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Paraguayan religious leaders highlight negative effect of new law on indigenous peoples

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Church activists warn that land disputes involving ranchers and indigenous peoples have become increasingly common in Paraguay.

In recent months, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of communities being evicted from their traditional lands by the police, sometimes without due process.

Activists say a law passed on September 30, 2021, which increases penalties for “land invaders”, has further criminalized the struggle of indigenous peoples for their traditional territories.

“There was a lot of pressure for land in October and November because that’s when planting starts. The problem will persist until the end of February, because it is the time for late plantings,” said Fr. Enrique Gaska, who heads the National Coordination of Indigenous Pastoral (CONAPI), the Catholic entity that works with the indigenous population. Paraguayan.

The number of indigenous people in this South American country is estimated at 130,000, out of a total population of over 7 million. Part of their groups live in the Chaco, a mostly dry region, which does not interest most farmers in the country.

“But in the east, where there is the most fertile soil in the country, the Guarani population is harassed by herders who want to occupy their territories. Sometimes they don’t have regular land ownership,” said Father José Arias, who works with indigenous peoples in Benjamín Aceval in the Chaco. Node.

According to indigenous leader Bernarda Pesoa, a member of Conamuri – an organization of indigenous and peasant women – big soybean companies are behind the evictions of communities in the eastern part of Paraguay.

“Our struggle for our land is permanent. The law used to protect us, but now we are completely abandoned by the state,” she said. Node.

Pesoa, a member of the Qom people, noted that a large march organized by indigenous organizations in December 2021 brought together thousands of people from different parts of the country in Asunción.

“In March, we will organize another massive demonstration in the capital,” she added.

Italian-born Father José Zanardini, an anthropologist who has worked with indigenous peoples in Paraguay since the 1970s, called the new law an attack on indigenous rights.

“Since its approval, there have been violent actions against certain communities. All of this is unconstitutional. The Paraguayan Constitution stipulates that the state must provide land to indigenous peoples, so that they can maintain their traditional way of life,” he said. Node.

He said lawyers linked to the Church had taken legal action to help the evicted communities. Catholic movements helped indigenous groups who had to move to urban areas.

“Unfortunately, most of Congress is tied to agribusiness. They have no desire to give more land to the indigenous people,” he added.

Arias explained that the situation for most indigenous groups is particularly difficult today. Apart from land disputes, most of them have faced dire economic conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Many had temporary jobs on farms and haven’t been hired in the past two years. The state has given no response to this situation. Social pastoral care is their only hope,” he said.

Gaska, from Conapi, said statements from the bishopric on the new law have brought the issue to public attention.

At the end of November, the bishops issued a public letter to the Paraguayan congress demanding “respect for the rights of indigenous peoples and the laws that govern them”.

“We would like to express to you our deep concern over the forced evictions and threats of eviction of indigenous and peasant communities in different areas of the country,” the statement said.

The bishops said they were “outraged” by the recent evictions, so they decided to “request the national authorities to take precautions to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in our country and the right to land of our compatriots”.

A few days later, Bishop Ricardo Valenzuela de Caacupé said in his homily that it was necessary “to evaluate the derogation from the recent modification of the Penal Code (the criminalization of the occupation of land) or its revision with [the inclusion of] a mechanism for control and dialogue,” according to the local news site Ultimate Hora.

The bishops’ statements were criticized by Senator Fidel Zavala, one of the supporters of the new law. He said in a radio station interview that “it is serious that the Church gives substance to attempts to whitewash wrongdoing like the invasion.”

“The Church cannot be manipulated. Political problems must have political solutions,” he said, according to The Nation.

Pesoa said it was fortunate that the indigenous communities had the support of the bishops and CONAPI. “But Congress just isn’t listening to them,” she said.

Gaska said he doesn’t think the law can be changed until March because Congress is currently in recess.

“But it is absolutely necessary that before each eviction all branches of the state discuss it with the affected communities,” he said.

All of these attacks have at least strengthened indigenous organizations, Zanardini asserted.

“My impression is that there has been an internal maturation and new leaders have emerged, including very capable women who have wisely guided their communities,” he said.