Meat-hungry Europeans displace indigenous people of Paraguay ​

by Sandra Weiss

With funny leaps, the colourful butterfly flutters over the soybean field. Several hectares of lush green, seeded in rank and file. In the distance, a tractor chugs and sprays pesticides to keep out moulds and pests. Unsteadily, the butterfly moves on, crosses the dirt road and then settles on the pea field of Don Anselmo. The eyes of the lean, old Guaraní chief are tired, but the butterfly does not escape him. The old man pauses, rubs the sweat from his wrinkled forehead and rests on the rake with which he has just loosened up the poor loamy, red soil of his field, freeing it from the weeds. The corners of his mouth twist into a smile. Not all of them have disappeared yet, the butterflies. The colourful butterflies are a good omen for the Guaraní, according to legend, they are the origin of the rainbow.

„There used to be a lot more butterflies here, wildcats and deer,” recalls Anselmo Miranda. In the past, many things were different in the fertile plain of eastern Paraguay. "We had 150 square kilometres and could roam as we wanted." At that time they still had enough animals to hunt, enough fruit to eat, enough clean rivers for fishing. The Guaraní did not need any more than this. For centuries, nature has given up her treasures to these proud nomadic people, who once inhabited large parts of South America. Then came the settlers, immigrants from Brazil, Asia and Europe, who began fencing pastures and fields and cutting down trees. Today, 80 percent of the forests of eastern Paraguay have disappeared, countless rivers have dried up and soya is thriving on the fertile soil as far as the eye can see.

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"We had 150 square kilometres to wander around where ever we wanted.”

Those who want to visit Don Anselmo in Jaguary must pass through the green desert. A total of 2.8 million hectares, three-quarters of the agricultural area, are planted with the protein-rich bean used to fatten cattle in Europe. A billion-dollar business that is in the hands of multinational corporations and foreign large-scale farmers.

 

Don Anselmo does not particularly like the foreign settlers: "They bring disharmony and destruction," he says. His tribe retreated, deeper and deeper into the forest. They call their latest settlement Jaguary, where about 120 families live. For the soybean farmers, it is "Campo Nueve", field number nine. They fell more and more trees for more and more new fields. Don Anselmo and his family were eating less and less. "Out of necessity, we started farming like peasants, we set fires to clear the fields, planted corn, beans and cassava," says Don Anselmo.

 

But while the neighbouring large landowners with the help of fertilisers, pesticides and large machinery bring in big harvests, the fields of the Guaraní were unproductive. Sometimes, when the wind blew the pesticides over to their land, the chickens died, the fields dried up and the children wailed about stomach pains and headaches. "They got richer and we got poorer," observed Don Anselmo.

The large landowners claim that indigenous people are lazy, and they don’t know how to farm properly. "We are a rich country with the mentality of a beggar", says the chairman of the livestock association, Germán Ruiz. “One has to teach the indigenous people how to do intensive agriculture”. Nothing could be further from the Guaraní mentality, in which man and nature are closely interwoven.

"They got richer and we got poorer,"

Don Anselmo’s 16-year old niece Lilian muses. 

"I think they are not really good people"  she says as she cooks, over an open fire in a completely soot-blackened pot,  a flour-butter roux to feed the confusing crowd of children that are her nephews and nieces. There is also a glass of milk made from milk powder. Lilian is only 16, but a bright girl. She is one of the few from the village to go on to a secondary school, an hour's walk away. "It's the only way to get on in life" she has realised.  She cleans little Efraín's mouth, he had greedily spooned up the roux and asked for more but the pot is empty. Instead, Lilian holds out the calabash with the bitter mate tea. Don Anselmo watches the scene and mutters, "We should get organised."

Don Anselmo knew what would come: One day the landowners stood in front of his hut, accompanied by the police. "They waved an alleged land title and said we had to leave here," recalls the 60-year-old. "At that time there was a dictatorship and the big farmers had the government on their side," he says resignedly. Nonetheless, Don Anselmo tried to claim a tribal title in court - 700 hectares. In 1982, the process started, driven by the Misereor-supported Indigenous pastoral. To date, the Supreme Court has not ruled on this. Just half of the Paraguayan Indigenous communities have a land title. But even that does not prevent the creeping expropriation - as in Jaguary. There, after a failed harvest seven years ago, the families started to lease part of their land to the soybean farmers, 120 hectares. That brings in 1.8 million guaraní a year (320 euros) per family. Ironically, Paraguay's currency is named after the Native people, who never needed money because they were self-sufficient. Now not even the income from field rental is sufficient.

"We should get organised."

As civilisation advanced, so grew the young people’s desire for goods, mopeds, fancy clothes and colour televisions. But it is a false prosperity: the richer they feel and the more consumer goods they own, the poorer they become. Displaced, by the soybean, meat-hungry Europe and the world. The soya has accelerated the concentration process. 2.6% of landowners in Paraguay control 85.5% of the land area.
 

Only a few, like Don Anselmo, are aware of this. Sadly, he has watched as more and more young people hire themselves out as cheap day labourers or migrate in the hope of instant riches in the cities. Some people now have a TV, a CD player, even beds or a diesel generator at home as a gift from the landlord. But the mattresses are damp because it rains through the corrugated iron roof and there is never the money for diesel. Civilisation ruins - while the food and nutritional basis of the Guaraní dwindle further. Giving leftovers to the needy has little to do with solidarity, criticises Bishop Juan Bautista Gavilán of the Diocese of Coronel Oviedo.

“Less and less land and fewer and fewer animals and more and more soy ”.

This the mission of Juan Báez, the agro engineer of the Indigenous pastoral. The 54-year-old is not only a farmer himself but knows that the indigenous people need time. "They have to change their habits to have any chance of surviving," Báez believes. In Jaguary he has already begun reforestation; Don Anselmo and the community trust him.

In detail, he tells Don Anselmo about agroforestry systems, natural fertilisers and organic farming. The old man listens with interest. Especially when Báez speaks about Tekoha Porä, the first Guaraní village where he started his work 13 years ago. At that time, Tekoha Porä was a barren, dry, thorny shrub steppe with eroded soil. One can barely imagine this today, seeing the shaman Francisco Villalba in front of his mud hut, in the shade of large mango and orange trees, braiding a traditional wicker basket and taking refreshing noisy swigs of mate tea from a calabash. "But," he nods, "that's how it was. Less and less land and fewer animals, more and more soya" - the same story as in Jaguary.

"He is still small, but he already knows how important it is to protect the forest."

Desperation drove the now deceased tribal elder to the provincial capital of Coronel Oviedo, where he had heard of a church initiative that helped small farmers. "And then everything went pretty fast," Báez recalls happily. All 13 families helped to build the fishponds, to build the beehives, to plant the fruit trees and to fertilise the fields with nitrogen-rich lupine plants. In the past, out of necessity, many Guaraní worked as day labourers and now almost all work mainly on their own fields or with the fish.

 

"The newborns are bigger, heavier and healthier," the shaman has observed.

In addition, they are protecting the forest from the pesticides that are sprayed on surrounding soya fields. His wife Graciela has created a small herb and vegetable garden where lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage and all kinds of herbs and spices grow. "To be honest, we were sceptical at first because our tradition is sacred to us," says Francisco. "But the result has completely convinced us and now we do not want to work any other way," he says, watching his youngest, six-year-old Samuel picking and peeling one of the sweet tangerines from the tree. "He is still small, but he already knows how important it is to protect the forest. This is our greatest treasure for the future” Francisco is convinced.

 

The report was commissioned by Misereor.