Cattle-ranchers’ legal action versus expropriation of 1,000s of hectares in favour of the indigenous Enxet people is rejected
Imagine being forced to leave your home to make way for cattle-ranching and live alongside a highway for years and years, dreaming, say, of one day returning to cultivate your grandparents’ garden plot, or remembering all the animals you raised there, or having to sneak back in to bury your dead. That’s been the experience for the indigenous Enxet people, from a community called Sawhoyamaxa in Paraguay’s Chaco forest, since the 1990s.
Last Thursday, though, the Enxet received some sensational news. The Supreme Court of Justice unanimously rejected ranchers’ claims that a landmark government decision made earlier this year to expropriate 14,404 hectares and give them back to Sawhoyamaxa was “unconstitutional.”
“We’re very happy to be able to recover our territories,” Sawhoyamaxa’s vice-leader Leonardo González told the Guardian. “We’ve been victims of the government and ranchers.”
“Justice has been done,” said Basilio Garcia, another community member, in a statement released by Paraguayan NGO Tierraviva, which supports the Enxet and calls the ruling “historic.” “We want to live better after so many years of suffering.”
“This demonstrates that Paraguayan justice is starting to compensate [Paraguay’s] historic debt to indigenous peoples, whose rights have always been violated,” said Eriberto Ayala, another Enxet man, in the same statement.
Tierraviva’s director, Julia Cabello, told the Guardian that the ruling was a “great victory”, but warned that cattle company “people are still in the area.”
“Work remains to be done to make sure they leave,” says Cabello, “a complex and difficult issue.”
“We’re urging the government to make sure the ranchers pull out,” says González. “We want the government to remove the personnel and cattle.”
Alejandra Morena, from the NGO FIAN International, which also supports Sawhoyamaxa, describes the ruling as “justice for [them] after a twenty-year struggle for their land.”
“[It is also] an important precedent for other communities fighting for their rights in Paraguay,” Morena says.
In 2006 the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled that Sawhoyamaxa’s rights had been violated and ordered the government to return their “traditional lands” to the community within three years – an order Paraguay only got around to complying with in June when the president, Horacio Cartes, signed an expropriation law after it passed through Congress and Senate. That decision was taken after the Enxet grew tired of waiting for the court’s order to be fulfilled and re-occupied their land in March 2013, and then made a series of protests in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, in April, May and June this year. The expropriation law was described as “historic” too, and led to jubilation among the Enxet and their supporters in Paraguay and abroad. Says Cabello:
Sawhoyamaxa has made history in its fight for the recognition of territorial rights in Paraguay. For the first time in the democratic era, the [legal] figure of expropriation has been used in order to return their lands to them. They managed to establish a very wide national and international network of support which, in addition to the ruling by the Inter-American Court and the decision by the Enxet to re-occupy their lands, compelled the Paraguayan state to come to a definitive resolution in their favour.
FIAN also described the June expropriation law as a “historic development”, but cautioned that the “general situation of indigenous and peasant communities in Paraguay remains extremely concerning” and Sawhoyamaxa “needs to be monitored and followed closely.” That need was made clear when the expropriation was challenged, on the grounds of “unconstitutionality”, by the two ranching companies, Kansol S.A. and Roswell Company S.A., which has held the disputed land as private property.
“Until last week there was fear [among the community] about the unconstitutionality claim,” says Cabello, “but now that fear has been dispelled by the Supreme Court.”
“Indigenous communities existed long before the legal validity of lands in terms of “property”,” the court’s ruling reads.
According to Cabello, since the 1990s at least 27 of the Sawhoyamaxa Enxet – most of them children – have died, they have not had regular access to water while living along the highway, and the ranchers have continued to deforest their lands.
“Their experience reflects the reality of the majority of indigenous communities in the Chaco,” she says. “Displaced, considered strangers, exploited as cheap labour. . . They live in a permanent state of emergency, with people dying from treatable and preventable causes.”
“While we celebrate [Sawhoyamaxa´s] victory,” says FIAN’s Morena, “we need to continue monitoring the situation of indigenous communities, peasants and human rights defenders in the country’s fragile and hostile environment.”
Both Kansol and Roswell belong to the Grupo Liebig, according to the latter’s website, which names Heribert Roedel as its president. Liebig describes itself as a “Swiss-German company” whose mission is “to be a company that takes care of social needs”, that it understands the importance of “engaging responsibly with our community”, that “human values” are “of the utmost importance”, and that “From the very begging (sic) of our activities we have strived to help with all its needs community (sic).”
Source: The Guardian