Disappearing Cultures Paraguay’s Indigenous Tribes

Disappearing Cultures Paraguay’s Indigenous Tribes

When the original colonists settled in the Americas, they came by ship and resided in the areas closest to the sea. As history progressed, the local indigenous populations were either eliminated or assimilated into the developing world around them. Many groups, however, remain throughout what is now the Republic of Paraguay where they are currently fighting for survival in today’s modern world.

Paraguay, bordered by Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia, is known by many as the “Heart of South America.” Completely surrounded by land, it is referred to as an “inland island,” and it is because of this fact that it remains, to this day, the home of at least 466 indigenous communities. According to the book, Los Pueblos Indígenas del Paraguay (The Indigenous Villages of Paraguay), a fundamental element of culture is language. In Paraguay there are at least 20 distinguished languages and 11 ethnic groups where 90 to 100 percent of the population speaks the ethnic language as their mother language. The indigenous population in Paraguay can be divided into five linguistic families: Zamuco, Mataco, Enlhet-Enenlhet (Maskoy), Guaicurú and Guaraní, which are further broken down into individual communities with their own linguistic dialects.

The Guaraní linguistic family makes up more than 50 percent of the indigenous population in Paraguay with approximately 58,000 people. In fact, Guaraní is one of the country’s two official languages and is understood by nearly 90 percent of Paraguayans. The Mbyá Guaraní is the largest group with nearly 17,000 people residing throughout the region east of the Paraguay River.

Once de Diciembre (December 11) is one community of the Mbyá Guaraní that resides in the city of Paso Yobai. Although some members understand some Spanish, Guaraní continues to be the language spoken by all the people. Like many of today’s indigenous, the community is struggling to find its place in the modern world without losing its ethnic roots. Comprised of 45 families, they live on 50 hectares of land owned by a German Paraguayan. The land owner does not charge the community to live on and use the land – for now. But, it is not the same as having their own land, says the 30 year-old cacique (leader) Eulalio Gaona Vera.

The Consequences of Development

According to Title II, Chapter V, Article 64, Section 1 of the Paraguayan Constitution:

“Indian Peoples have the right, as communities, to a shared ownership of a piece of land, which will be sufficient both in terms of size and quality for them to preserve and to develop their own lifestyles. The State will provide them with the respective land, free-of-charge. This land, which will be exempt from attachments, cannot be divided, transferred or affected by the statute of limitations, nor can it be used as collateral for contractual obligations or to be leased. It will also be exempt from all taxes.”

Even though the constitution states they will be provided with adequate land, many indigenous communities throughout the country are still waiting for the government to act on such promises. Other groups have given up waiting and have no interest in a relationship with the Paraguayan Government.

According to the Indian law 904/81, paragraph 18, “The Indians in Eastern Paraguay have the right to 20 hectares of land per family and in the Chaco 100 hectares per family.” It may seem like the Chaco would be the favorable choice, but it is actually the worse option. The Gran Chaco is a vast expanse of 647,500 sq. km of land occupying parts of Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

Photo Credit: Jacqulynne Steele

Photo Credit: Jacqulynne Steele

Although the Chaco area makes up nearly 61 percent of the Paraguayan country, much of the area has hard clay soil and semi-arid conditions, making agriculture difficult and the land inhospitable.

The Asociación de Servicios de Cooperación Indígena Mennonita (Association of Services of Indigenous and Mennonite Cooperation, ASCIM) is a cooperation with indigenous communities, which responds to their initiatives for economic and social growth. It describes the Chaco people as traditional hunters and collectors bound-up with nature according to the principles of harmony and sustainability. With huge amounts of deforestation – approximately 1643 hectares lost per day with associated depleted animal populations – the traditional way of life is coming to an end for much of the indigenous population. As a result, more and more members of the communities are leaving their villages in search of help from the Paraguayan government and groups like ASCIM. Some find jobs on nearby farms or in houses and share their earnings with the rest of their communities. Others fill the sidewalks in larger cities, such as the capital Asunción, fighting discrimination and trying to be heard.

The Many Facets of Survival

As indigenous populations fight for survival, the first barrier they must overcome is language. The more they interact with people outside their communities, the more the languages begin to blend. The Enlhet-Enenlhet linguistic family is the most criticized for the deterioration and abandonment of its languages as they mix the Guaná, Angaité and Sanapaná languages, among others. Because of this, many languages, especially those in the Chaco, are threatened by extinction. According to the World Atlas of Languages, approximately 6,000 spoken languages exist, but in the passing of this century only 3,000 will remain. The bottom line: The survival instinct is superior compared to the desire to conserve a language.

Many groups, such as ASCIM, are working throughout the country to assist Paraguay’s indigenous populations as they adapt to the new world. Currently, approximately 226 Peace Corps Volunteers are working in Paraguay on projects ranging from agriculture and natural resources to education, rural health and urban youth development. Programs like La Secretaría de la Mujer, Niñez y Adolescencia (The Secretary of the Woman, Children and Adolescents) are working to provide groceries, identification cards and training programs to teach willing groups how to develop sustainable agricultural techniques. Otherwise, many groups only worry about what they lack for the moment and don’t think about the long-term survival of their people. “The priority objective of these projects,” states ASCIM, “is to cause little change in the lifestyle of these settlers and hence to continue, as much as possible, with known economic systems: gathering, producing honey, breeding sheep and goats, handicraft, horticulture and wage-labor.”

Some groups are able to take advantage of the assistance provided and flourish as individual communities. Peace Corps volunteer Yazmine works with a community of four different clans that work together to achieve common goals.

Photo Credit: Jacqulynne Steele

Photo Credit: Jacqulynne Steele

They travel outside their community to work in homes or on farms, but they stay connected to their roots. They are proud of their heritage and continue to host the largest Guaraní festival in the country. But, they are still grateful to the assistance provided by the Paraguayan government and also consider themselves to be Paraguayan.

Though communities like the one Yazmine is helping have benefited from government aid, there are still many groups left without sufficient land to secure their subsistence on a long-term basis. These groups, like Once de Diciembre in Paso Yobai, are accepting food and clothing from the government, but what they really need is their own land source without wondering if they will have to relocate in the future.

The Process of Assimilation

ASCIM is also working to provide education to those groups who wish to take advantage of the opportunity. They begin with a transition stage using indigenous teachers and incorporating a bilingual curriculum. Important subjects include health, disease prevention and treatment as well as sustainable agricultural techniques. Incorporating the customs and traditions of the people, they also provide practical sub-programs where boys are taught about manual labor, and girls work with domestic sciences. By providing educational opportunities, communities will be able to interact with the outside world and provide for themselves while holding onto their indigenous beliefs and values.

As previously stated, Guaraní, the most common indigenous language in Paraguay, is also one of the official, nationally recognized languages of the country. Although use of the language does not signify indigenous heritage, it can show social status. The higher class speaks primarily Spanish in public and at home, even though most understand Guaraní. The lower class speaks Guaraní in both. The majority of the population speaks a mixture of both languages in what is known as “Jopará.” However, as stated in Los Pueblos Indígenas del Paraguay, it is inappropriate to talk about superior and inferior cultures; it is more correct is to talk about differences.

Sixteen-year-old Maria from Villarrica, Paraguay, says she would study Guaraní even if it were not an educational requirement because it is part of the Paraguayan culture. Although she has no indigenous family, she says it is important to remember the Nation’s origin.

Title II, Chapter V, Article 62 of the Paraguayan Constitution states, “This Constitution recognized the existence of Indian Peoples, defined as ethnic groups whose culture existed before the formation of the State of Paraguay.” But are they really recognized as their own people or as a lower, animal-like breed? In the introduction to the book Los Pueblos Indígenas del Paraguay, a little boy asked his teacher about the indigenous. When she told him they were their ancestors who lived in the jungle, the boy burst into tears exclaiming that he didn’t want to be a descendent of such uncivilized, savage people. The same boy later asked if the indigenous will continue living in the future or if they will disappear. The teacher responded after a moment of silence, “I don’t know if it is better that they do, or that they don’t.”

When asked this same question, many Paraguayans have varied responses to how long they think the indigenous population will continue to survive in Paraguay. But, they all seem to agree that the true indigenous culture will fade away as they are assimilated into today’s modern world. When asked what the difference is between the “indigenous” and the “Paraguayan,” it comes down to simple genetics. Some groups are fighting to hold onto their culture, but little by little, customs and values slip through the cracks as the fight for survival leads them to cohabitate with the rest of the population.

Groups like Once de Diciembre continue to wait for land to be given to them, but even if they had it, they lack the proper education to sustain the community for a long period of time. As the communities interact with others, the youth begin to lose the desire to learn the old ways and the dances and traditions are left to die with the older generations.