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ASUNCIÓN, Paraguay – Juan, a five-year-old of the Mbyá Guaraní ethnic group, wanders around the Plaza Uruguaya in Asunción carrying his baby brother.
Shirtless and shoeless, Juan tries to stop hurried passers-by, begging for coins.
“Change?” asks Juan. Some look in their pockets – and others ignore him.
Since February, the public square Plaza Uruguaya has become a provisional campground for members of indigenous communities who migrate to the capital to present claims to the government, the most common of which is the restitution of ancestral lands.
Today, about 80 indigenous camp on the square.
“We have come to ask the government to give us drinking water, to build schools in our communities, to include us in the social programs it carries out,” Tomás Domínguez said in Guaraní to Infosurhoy.com.
Domínguez is the leader of the Mbyá Guaraní community of Coronel Oviedo, a city located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Asunción.
“The citizens help us in a way to have food while we’re in the square, that is the only way we have to eat,” he said. “The children haven’t had anything to eat yet today.”
Paraguay's indigenous population numbers are 108,308, according to the Paraguayan Survey of Indigenous Homes conducted by the Department of Statistics, Surveys and Census during May and June 2008.
The study revealed just 12.2% of the indigenous population has medical insurance, and 40.2% is illiterate. Also, just 5.9% of the indigenous population has access to drinking water, while 21.3% has access to electricity.
“It is sad that in our country there are so many indigenous without any access to education and healthcare,” Domínguez said. “In my view, this government lacks the willingness to attend to the problems of the indigenous population. We feel we have been abandoned by the authorities.”
Leaders say their indigenous communities need own land
The indigenous population in Paraguay represents less than 2% of the country’s 6.3 million population.
“It is not fair that we have to come to the capital from our villages to demand lands,” Domínguez said. “Since we have no state assistance in our communities, we are forced to come.”
Gerardo Larrosa, an indigenous leader of the Xamok Kásek community, located in Río Verde, in the Paraguayan Chaco region about 340 kilometers (211 miles) north of Asunción, said the biggest challenge faced by the indigenous is not having their own land.
Larrosa added the deforestation that's happening in indigenous communities makes living off farming, hunting or fishing impossible.
“The indigenous territory is being destroyed, there is massive deforestation in our territories,” he said. “In the Chaco region (the Western Region) those who are causing the deforestation [of indigenous lands] are the cattle ranchers, and in the Eastern Region it’s due to those who grow large fields of soybeans.”
The indigenous have been forced to leave the rural areas and look for new opportunities in Asunción because their lands have not been granted titles by the state, or they have been invaded by intruders, Larrosa said.
“That is why [indigenous groups] find themselves forced to come to the capital to beg,” said Larrosa, a 32 year-old member of the Sanapaná ethnic group.
Esther López, a Human Rights adviser at the Paraguayan Institute for the Indigenous (INDI), a state agency, said the country’s indigenous are viewed in a “different way.”
“We cannot make value judgments in reference to the situation of the indigenous peoples from our Western reference point, with our Western indicators and variables,” she said.
About 500 indigenous communities, divided into 18 ethnic groups and five linguistic groups, have different hopes and visions, López said.
“External society wonders why the indigenous issue can’t be resolved when we are talking about only 100,000 inhabitants,” she said. “That is the simplistic view of a society that thinks that … we [all] respond to the same stimuli and … [require] the same necessities.”
Indigenous amidst an identity crisis
Paraguay's indigenous, López said, are experiencing an identity crisis because of the schism that exists between their traditions and modern society.
“They are confused because they have had access to our way of life, to what we have and what we do,” she said. “They want to adopt the supposed advantages of a society that has things. That creates a tremendous contradiction, because on the one hand they want what they do not have, but on the other hand this situation generates great internal conflict and dissatisfaction for them.”
López said 52% of the indigenous communities hold ownership title [to their lands] granted by the state, according to INDI’s data.
“There are indigenous communities with 40 or 50 families that have 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) of land, in other words, in a way they are rich, it’s just that they do not [monetarily] value that asset,” López said. “They value the land, but not as a financial asset, rather as an asset belonging to their ancestral territory that links them to their history, because the land is an element that unites that community.”
President Fernando Lugo's administration tyring to solve problem
López, however, said the situation of the indigenous is not because of state policies but the actions of some economic sectors.
“They, the soybean growers and cattle ranchers, are the ones who have weakened the productivity of the land, the ones who have damaged their [indigenous peoples’] rivers,” she said. “The ones who are frightened to see the indigenous groups in the public squares are the ones who have evicted them.”
It is important not to generalize, said López, since not all the communities face the same challenges.
“Paraguay will not solve this problem in ten, twenty or thirty years, much less during this administration, after two years in power,” she said. “In my view, I can say there are communities that are very prosperous and do not come to the capital to beg for alms. There are communities that have sustainable agriculture with good production of honey and other products that allow them not to have to come to the capital.”
The administration of President Fernando Lugo, who took office on Aug. 15, 2008, is forming a plan to improve the indigenous’ quality of life, López said.
“By 2013, the state promises to give title to 279,000 hectares (689,424 acres) of land to the indigenous communities,” she said. “With this, we believe that 70% of the communities will have land with legal titles.”
Larrosa, however, said the country's indigenous have been used by the government throughout the years and until now, there haven't been any answers to their problems.
“Almost everyone who has come into the presidency has not made the needs of the indigenous peoples a priority during their administration,” Larrosa said. “What they did was to use this issue for political discourse.”