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The BBC's Humphrey Hawksley
"The indians are in a state of drift and no-one seems to know a way out"
 real 56k

Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 12:24 GMT
Paraguayan Indians fight for rights
Maka woman
The Maka tribe is becoming more determined
By Humphrey Hawksley

In Paraguay, the small ethnic Indian community has vowed to make a stand against the government which has been accused by the US of violating their basic human rights.

We will fight to keep those things which belong to us

Cacique Chemhei, Maka chief
Traditionally, the Paraguayan indians were among the most accommodating in Latin America to Spanish colonisers.

But recently there have been an increasing number of incidents involving land rights and other disputes. The government has described the situation as an emergency.

The indians make up fewer than 100,000 of the five million population in Paraguay.

Growing divide

For the Maka - one of the great American Indian tribes - life is pretty basic. The conflict between preserving a way of life and eking an existence from the modern world is beginning to show.

Maka woman
Ethnic indians are a small minority in Paraguay
The ruling descendents of Spanish colonisers in Paraguay and the conquered indigenous indians have little in common and nothing is in place to stop the growing resentment.

Local Maka chief, Cacique Chemhei, is feeling the pressure and recently invited an indian rights activist from Mexico to advise his group.

"We have no means to live our life any longer," says Mr Chemhei. "No right even to our land.

"The white man has taken everything.

"But now we feel so strongly that we will fight to keep those things which belong to us."

Those accused are the ranchers, the families descended from the land-grabbing conquistadors, who rode and bloodily fought their way through Latin America in the 16th Century.

Land row

Paraguay was one of their first conquests because the indians here were more friendly. But 400 years on the cattlemen are bracing themselves for trouble.

They don't like to get close to Paraguayan culture - to our culture

Olga Rojas de Baez, Indian affairs
"The Indian problem has only started recently because of the aid workers and NGOs," says Juan Nestor Nunez Irala, President of the Rural Association of Paraguay.

"Now when an indian goes to work on a ranch, the NGO comes along and tells the indian that he - not the rancher - owns the land.

"The indians already have their own land and if we go down that road the whole of Paraguay will belong to indians."

But Rodrigo Villagra Carron, of Tierraviva, a human rights group campaigning for the indians, does not agree.

"It is only now that indians have become aware of their rights and that is beginning to be seen by everyone in Paraguay," he said. "The indians practically work as slaves, getting no medicine, no shelter and paid less than even poor Paraguayans."

If that means we need to die to defend our rights we will do that

Temi Lotzin, Mexican activist
There is a government department which handles indian affairs, but even its head, Olga Rojas de Baez, says its up to the indians, not the Paraguayans to sort the problem out.

"They haven't done that because they don't like to get close to Paraguayan culture - to our culture," she said.

But why is Ms de Baez heading up the department and not an indigenous Indian?

"The indians don't have the university education to do this job. I don't know any accountants or economists from the indian community.

"It's not that indians don't have access to education it's that they don't use it."


It is that attitude which has prompted the indian community to ask for outside help. The 2000 US State Department Human Rights report speaks of denial of medicine for the Paraguayan Indians, of malnutrition, disease, denial of wages, shelter, and much more.

The indian activist from Mexico, Temi Lotzin, who recently visited the Maka Indians near Ascuncion, has strong views about how indians throughout Latin America should make a stand.

"The corrupt governments of Latin America, they had suspended the rights of the indigenous people," he said. "The indigenous people need to do something.

"If that means we need to die to defend our rights we will do that, but we don't want to use the weapons because the weapon is only death."

This is the revolution talk of Latin American - out of character with the once compliant Paraguayan indians.

But now they are in a state of drift and no-one seems to know a way out.

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