Women lead struggle for land rights for the Avá Guaraní
Together with five women from the Platform Suace Pyvyvõhára, I travel to Mingã Pora in the east of Paraguay. Around 45 families from the indigenous Tekohá Suace community settled here in 2016. In Guaraní, Tekohá means 'the place where we are what we are'. They reside in tents - self-made out of waste materials - on a small strip of land with a soy field on one side and a nature reserve owned by the Itaipu company on the other.
We leave Asunción at 5 a.m. For the first six hours, the road is well maintained and to the left and right are enormous silos, magnificent villas and expansive soy and maize fields. For the last hour, we drive along an unpaved road.
When we arrive we are warmly welcomed by the whole community, which consists of a remarkable share of women and young children. It soon becomes clear what kind of situation this indigenous community has been living in for many years: illegally on a small strip of land, without access to drinking water, food, transport or medical care. And how difficult it is to survive in these conditions, especially for the women, with their children and families. Their emotional and physical vulnerability in a place where they have no protection at all is shocking.
Driven from their land twice
It is a long and sad story. In short, this community was driven off its land in the 1970s, together with 37 others, to make way for the construction of the world's largest dam, the Itaipu, on the border between Brazil and Paraguay. Part of their land is now under water, part was sold to farmers and part has become a nature reserve. In 2016 the Tekohá Suace community was violently driven from the land it had settled on for a second time. They had no other choice than to return to the land they had originally been expelled from, where they are now living 'illegally'.
The forest rangers in the reserve make sure that the Avá Guaraní do not hunt, grow crops or catch fish. They visit the community now and then to look in the cooking pots to check that there are no wild animals in them. The community is not permitted on the farmers' land, which is private property. And to make things even worse, after a period of sustained drought, Itaipu decided four months ago to use the water in the river – which the community uses to wash themselves and their clothes – to secure the supply of water to the dam. There is not much water left in the river and the water level is still falling daily.
Women are taking the lead
The driving force in the community is Amada. I have met her twice and she is clearly stronger and more determined than ever. She is the daughter of Cristóbal Martínez, the village leader. She and her father decide on strategy. She takes part in the meetings of the Platform Suace Pyvyvõhára and discusses their situation in national and international fora. She manages the GAGGA funds that they receive from the Fondo de Mujeres del Sur to meet their basic needs. She has set up a women's committee which plays an increasingly important role in the search for a solution. It is clear that women have taken the lead here.
The national and international attention for this community's struggle gives them hope. The Platform Suace was set up to discuss with Paraguayan organisations and the community what action needs to be taken to secure their rights to land. With the support of Both ENDS and GAGGA, they can pay for legal assistance. Amnesty Paraguay also tirelessly provides support with expertise and campaigns. Other members of the Platform assist with food and medical care, endless consultations with government bodies, legal assistance, research, and transport between Asunción and Mingã Pora.
The current political climate seems favourable for the community. The new boss of the nature reserve paid them a visit while we were there to give his assurances that he wants a good relationship with the community and that he will do everything possible within his mandate to help them. Itaipu will also have to take its responsibility: the megadam meant that 600 indigenous families lost 150,000 hectares of land, but the company has so far only purchased 1,300 hectares of land for two indigenous communities by way of compensation.
Between hope and desperation
The community's stories show its strength, but also its desperation. One member told us during our visit: "Many people here are hungry and sick. We are suffering a great deal. Some people in the community give up hope, but then the leaders and the people from the Platform Suace tell them what they are doing and they have hope again. Together we will survive. Without our leaders and help from outsiders, we would have disappeared long ago ".
Amada closes by saying: "Our people's struggle is long and difficult. We are losing our culture because our people are divided. The previous government didn't listen to us, but this one seems to want to help. That is a big step. No other community is receiving as much national and international support. We must not lose hope."
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