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PARAGUAY: Indigenous Squatter Communities Organise Self-Help

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Aug 2 2009 (IPS) - Indigenous families living in a squatter settlement on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital are organising themselves, and now have a community soup kitchen and are producing and selling handicrafts. They don’t want to return to panhandling on the streets of Asunción, so far from their home villages.

Cerro Poty soup kitchen. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

Cerro Poty soup kitchen. Credit: Natalia Ruiz Díaz/IPS

In the last few decades, the number of poor indigenous people on the streets of Greater Asunción has increased, as the exodus of native families from rural areas has grown.

“Anteve rosêva’ekue la cállepe, semaforope rojerure moneda mitâkuéra ha mba’e. Ko’âga tres meses la ndorojuvei la cállepe” (“We used to go out on the street and ask for money, with our children, at the stoplights. But we haven’t gone out to beg on the streets in three months”), Petrona Ruiz, one of the women running the Cerro Poty soup kitchen, told IPS in Guaraní, an official language in Paraguay along with Spanish.

The settlement of Cerro Poty, where the families live in makeshift dwellings, is located at the foot of Lambaré hill on the outskirts of Asunción, near both the Paraguay river and the city dump.

The neighbourhood was created in the late 1990s by Guaraní families from the eastern province of Canendiyú. Today it is home to 28 native families from central, southern and southeastern Paraguay.

The expansion of large-scale soy farming is one of the causes of the growing migration to Greater Asunción, which has a population of around 1.7 million.

“We went to see what was happening in Canendiyú and found that indigenous and campesino (peasant) families are abandoning their land, suffocated by the encroachment of soy crops and the use of toxic agrochemicals,” Claudio Rolón, with the National Secretariat on Children and Adolescents (SNNA) unit for attention to indigenous children and adolescents, told IPS.

Canendiyú is one of the country’s leading soy-producing provinces, along with Alto Paraná and Caaguazú in the east and Itapúa in the south. Soy production has climbed 191 percent since the 1995-1996 harvest. And while output rose 49 percent at a national level between 2003 and 2006, it grew 80 percent in Canendiyú.

Soy cultivation began to expand in this land-locked South American country in the mid-1960s and boomed in the late 1990s with the introduction of genetically modified soy. Paraguay is now the world’s fifth-largest soy producer. In 2007, soy accounted for 38 percent of the country’s total agricultural output, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

After centre-left President Fernando Lugo took office in August 2008, the SNNA launched a programme to provide assistance to indigenous squatter settlements in Greater Asunción, with the aim of keeping children and teenagers off the streets.

Cerro Poty, with a population of 135 people, 68 percent of whom are under 17, is one of the settlements targeted by the programme. Of the 92 children and adolescents in the community, 81 were out with their mothers panhandling or scavenging for recyclable waste products on the street.

The first step taken by the programme was to organise a soup kitchen, which also provides free milk to all children under five. In addition, cultural, social organising and income-generating activities got underway.

“We organised ourselves in committees of women, craftspeople, school support and community members, to help each other out,” community leader Silverio Gómez explained to IPS.

Mothers work in the soup kitchen and help take care of the community garden along with a group of children and young people.

Others are involved in producing woodcarvings and other handicrafts, to generate income for the community.

“We are receiving training and are paid for the work we do,” said Gómez.

Cerro Poty is now one of a network of cultural centres that supports the work of craftspeople, promoted by the Secretariat of Culture. Tools and equipment were obtained with assistance from the Organisation of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture.

“The aim is to support the work of craftspeople, building on the woodcarving talent and skills of the Guaraní,” said SNNA communications director Adriana Closs.

They carve animals in balsa wood, and craftswomen are also learning to make jewelry and receiving training in fabric-making.

The products are showcased and sold in the shops set up for that purpose by the programme.

“The community is recovering its craft-making skills, and now we are taking the next step: helping them sell their products,” said Closs.

A web site was created to show and sell their products at both the national and international levels, while providing information about the community.

The experience at Cerro Poty is being replicated in other squatter settlements around the capital, which range from a few months to over a decade old and are home to a total of 3,500 people.

According to the census office’s 2008 survey of indigenous households, there are 108,300 members of 20 different indigenous groups in Paraguay, representing two percent of the population.

Besides tiny white, black and Asian minorities, the rest of the population of Paraguay is of mixed Spanish and Guaraní descent.

And although 90 percent of the population speaks both Guaraní and Spanish, indigenous people suffer inequality on every front: health, education, employment and access to basic services like running water and electricity. Six out of 10 indigenous people in Paraguay live in poverty.

Rolón said the work in the squatter communities takes into consideration the traditional organisational structures of each particular ethnic group. First, a dialogue is established between the SNNA and the community, “recognising the identity of each community and its leaders and people.”

In Cerro Poty, lunch at the soup kitchen is ready, far from the city’s stoplights and streets.

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