litre of  cooking oil costs 15 Bolivianos (about two Euros) - the wage of a day. 

"It’s always been like that", remembers Andrea who, as a child, helped on the estate with the planting and harvesting.

Like many others, Andrea was pregnant very young but her daughter died a few days after birth. Less than three weeks later, her mother died giving birth to her 10th child. Andrea raised her youngest brother Justino. At the age of 13, he started working on the estate of the Chavez family. He succumbed to his fate without complaint. Until one day he turned on the "patron" because his daily wage seemed too small and his debts had accumulated so greatly that Justino saw no end. The landowner fired him and Justino began discussing the situation with the other 20 families.

"For generations, every conflict has been resolved by force," explains Eduardo Lambertin from the Swiss Red Cross.

Today Justino, a 30-year-old father of five, is “Captain” - as the tribal leaders in his community are called - and lives, for security reasons in Camiri.

 

As the Guaraní began to rebel, the conflict began. The landlords threatened the agitators, denying them access to "their private property." In anger one burned down the school on his hacienda. For two years, the children have been taught there in the shade of a tree. The mayor, also a landowner, argues that she does not have the necessary permit to build a new school on private land. A few months ago the confrontation reached its climax, when Alto Parpetí's largest landlord, a US citizen, denied the Deputy Minister of Land Reform access and shot out the tires of his Jeep. "For generations, every conflict has been resolved by force," explains Eduardo Lambertin from the Swiss Red Cross.

"This is our country," says Rene Chavez, the son of one of the landlords of Yaiti, as he rummages in a drawer for confirmation, pulling out a multi-page purchase agreement. "It's not that easy to take away, just because a few Communists put the idea in Indigenous heads." The 60-year-old with the weather-beaten face and white hair grew up here and teaches at the elementary school. He does not quite understand how his world suddenly collapsed, how an indigenous man became president of Bolivia and how his own workers became rebellious. "They're fine here, thanks to me they have a school and work," Chavez says, leaning back in his overstuffed plastic chair. His 460 hectares have earned him a house, an off-road vehicle and schooling for the children. Immense wealth from the point of view of the Indigenous people - a mere drip for the Bolivian soy and cattle barons in the provincial capital Santa Cruz, yet who still see the farmers of the Alto Parapeti as welcome allies against the government of the left president Evo Morales.

The old gentleman suspects that he is the victim of an intrigue. "There's oil and gas here” he says. "And the government wants to grab it. The Indigenous are just an excuse”. In fact, Camiri is the oil city of Bolivia. The whole Chaco is teeming with engineers from foreign corporations who are looking for mineral resources here and have already found what they are looking for, including on the hacienda of the US farmer. Chavez is convinced that the government is working on the expropriation of Alto Parapeti. His cousin is already seeing "rivers of blood". That is something Sonia Soto, the Human Rights Ombudsman of the province of Santa Cruz, would like to avoid. But the battle lines have hardened. "The government has made the conflict-prone land issue a priority. “For the Guaraní, it would have been better to insist on social improvements and respect for human rights” Sonia Soto believes.

"It's not that easy to take away, just because a few Communists put the idea in Indigenous heads."