Diakonia - People change the world
Maria Julia Cabello is one of Tierra Viva’s lawyers and works for the rights of indigenous peoples to their land, culture and traditions.

Indigenous people in Paraguay regain their land

Diakonia works from a long-term perspective, often supporting local organizations for a long period of time. Tierra Viva was Diakonia’s first partner organization in Paraguay. It works to ensure that indigenous peoples obtain the right to their land, culture and traditions. Tierra Viva has won all the cases it has taken to court so far!

Stands up for the most vulnerable

Since 1994 Tierra Viva has fought to reinforce and stand up for indigenous rights. I meet Maria Julia Cabello, one of Tierra Viva’s lawyers, on the organization’s premises in Asunción.

Maria Julia always took it for granted that she would become a lawyer so that she could stand up for the most vulnerable. She started working at Tierra Viva in 2006.
“In the beginning I only had a part-time position but I liked it so much that I still worked full-time and longer,” says Maria Julia.

Right to land, education, healthcare...

Tierra Viva focuses primarily on restitution* of indigenous territories but also supports communities in strengthening their political, social and cultural rights. Maria Julia explains that Tierra Viva’s approach is that territorial rights not only refer to land rights but also include other fundamental rights.

“We believe that the right to education, for example, is covered by territorial rights. There must be guarantees for teaching adapted to the reality in which indigenous peoples live. There must be a system that guarantees that the village teachers turn up and don’t just take their pay check and disappear, which has happened previously.”

Another problem that Maria Julia points to is healthcare. Care and medicine are rarely available in the villages. There is often only a rough track between them and out to the large, asphalt road. If it rains heavily the tracks are flooded and destroyed, and it is impossible to get in or out of the villages. The residents become isolated. In such cases diseases such as diarrhoea and influenza can lead to death.
“It’s dreadful because these are diseases that are not usually life-threatening. But without knowledgeable people or access to care, people die,” says Maria Julia.

Children should be able to run around and play

I ask Maria Julia if she is scared sometimes, because I know that working with human rights in Paraguay involves certain risks. She answers no. She talks about when she had just started working at Tierra Viva. They had travelled out to Sawhoyamaxa, a village that had just won back its territory in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

It was raining heavily and a little chilly, and the children were running around in the rain. Maria Julia asked one of the women in the village if the children should really be running around like that. They could get ill. The woman looked at her and answered: let them get ill. They’ve never been able to run around before – when we lived by the road, it was too dangerous. If they get ill from running around in the rain, it doesn’t matter.

“I then realised how important our work is and felt proud of being part of Tierra Viva. Children should be able to run around – it’s their right. The memory still gives me goosebumps, and it’s things like this that give you the energy to keep moving forward all the time,” says Maria Julia.

Dialogue and mutual trust

Initial contact between Tierra Viva and the indigenous communities is different on each occasion. Sometimes it takes the form of a representative from the villages getting in touch to ask for help, and sometimes Tierra Viva itself makes contact. After establishing contact, they start to build a good relationship with the people they are to support. This means many visits and conversations. Only when the relationship has been cemented do Maria Julia and the other lawyers get started on the legal work.
“If our work is to run smoothly, we need to have a good relationship. It’s incredibly important for us that everyone in the villages gets to know us, that they feel secure and have confidence in us, as we will be representing them,” explains Maria Julia.

Has won all the cases they have taken to court

Maria Julia and her colleagues have a lot to be proud of. They have won 100 percent of the cases they have presented and have restituted over 120,000 hectares of land to different indigenous communities.

Tierra Viva’s legal cases are also used as reference cases at courts in several other countries in South America and in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Maria Julia says that she often gets emails from lawyers in similar organizations that either want to ask for advice, discuss strategies or talk about their own successes using Tierra Viva’s strategies as a model.
“When strangers get in touch to ask you for advice or to say that they have managed to win sympathy for their cause by looking at our work, you can’t help feeling proud,” she concludes.

* Restitution is a legal term that means restoration, in this case of territory.