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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 February 2008, 15:48 GMT
Argentina's Guarani see benefits in isolation
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Fort Mborore, Argentina

Silvino Moreyra
Village leader Silvino Moreyra is a former alcoholic himself
There is a dark shadow hanging over Fort Mborore, a Guarani indigenous community in north-eastern Argentina, near its border with Brazil.

Last year, two of its youngsters killed themselves in the same week. There have been other suicides.

Guarani who simply could not see a future for themselves or their community in a fast-changing modern world.

But the village chief, Silvino Moreyra, decided there was one last drastic step he could suggest to save his people: a 60-day quarantine that would protect Guarani youth from what he saw as the corruption of modern society.

It proved such a popular move, that when the first 60 days were up, the community signed up for another 60 days, due to expire sometime in the middle of this month.

Map of Argentina

Sitting outside his wooden shack surrounded by lush green vegetation, Mr Moreyra explained what the community was trying to do.

"It's very difficult to contain youngsters in the community," he said. "But they've given us their help, their support. One-hundred per cent signed up to the measure."

Volunteers patrol the perimeter of the community, armed with sticks.

Two that I saw were reluctant to talk, but admitted that sometimes their sticks had to be used.

Potent symbol

Under the quarantine, no alcohol comes in and the youngsters, aged from their teens into their 20s, can only leave the community with special permission.

Silvino Moreyra is himself a former alcoholic. He now rides around the village's dirt roads on his motorbike, his long black hair flowing in the wind, organising, cajoling and talking to his people.

He has words for everyone, in both Spanish and Guarani, and his popularity is obvious.

He took me on a precarious ride on the back of his bike from his wooden house, dodging pigs, chickens and potholes, to the top of town where meat was being distributed.

Graciela, a villager in Fort Mborore, Argentina
We're moving slowly, getting better a little at a time
Graciela

A government agency comes every 15-20 days to hand out meat to the families - 5kg (11lbs) a family.

But Silvino said it was not enough and that many children in the community were malnourished.

But he does not want the Guarani to live from handouts. He wants tools and seeds.

"I want the community to feed itself from its own production," he said.

Alcohol is the most potent symbol of the negative influence of modern society, but the quarantine was not simply a quest to fight the drink that has devastated indigenous communities across the Americas.

It is about the community finding its way in a world in which many indigenous people feel they do not have a place.

Isolated

Silvino explained: "We've lost the Guarani customs, to cultivate our own food, to be self-sufficient.

"We started to fail because if one is just taking food and not working, you can... end up taking up vices. You stop being a real person, stop being Guarani."

The community is now looking to its past to try to rediscover what Silvino calls its spiritual roots, rediscovering traditional music and dance.

Most of the community are bilingual in Guarani and Spanish, and the village school is now attempting to consolidate that by teaching both.

We have to work like the whites but always maintaining pride in our culture
Silvino Moreyra

But many are still illiterate and have few skills of use in the outside world.

They are poor and rates of child mortality and alcoholism are some of the worst in Argentina. Many in Argentina believe there is no indigenous Argentine community, that most died out in the 19th Century battles to conquer territory.

Those that remain are usually on isolated, small strips of infertile land wedged between more productive territory.

Crispin is one of the young people banned from leaving the community.

"I think in the future the community will get better," he said.

"I'm thinking about my kids, my mother. The youngsters - I'd like to help them get off alcohol and cigarettes."

Graciela, aged 24, said the youngsters had changed a great deal.

"They've started thinking about their future," she said. "We're moving slowly, getting better a little at a time. We're also recovering a part of our culture. We're moving forward - we say 'opu'. That's very important to us. It's like a rescue operation."

Positive pastimes

The Guarani people arrived in what is now north-eastern Argentina from the Amazon jungle 700 years ago, looking for what they called The Land Without Evil.

They found lush green forests and dark red soil.

But the first Spanish explorers arrived shortly afterwards in search of their own dreams.

Jesuit missions were set up to impose a different kind of civilization, and indigenous communities were decimated by European diseases against which they had no defence.

The main attraction to this region, then and now, are the mighty Iguazu waterfalls, with close to two million litres of water a second spilling over the edge.

Iguazu waterfalls, Argentina
Villagers sell trinkets to tourists at the Iguazu waterfalls

What the Spanish explorers would have made of it one can only guess.

The foreign visitors are still coming, but now as tourists, while the indigenous people are reduced to selling trinkets in the entrance to the falls.

With the alcohol gone, Mr Moreyra wants to fill Guarani youngsters' lives with more positive pastimes.

As well as the traditional dancing and music, he is organising football matches for boys and girls.

They're building traditional wooden houses and producing crafts for sale to tourists brought by bus to their community twice a day.

Mr Moreyra explained: "What I always say to the youngsters is that you have to understand who you are. You've got to have pride deep down to know 'I am an indigenous person', and then to say 'I am proud of what I am'."

He added: "The white community is growing rapidly so we have to adapt. We have to work like the whites but always maintaining pride in our culture, always saying we're proud to be indigenous and not thinking that we're white, because we never will be."

The community will vote again at the end of this quarantine on whether it should be extended.

Its benefits have been so apparent that it seems likely that it will. Other indigenous communities around Argentina are showing an interest as they too battle to find their place in a modern society that has not only excluded and exploited them, but sometimes corrupted them.

The Guarani of Fort Mborore are saying they should be heard but that drastic measures are needed to make that happen.

SEE ALSO
Argentine village isolates teens
03 Oct 07 |  Americas
Country profile: Argentina
17 Jul 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Argentina
25 May 07 |  Country profiles

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