Bolivia: Guarayo Indians Struggle to Hold Onto Their Land

Elida Guarayo

The Guarayo indigenous people in eastern Bolivia are losing their land to large landowners. But one woman is heading a social movement to fight the greed of timber companies and agribusiness interests in the area.San Pablo is a poor town in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands made up of mud-walled, thatched-roof houses 335 km north of the city of Santa Cruz and 14 km from Ascensión, the capital of the province of Guarayos.

(IPS) The Guarayo indigenous people in eastern Bolivia are losing their land to large landowners. But one woman is heading a social movement to fight the greed of timber companies and agribusiness interests in the area.

San Pablo is a poor town in Bolivia’s eastern lowlands made up of mud-walled, thatched-roof houses 335 km north of the city of Santa Cruz and 14 km from Ascensión, the capital of the province of Guarayos.

The Guarayo are a branch of the Guaraní, one of Bolivia’s three main indigenous groups, along with the Aymara and Quechua.

Today, the 20,000 members of the Guarayo community have preserved their customs and way of life, which is based on fishing, hunting and gathering fruit, as well as the cultivation of rice, pineapples, sunflowers, bananas and other crops.

The Guarayo community is one of the largest indigenous groups in Bolivia’s Amazon jungle region and the nearby savannahs, along with the Chiquitano and Ayoreo people.

The region "is a kind of paradise because of the abundance of trees like bigleaf mahogany, cedar, bibosi (a kind of ficus) and the sandbox tree," the head of the Guarayos Indigenous Forestry Association, Freddy Sandoval, told IPS.

The natural wealth of Bolivia’s lowlands has caught the attention of foreign investors who have begun to move into the area, often illegally acquiring the ancestral land of indigenous people, said Sandoval.

In a dimly lit room furnished with rough hand-made furniture and a beam and thatched roof ceiling, Osfin Abiyuna described to IPS "the destruction and invasion of our stunning natural surroundings."

His wife and eight children listened as Abiyuna talked about the beating he received when he was a member of the disciplinary panel of the Union of Guarayo Native People (COPNAG). He said the assault was carried out by thugs hired by landowners and corrupt indigenous leaders.

A year ago, he was lying in a hospital bed, hoping to recover the vision in one of his eyes, which was damaged when he was kicked in the face during the attack.

His childhood memories of the pristine wilderness he grew up in have been "tarnished by the ferocious machines that devour trees, eat up the young bushes and leave huge areas with gash-like furrows in fields where crops are produced on a large-scale," said Abiyuna.

Lakes that used to hold colourful tropical fish and served as sources of rich fertiliser are now just a memory, he added. And the water in the local rivers is murky now from runoff from the land that was stripped by bulldozers, while the snakes, lizards, alligators and fish are dying off, he said.

Around Ascensión, public land distributed by the government to indigenous groups is in danger, and people who defend the community-owned property have suffered harassment, threats and beatings at the hands of the "caray" (white men), COPNAG president Elida Urapuca told IPS.

Urapuca, an accountant, is now landless, but belongs to a family with a long cultural tradition in the area.

Under a new land reform law passed in late 2006, the collectively-owned indigenous areas, known as TCOs, cannot be sold or embargoed.

But alarmed by the increasingly frequent arrival of outside investors in the area, last year the Guarayo People’s Assembly sacked the entire board of directors and elected Urapuca and other young leaders as their new representatives.

A disciplinary panel found that the former COPNAG leaders had approved the sale or transfer of some 400,000 hectares of community land to foreigners (mainly from Brazil and Russia), for 1.1 million dollars.

"We want to recover those 400,000 hectares," COPNAG’s new secretary of land and territory, 32-year-old Ángel Yubanore, told IPS.

He said he was pushing for the arrest and imprisonment of the former COPNAG leaders, and that he had already survived two attempts on his life this year.

The director of the National Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA), Juan Carlos Rojas, told IPS that his office had not received "any formal complaint" about the situation in the Guarayo community.

Since 1999, the Guarayo Indians have been seeking ownership of 2.5 million hectares, but so far have only gained a collective land title to the 1.35 million hectares that they already inhabit.

Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, is basically divided between the western highlands, home to the impoverished indigenous majority, and the richer eastern lowlands, where much of the population is made up of people of partly or predominantly European (primarily Spanish) descent. However, there are also indigenous groups living in the east, like the Guarayo

The support base of President Evo Morales, the country’s first-ever indigenous president, is largely found in the western altiplano. Meanwhile, several eastern provinces have been demanding autonomy and greater control over the rich farmland and natural gas reserves concentrated in that part of the country, and are staunchly opposed to the government’s agrarian reform measures.

One of the leaders of the opposition movement, Branco Marinkovic, the head of the Santa Cruz Civic Committee, owns some 27,000 hectares in the area around Ascensión, which include a lake and part of a protected forest area, as well as land that is claimed by the Guarayo.

INRA secretary-general Juan de Dios Fernández said the government has brought legal action against Marinkovic — one of the largest regional landowners — for illegally acquiring the land in question.

In an attempt to block the lawsuit, Marinkovic turned to the Constitutional Court to question the legitimacy of Rojas’s appointment as interim director of INRA.

In the east, 90 percent of all land is owned by 10 percent of the landholders, while in the western highlands, 90 percent of the indigenous campesinos (peasant farmers) own just 10 percent of the arable land, Cliver Rocha, the director general of land in the Ministry of Agrarian and Rural Development, told IPS.

But, he said, "this grim history" will change with the implementation of the 2006 agrarian reform law, which provides for the redistribution of idle land to landless communities and campesinos.

Under the new law, the government can seize unused and unproductive land from private landowners, after paying them just compensation, and redistribute it among poor farmers and indigenous communities.

As in other Latin American countries, land ownership in Bolivia is heavily concentrated. According to INRA, there are 35 Bolivian families who own areas ranging between 15,000 and 290,000 hectares.

The draft constitution approved by the constituent assembly on Dec. 8, which will be submitted to a referendum within six months, sets a cap on the amount of land that can be owned by any individual. Voters will first decide on whether the maximum area should be 5,000 or 10,000 hectares.

The process of land titling of collectively-owned indigenous property is complex because many of the areas also encompass longstanding settlements of non-indigenous people.

IPS obtained different figures in requests to different authorities with respect to the amount of land distributed by the Morales administration. For now it is not possible to clearly establish how many hectares have actually been redistributed by the government.

But INRA’s Juan de Dios Fernández told IPS that since January 2006 (when Morales took office), land titles have been granted for 10.2 million hectares, including 3.1 million hectares in 2006 and the rest this year.

Land titling, the last step in the process of redistributing land, involves a great deal of red tape and can take years.

In terms of publicly-owned land, the government reports that in the first 10 months of 2007, 562,468 hectares were distributed to 1,967 rural families with little or no land.

The official in charge of the question of indigenous land areas in INRA’s Santa Cruz office, José Luis Barrientos, explained to IPS that under the principle that "the land belongs to whoever works it," the government land reform effort recognises the social and economic function of collectively owned land and puts top priority on indigenous communities in particular.

"The fate of the Guarayo people depends on me, and Marinkovic has to return my land to me," said Urapuca.