Victory for the Sawhoyamaxa in Paraguay
On 24 April the Paraguay senate voted for a bill that meant returning to the Sawhoyamaxa the land they were expelled from over twenty years ago. The judgement is also a victory for Diakonia and our partner organization Tierraviva, which fought side by side with the Sawhoyamaxa for the right to the land.
Indigenous people stripped of their land
When in around 2000 the Paraguay government sold thousands of hectares of land in the Chaco area in the western part of the country to private businessmen, the indigenous peoples were deprived of their rights to the land. The new landowners exploited the population as labour or forced them to leave the areas they had lived in for generations.
150 families forced to live on side of road
The Sawhoyamaxa ethnic group of the Enxet indigenous people were hard hit. They were thrown out by the German businessman who bought their land. One hundred and fifty displaced families set up home beside the asphalt road that follows the boundary of their ancestral land.
Since that time, under appalling living conditions, they have been asserting and fighting for their ownership of the land. Access to food has been scant, and the only work available has been temporary.
“We sometimes secretly tried to get through the barbed wire to get at our traditional sources of food. We lived like slaves, with no freedom. What was ours now belonged to strangers,” says Leonardo González, leader of the ethnic group, with sorrow in his voice.
Many died of avoidable or treatable illnesses
The poor sanitary facilities and lack of healthcare services alongside the road led to around 60 people becoming ill and dying from pneumonia, gastric flu and diarrhoea – illnesses that with access to medicines, doctors and good housing could have been treated or avoided completely.
Legal support from Diakonia and Tierraviva
Over the years Diakonia and its partner organization Tierraviva have followed the Sawhoyamaxa’s struggle and provided them with legal advice. Tierraviva has worked with campaigns and lobbying to enable the people to regain their land, as well as to meet their basic needs.
As the national courts didn’t take up the people’s appeal, they were forced to take the case further to the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), which finally ruled in favour of the Sawhoyamaxa in 2006. The judgement, to be implemented within three years, forced the Paraguay government to return the land, provide medical assistance and make resources available to the people for education and development projects. But eight years on, this has still not taken place.
International campaign to force the government to return the land
When almost all the funding had been used up, the Sawhoyamaxa, with the help of Tierraviva, organized a campaign within and outside the country’s borders with the aim of forcing the government to return 14,404 hectares to the people. To put pressure on the government, they made a decision a year ago to reclaim the land themselves by simply setting up home there once again. Also, they started growing and producing their traditional foods.
They increasingly won public opinion and, with more and more people working for their cause, the Sawhoyamaxa finally managed to get the senate to address their claim to confiscate the land.
The German businessman who bought the land from the Paraguay government has tried using various means to prevent the people from succeeding, including putting pressure on judges and senators, and letting cattle crush the people’s crops.
24 April 2014 an historic day
And finally, after several months’ processing, a majority in the senate voted on 24 April 2014 to pass a bill on expropriation of the land to the Sawhoyamaxa’s advantage!
The case will now be handed over to the Paraguay parliament, which must also approve the act in order for the Sawhoyamaxa to be able to live on their land without any fear of being expelled again. In this way, they will be able to fully restore their culture and traditions and improve their living conditions.