Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

SOUTH AMERICA: New Map Outlines Guarani Territory

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Dec 22 2009 (IPS) - Some 100,000 Guaraní people live in the area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge, according to a new map drawn of the indigenous group’s ancestral territory, which also highlights the threats, such as expanding soy cultivation, to their natural surroundings.

“The Guaraní have a sense of their territory, but they don’t have the technical means of putting it on a map. This map shows that, despite the fact that the ethnic group is dispersed, there is a specific Guaraní territory,” Bartomeu Meliá, national coordinator of the multi-institutional team that drew up the Guaraní Retâ Map, told IPS.

The study, presented last week in Asunción in a ceremony hosted by Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, shows that there are approximately 500 Guaraní villages and communities in the larger tri-border region, and that the native group’s territory stretches from southern Brazil to eastern Paraguay and the northeastern province of Misiones in Argentina.

It also points out that the Guaraní are one of the largest indigenous groups in South America.

Besides the territory outlined on the map, there are large numbers of Guaraní living in Brazil’s Atlantic forest coastal region to the east, and in the Chaco, a sparsely populated semi-arid lowland region farther to the west, which stretches from eastern Bolivia through northwestern Paraguay to northeastern Argentina, taking in a small part of the southwestern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso as well.

There are four main branches of the Guaraní people: the Mbya; the Pâi Tavyterâ (known in Brazil as Kaiowá); the Avá Guaraní (Ñandéva in Brazil); and the Aché, previously known as the Guayakí.

The Guaraní, who refer to themselves as Avás (which simply means “men”), originally lived in the Amazon jungle, before their territory gradually shifted southwards. But it was in the Rio de la Plata basin – a vast area drained by the Uruguay and Paraná rivers, which empty into the Rio de la Plata estuary – that they mainly settled since the late 15th century, especially in Brazil and Paraguay.

According to different sources there are a total of around 250,000 Guaraní people in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. However, there are an estimated five million Guaraní speakers, as it is one of the two official languages in Paraguay, where it is even more widely spoken than Spanish.

“These are living peoples, with different cultures,” President Lugo said at the presentation of the map in the presidential palace. He lamented that what was an “open and natural territory yesterday” no longer belongs to what he described as its rightful, legitimate owners.

The fertility rate of the Guaraní is currently between five and six births per woman. But child mortality is high, at 80 per 1,000 live births, in a population that is young overall, as roughly 45 percent of Guaraní are under the age of 14.

Wherever they live, the Guaraní share certain basic aspects of their culture, although they speak different dialects of the Guaraní language group, and have different religious rites and ceremonies and ways of relating to the natural environment.

“The map shows the large number of and the size of (Guaraní) communities, and that they have very close ties,” said Meliá, a Spanish-born Catholic priest who has lived in Paraguay since 1954 and is known for his work on behalf of the Guaraní.

According to the study, the Guaraní see their world as a region of jungles, plains and rivers, where they live according to their age-old customs and way of life.

But with the expansion of monoculture plantations, large swaths of the ethnic group’s ancestral territory have been completely deforested, as shown by the map, which also outlines the areas where forests and scrubland remain intact.

The study shows that much of what was originally Guaraní territory has been destroyed or is threatened by large-scale soy and sugar cane production and plantations of fast-growing non-native trees, like eucalyptus and pine in the province of Misiones in northeast Argentina.

The introduction of exotic grass species from Africa has also been disastrous for Guaraní agriculture.

“Fenced-in fields, pasture land and large landed estates have driven them from their land,” said Lugo – a former Catholic bishop who worked with the rural poor – before calling the attention of Paraguayan society as a whole to the rights of the Guaraní people.

Another aspect cited by the study as a central factor in the transformation of the ecology of the region was the construction of the giant Itaipú hydroelectric dam on the border between Brazil and Paraguay and the Yacyretá dam between Argentina and Paraguay.

The map shows that a number of Mbya and Avá Guaraní villages were left under water by the construction of the dams.

Hipólito Acevei, president of the Coordinating Group for the Self-Determination of Indigenous Peoples, stressed that one of the main sources of concern is the ongoing deforestation, because it leads to “the massive invasion of indigenous territories.”

He said the map is a tool that can be used to support the fight of indigenous organisations against the destruction of the natural ecosystem in areas that are home to native peoples.

Indigenous organisations took part in producing the study, by identifying different native groups, for example. “We worked hard for a year reviewing the report, especially to make sure the territories of the Guaraní people were properly located, which was a big task for us,” said Acevei.

The study was drawn up by the Guarani Retâ Interinstitutional Working Group with support from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Through an agreement among NGOs, the map will be distributed in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, with the aim of drawing government attention to the situation of the Guaraní people.

The study says that sufficient territory and secure tenure of land are not only a right of indigenous people, but are indispensable for warding off “imminent ethnocide”.

Acevei argued that governments in the region are under the obligation to defend the rights of indigenous peoples, who at the same time are becoming increasingly organised.

Lugo concurred, and said the study is “a tool for dialogue, with a view to coordinating actions by governments, international donors and civil society” aimed at allowing the Guaraní to “freely move around the cross-border areas of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, and to be integrated in society, respecting their cultural identities.”

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