Paraguay | Entitlements

An indigenous tribe in the Chaco seeks to retake its forests from Mennonite settlers

An indigenous Ayoreo woman cooks on a fire. The Ayoreo remain at the geographic and social periphery of the Mennonite world in central Chaco. NORBERTO DUARTE / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 June, 2012

WERE IT PRETTIER, you might call the town of Filadélfia mirage-like. To arrive here, you’ll drive six hours from Asunción, landlocked Paraguay’s sweaty capital, through the vast flatness of the Gran Chaco, a region stretching from northern Argentina across half of Paraguay and into Bolivia and Brazil. Every gust of wind here lifts a sheet of dust from the parched April ground. Flat-bottomed clouds slide by as over a sheet of glass. The sky’s not a dome, it’s a lid.

Filadélfia first appears as a blemish on the horizon where the dusty-brown earth and dusty-green forest merge with dusty-blue sky. Closer, the blemish becomes a monument, built in 2005 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the town’s founding. Five tapered concrete pikes stand in a circle holding a metal ring around a central cross that bows slightly forward. The cross looks—appropriately in the withering heat—like it’s wilting.

The concrete figures represent the five main ethnic groups that constitute Filadélfia’s population—the Enhlet, Guarayo and Nivaclé indigenous groups, the Latino Paraguayans and Brazilians, and the blond, blue-eyed German-speaking Mennonites. There are no markers to indicate which of the graduated pikes stands for which community, it is nevertheless clear that Filadélfia, a town of red brick, right angles and Teutonic determination, is Mennonite territory.

Filadélfia was founded in 1930 by Mennonite refugees fleeing religious persecution in Stalinist Russia. Emerging from the protestant reformation, Mennonites preached simplicity, pacifism and—most controversially—adult baptism. For centuries, Mennonites fled persecution across Europe, carefully preserving their increasingly anachronistic lifestyle while seeking cultural, religious and economic autonomy. Many of them eventually settled in isolated communities across the Americas.

Herbert and Adelina Regier, who hosted me at their modest family farm last April, are fourth generation Filadélfians, descendants of those original refugee-settlers. Their great-grandparents fled Russia across the frozen Amur River into northeastern China, whence they travelled to Germany, then by sea to Argentina and upriver into Paraguay. Here, the government promised autonomy in exchange for settling the Chaco as nominal Paraguayans, an attempt to stave off territorial war with neighbouring Bolivia. (The plan failed; war came in 1932.)

At a small railhead on the Paraguay River, the Mennonites boarded a train that cut hundreds of kilometres due west into nowhere. Through years of privation, disease and conflict, they raised a home from the dust and paved the way for future generations to transform the central Chaco into Paraguay’s most prosperous region. That transformation also drove the Chaco’s previously uncontacted indigenous communities—among them those represented in the monument—out of the forest and into a radically new social and economic world.

One tribe is missing from the Filadélfia monument: the Ayoreo. The last of the Chaco tribes forced out of the forest, the Ayoreo remain at the periphery of the Mennonite world. And on the dwindling acres of virgin Chaco forest, a few members of the Ayoreo-Totobiegosode subgroup still live in isolation, South America’s last uncontacted tribe outside the Amazon.

Since 1993, the Asunción-based NGO GAT (Gente, Ambiente y Territorio, or People, Environment and Territory) has assisted the Totobiegosode in gaining legal title to their ancestral territory. Though the past 20 years have seen significant progress for GAT and the Totobiegosode—the tribe now has legal title to 100,000 hectares of the Chaco—they have also seen astounding growth in the Chaco’s agro-industrial sector.

For the past century, dairy and cattle farming has been the pounding engine driving the Chaco’s growth and concomitant deforestation. More recently, Mennonite and Brazilian cattle ranches have converged on Ayoreo territory from the south and east, and on 4 October 2011, several Ayoreo spotted their uncontacted kinsmen on a recently bulldozed plot. Mere shreds of evidence—a hole for catching turtles, broken sticks, footprints in the dust—finally led Paraguay’s Department of Indigenous Affairs to declare the community at risk. These fragile borders form the frontline in the battle over land rights here in one of the world’s last great wildernesses.

Until the arrival of the first Mennonites in the late 1920s, no one from the outside world had penetrated the Chaco. Even the indefatigable Spanish colonisers called it the Inferno Verde—‘Green Hell’—and left it alone.

But for the Regiers and other Mennonites, that ‘Green Hell’ is home, a haven of their own making, a loan from God paid off through generations of labour. Described by town archivist Gerhard Niebuhr as “driven by an aggressively capitalist attitude”, the Mennonites of Filadélfia seem to see their success as tacit proof that God approves of their fierce economic will. The indigenous cultures that preceded them here were hunter-gatherer societies, sharing immediately and equally whatever sustenance they could eke out of the forest. This essential social and economic difference has stymied what minimal efforts these communities have made to see eye to eye.

Filadélfia is disarmingly unabashed in its segregation. When I asked the Regiers if their aldea (a rural subdivision of the Fernheim Colony, administrated from Filadélfia) was entirely Mennonite, Adelina responded, “Yes, there are no Brasilians or Paraguayans here.” She did not even mention the indigene. The town proper, too, is divided by race. Wealthy Mennonites live in modest ranchers on the north side of town. They wear overalls and baseball caps and drive brand new pick-up trucks past the immense peanut-processing plant in the centre of town, where poor indigenous women sell watermelons out of a decrepit wagon. Working-class Paraguayans live in smaller, simpler brick structures on narrow plots to the south. And on the town’s southern fringes lie the destitute barrios obreros, or workers’ colonies, one for each indigenous group. Except, that is, for the Ayoreo.

The first encounters between the Mennonites and the Ayoreo—historically a warrior tribe—led to violence and bloodshed on both sides. By the 1950s, Niebuhr says, the Mennonites invited the more “culturally aggressive”, evangelical Protestant New Tribes Mission into the Chaco “to help ‘domesticate’”—that was the word—“the Indian threat”. Through the 1960s and 1970s, New Tribes exploited intra-tribal tensions with so-called “manhunts”—sending already-converted Ayoreo back into the forest to draw out uncontacted kin.

For the past 20 years, Ayoreo workers have requested their own barrio in Filadélfia, but the Colony has systematically denied it. Known for being good workers, the Ayoreo are nevertheless deemed “too difficult to control” by many Mennonites, Niebuhr told me; they demand proper wages for their work. One Mennonite woman told me “they’re like animals”.

Other indigenous communities are hardly more charitable. One Enhlet man, Florencio Unruh, told me, “They were the last to be civilized and can’t live here like us.” We sat with Emilio Maciel, Filadélfia’s Enhlet leader, on a cluttered patch of land in that community’s barrio. Maciel nodded to the cluster of nearby shacks—100 of them, housing 220 families, occupy 12 hectares. Those hectares—cramped and hot and mosquito-infested in dengue-ridden Paraguay—belong not to the Enhlet themselves, but rather, like everything in Filadélfia, to the Mennonite colony. The Enhlet, who just 100 years ago lived freely in these very woods, are now mere tenants here.

Maciel shrugged. “[The Ayoreo] were forbidden here—they didn’t know how to live in the city”. It seems a dubious privilege.

Without land in town, some Ayoreo have resorted to sex work, others camp by the highway waiting for work, while some continue to live at the New Tribes Mission in Campo Loro. But some members of the Totobiegosode have a basic privilege denied to their brethren: land.

When GAT began its work with the Totobiegosode, most of the 550,000 acres requested in the initial petition were privately owned. In the course of 20 years, GAT has helped the Totobiegosode gain legal title to nearly a fifth of that initial petition through arduous judicial processes. The two hamlets established on that territory, Chaidi and Arocojnadi, are now home to 28 families.

Not unlike Filadélfia’s Enhlet, the Ayoreo of Chaidi live in great poverty. Here, though, they live encircled by palo santo (‘holy wood’) and swollen-trunked palo borracho (‘holy drunkard’) trees rather than ranches. They use the land as they choose, hunting in the forest, collecting materials for crafts, and working (albeit on the nearest Mennonite and Brazilian farms) according to their own needs. Above all, the Totobiegosode can abstain—at least to some extent—from a culture of accumulation without analogue in their traditionally communal society.

The first Mennonites never intended to displace anyone; they came to a (literally) promised land and, like other historically oppressed communities that find themselves suddenly in a position of power, became oppressors themselves. A century later, it would be impossible, both practically and morally, to try and force them out. Filadélfia is not, after all, the mirage it first seems.

On a languid Asunción evening, I met Gladys Casaccia, who has worked with GAT since its inception, at a literary café in Asunción’s colonial centre. “I think the Totobiegosode have the advantage of living on their own territory,” she said. “Compared to other [indigenous] peoples they have it better.” We sipped our coffee as the sidewalk flushed streetlamp-gold. “The law guarantees their right to the land,” she said. “How to get it is another fight.”