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ARGENTINA: Silent Extinction of Mbya Guarani People

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 2 2006 (IPS) - Mbya Guaraní children living in the subtropical rainforests of Argentina’s northeastern province of Misiones are dying from preventable illnesses, and extra provision by the government of money, medicine and food seems unable to halt the catastrophe.

In the last two months, 21 Mbya children have died from respiratory problems or malnutrition, and another 13 are in the hospital. These are large numbers in proportion to the size of the ethnic group – 4,083 people according to the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC), or just over 3,000 according to private counts.

Indigenous people and environmentalists say that the root cause of this crisis is deforestation, which is making inroads into Mbya Guaraní territory and destroying their livelihood. Logging, to these people, also means the loss of their “natural pharmacy”, which counts some 150 medicinal plants.

Timber companies and pulp mills are intensely active in Misiones. In addition, tobacco and “yerba mate” (a crop used to make a beverage) plantations are expanding at the expense of the rainforest, 1,300 kilometres from Buenos Aires, in the northeast corner of the country which borders on Brazil.

Preliminary data from the Complementary Survey of Indigenous Peoples, carried out by INDEC in 2004 and 2005 and released in September, indicate there are 450,000 people who belong to, or are first generation descendants from, 25 indigenous groups in this country with a population of nearly 39 million. Earlier independent estimates gave a figure of over one million.

National and provincial officials have expressed concern about child mortality among the Mbya Guaraní, but have avoided making any connection to the impoverishment and loss of their habitat.


“There may have been more deaths, but 21 is the number recorded in two months,” the head of the Social Department of the Directorate of Guaraní Affairs in Misiones, Claudia Martínez, confirmed to IPS. “There have always been deaths, but this shook us up because it’s happening in marginalised (urban) areas, in the rainforest, in different places,” she said.

The only case that received nationwide attention by the media was that of Julián Acuña, aged two, who was seriously ill. His relatives, trusting to the wisdom of their spiritual guides, had refused permission for an operation to remove a congenital heart tumour.

The Mbya spiritual healer, an elderly 105-year-old, had made a categorical diagnosis of the child: “He has gravel in his heart, and his heart is giving out.” That is exactly what happened after a year of hospitalisation and a surgical operation.

Through the intervention of the courts, Julián was operated on in 2005 in a Buenos Aires hospital, and discharged this year. In June he perished in the jungle. That same afternoon, his brother Agustín, two months old, also died, possibly of pneumonia. Their parents buried them together, and Martínez traveled to the village specially to give them her condolences.

The Mbya belong to the great Guaraní nation that occupied vast South American territories before the European conquest, in what is today Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Martínez is afraid that the Mbya people, who numbered 100,000 in the 15th century, might disappear completely.

Their communities have an average life expectancy of 40 years, and the greatest number of deaths is among children. “They have lost their self-esteem, and now hardly have a future to look forward to,” Martínez said.

The Ministry of Health has a programme for indigenous people’s health, and its funds for Misiones were doubled at the beginning of this year. The Directorate of Guaraní Affairs distributes plots of land, tools, food supplies; the indigenous people are given training in agriculture, livestock raising and handcrafts like basketwork, but all is apparently in vain.

The Chamber of Deputies asked the health ministry for information on the causes of the string of Mbya Guaraní deaths in nearly every village, and on “the general deterioration in the health” of these people, as there have been cases of adults admitted to hospitals, suffering from symptoms of tuberculosis.

Martínez thought that it was a difficult job to “assimilate” indigenous people who have been expelled from their territories into a consumer society.

“It’s as though they copied our worst vices, they got used to living off handouts, and many became alcoholics or beggars. They don’t want to plant crops,” she said. “Some emigrate to Brazil or Paraguay, but many die,” Martínez said.

Alejandro Méndez, headman of the Mbya community of Yraká Mirí, has another explanation for the demographic decline and the loss of vitality of his people. Their parents and grandparents lived off the forest. But “with the clearance of the forest, the game and the fruits that kept us healthy can no longer be found,” he told IPS.

Where Méndez and 36 other people live, there is still some forest, but very few animals. Traditionally, they hunted wild boar, coatí (a raccoon-like mammal), deer and pacú (a type of robust oval) fish, but now the chainsaws frighten the animals away. “When we lose our forest, we also lose our natural medicines, and we have to rely on the hospital, which isn’t always close by,” he explained.

Méndez said that in their world, their spiritual guides diagnose illnesses and prescribe medicine. “We have always had illnesses, but now there are some that are new to us,” and the outside “assistance” sometimes makes things worse. “This year they sent us expired milk,” he said.

The non-governmental Foundation for the Defence of the Environment (FUNAM) calls the agony of this people a “covert genocide”, biologist Raúl Montenegro, its director, told IPS. Montenegro was awarded the Swedish parliament’s Right Livelihood Award, an alternative Nobel Prize, in 2004.

That same year, FUNAM reported that the Moconá Forestry company had felled 120 trees in common use by the Mbya in the Yabotí biosphere reserve, in the east of Misiones, with the permission of the provincial ministry of the environment.

“Further illnesses and deaths caused by the lack of medicinal trees will be the responsibility of Moconá and the ministry. They did irreparable damage, and they don’t care about putting children’s and adults’ lives in danger,” Montenegro said at the time.

In 2004, dozens of indigenous leaders, together with FUNAM and the Catholic Church’s national Indigenous Pastorate team, organised a protest lasting several months. After accusing Governor Carlos Rovira and his officials – including the head of the Directorate of Guaraní Affairs – of genocide, they managed to stop the logging.

Over a period of eight months, 10 Mbya children had died, and it caused a major scandal.

“There is no need for them to threaten us in order to get us to leave the jungle. They know that if they clear the forest, we’ll leave, and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” Artemio Benítez, one of the chiefs who led the protests, said at the time. In the Yabotí reserve, disaster was averted, but another conflict sprang up in a nearby area.

Mbya communities are in litigation with the National University of La Plata, which received a donation of land in the Misiones rainforest from the Celulosa Argentina company in 1995, comprising 6,500 hectares of land inhabited by Mbya people. The university, which uses the area as a field laboratory, has offered them 700 hectares to settle on.

“They don’t understand that the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the Mbya, and their long, complex food chain, require much larger areas than that,” said Montenegro. Much of their land is held in common, for hunting, gathering, fishing, and getting water and medicine.

Most of the tragedies suffered by the Mbya happened because white people took their lands, and with them all the resources they possessed, Montenegro has said. He published a report on indigenous people’s health in Latin America with expert co-author Carolyn Stephens of London University in The Lancet, a British medical journal, in June.

Montenegro found that the Mbya use 240 plant species, 150 of which have medicinal properties, while 61 are used for fuel, 54 for building houses and making artefacts and 35 for food. The Mbya Guaraní people also recognise 229 species of birds, according to a study by the National University of Misiones.

Only a very ancient culture with a long history of living in and with the jungle could have such a complete and detailed knowledge of the biodiversity which surrounds it, and its beneficial properties for survival, Montenegro wrote in his article for The Lancet.

In his opinion, the Mbya people are highly susceptible to environmental variations. They live in harmony with the rainforest ecosystem, and the advance of the chainsaw puts them in danger of extinction. “They lost their environment, and their health system collapsed,” he said.

“Forced to abandon their territories and crowded into the most miserable quarters of the cities, they have no access to their medicine,” Montenegro said.

 
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