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Indigenous Rights

Bolivia’s Tapiete People – a Culture in the Hands of 38 Families

Local schoolteacher Reynaldo Balderas talks about the Tapiete people, in the community of Samuguate. Credit: Natalia Seas Yelma/IPS

SAMUGUATE, Bolivia , Dec 13 2012 (IPS) - Three and a half hours away from the nearest town along a dirt road, 38 families are struggling to preserve their land, customs and language in Bolivia’s Gran Chaco region. They are the Tapiete Indians, who refuse to disappear.

In this community of makeshift shacks in a clearing in the forest along Bolivia’s southern border with Paraguay, just over 190 people from the Tapiete indigenous community live on 24,000 hectares of collectively owned land to which they have held formal title since April 2001.

“Our ancestors always lived in Samuguate, which is the birthplace of the Tapiete people, who now live in three countries,” schoolteacher Reynaldo Balderas told IPS during a visit to the community.

He said the Tapiete people spread from here to Argentina and Paraguay, the two countries with which Bolivia shares South America’s Gran Chaco region, a vast dry forest area.

Today, the Tapiete people are more numerous in those two countries: some 2,000 in Paraguay, and 480 in northern Argentina, according to the latest estimates.

“During the (1932-1935) Chaco War, the families really suffered, because they had to flee into the bush to avoid the bullets and save their lives. Once it was over, many of them returned to Samuguate, and others stayed in Argentina and Paraguay,” he said.

Now, the young people of Samuguate have been forced to leave their territory once again, this time because of the lack of opportunities and even a shortage of the food that traditionally provided the community’s subsistence diet.

Shad, a kind of fish that was a staple of their diet and a key aspect of their way of life, has disappeared from the Pilcomayo river, which runs between Samuguate and the town of Villa Montes, 140 km away in the province of Gran Chaco, in the southern department or state of Tarija.

The fish disappeared due to the channelling and diversion of the waters of the river, which runs into Argentina and Paraguay.

But Tapiete territory in Bolivia is still home to rich fauna and flora, which have traditionally supplied the diet of the Tapiete, who are hunters, fishers and gatherers.

The wide range of animals in the area include the grey brocket, a small species of deer; armadillos; wild boar; the rhea, a large flightless bird; iguanas; and parrots.

The Tapiete are demanding that their territory be expanded to 59,000 hectares – its pre-Chaco War size – and officially turned into a nature reserve where they can carry out sustainable projects in activities like beekeeping, livestock raising, and ecotourism. They could thus stay in their territory while furthering sustainable local development.

The Chaco War, South America’s largest and bloodiest 20th century conflict, was fought by Bolivia and Paraguay for control over the northern Chaco region. Some 60,000 Bolivians and 30,000 Paraguayans died in the fighting.

If the Tapiete territory was expanded, the Samuguate school, which now has just nine students, would once again be full.

The modern school house stands out amidst the makeshift shacks made out of wood, mud, straw and other materials. The school is made in the traditional form of Tapiete buildings – rounded, to guard against both heat and cold.

The dome-shaped building style is another element of their past that the people of Samuguate hope to salvage.

It is also a way for the children to learn about Tapiete customs, said Reynaldo Balderas, who along with a young man, Pascual Balderas (no relation), served as guides during IPS’ visit to the community. “We are not used to receiving visitors,” the teacher said with a smile, to explain why the local residents were shy.

The guides also explained that another dream in the making is the creation of an institute for Tapiete language and culture, to help the local people learn about and stay in touch with their past.

For now, the students are studying math, language, natural and social sciences, as well as physical education, music and some technology. Only primary school – which is compulsory in Bolivia – is available in the community. Youngsters over the age of 14 who want to continue studying must go to the nearest towns: Villa Montes, Crevaux and Yacuiba.

But everyone in Samuguate is proud of one thing that is very important to them: the children come out of school with a strong knowledge of the Tapiete language, as well as Spanish.

Tapiete is linked to Guaraní, the third most widely spoken indigenous language in Bolivia after Quechua and Aymara.

But Reynaldo Balderas pointed out that approximately 60 percent of the words and structure of Tapiete are different from those of Guaraní. “There are words that are pronounced the same, which is why the two people can understand each other, but Tapiete has many particularities,” he said.

Pascual and Reynaldo Balderas explained that the language is an essential vehicle for maintaining the Tapiete identity and handing the community’s customs down through stories and myths, which have been kept alive despite the borders imposed on the community and the fragmentation caused by war.

Now that sedimentation in the Pilcomayo river has practically made the fish stocks disappear, beekeeping, livestock and subsistence farming are the community’s main livelihoods.

Some of the boats are lying upside down, abandoned, on the riverbank – a sad reminder of the past for a people who consider the earth their mother and the river their father.

Until 1990, the Tapiete worked as farmhands for large estate owners in the region. But that year, the owners of the collectively-owned land organised in an assembly to fight the encroachment of landowners and promote their own agricultural, fishing, poultry farming and beekeeping activities, which they complement with hunting prey like deer, armadillos and iguanas.

Now they have formed the Organización de Capitanías Weenhayek y Tapietes de Tarija, an organisation of Weenhayek and Tapiete communities set up to defend their interests.

The Weenhayek, who number around 15,000, are the second-most numerous indigenous group in Bolivia’s Chaco region, after the Guaraní.

The Weenhayek and Tapiete communities have close ties because they are both victims of the degradation of the Pilcomayo river, and also because most of their members belong to a Swedish evangelical church.

The women bring in income by selling bags they make using vegetable fibres – a traditional skill that was salvaged thanks to productive projects financed by the Tarija provincial government.

But several of them complained to IPS that they had no markets for selling their products.

However, Tapiete leader José Luís Ferreira complained about talk of his people being at risk of disappearing. “It’s not fair that they talk about us and make judgements without coming to see where we live, and the families who live here,” he told IPS.

Ferreira stressed that the community’s habits, customs, language and music have been preserved and respected. And he said they are only asking for support for local development in keeping with their way of life and based on their traditional extended family economy.

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