For more than 20 years, more than 90 families from the Sawhoyamaxa indigenous community have lived by the side of a busy highway in the Paraguayan Chaco of Paraguay. Displaced from their traditional lands by a private landowner, they struggle with limited access to drinking water and to the more fertile lands where they previously hunted and cultivated crops to support their families. Their fight to regain their land and way of life, demonstrates the potential for successful resistance to land-grabs and forced-evictions, taking place across the world, but this week, they may win their most important victory yet.
The Sawhoyamaxa community, part of the Exnet ethnic group, began the legal battle to win back a portion of their traditional lands in 1991. Their case eventually made it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ruled in 2006 that the Paraguayan government had three years to return the ancestral territory to the community.
By March of 2013, the Paraguayan government’s negotiations with the private landowner had failed, and members of the community decided to re-occupy a portion of the land. In the past year, they have enjoyed increased self-sufficiency and security in the small new settlement. A delegation of senators and human rights activists who visited the Sawhoyamaxa settlement in March were able to see the potential for further improvement in the community’s standard of living if the Paraguayan state were to comply with the ruling of the Inter-American Court.
The community’s perseverance, along with the support of allies at local NGOs TierraViva and Amnestia International Paraguay, resulted in a victory at the end of April when the Senate approved a bill to return 14,404 hectares of land to the community. The ultimate step in this decades-long-struggle could be the Bill’s passage in the Lower Chamber (Cámara de Diputados). Amnesty International’s Urgent Action campaign brought increased pressure leading up to the Senate vote; international attention leading up to the May 21st vote in the Lower Chamber could help ensure victory for the Sawhoyamaxa.
Andrea Lindsay is working with Amnesty International and other NGOs in Paraguay until June, when she will return to the United States to join The Camus Kitchens Project as an Americorps volunteer.