Gladys Benitez can hardly remember what her old home looked like, even though she lives just a few yards from it.
Because for more than two decades, Gladys, along with her three children and another more than 90 families from the indigenous community of Sawhoyamaxa, from the ethnic group Exnet, has been forced to live in a settlement by the side of a busy highway, as they fight to recover their nearby ancestral lands.
She lives in a flimsy wooden house set up in a narrow stretch of land and the view from it is terrifying.
On one side, a busy highway that connects Concepcion with Pozo Colorado where huge trucks power along. On the other, a fence that allows the community to see – but not enter – the lands that had been their families’ home for centuries.
In the middle, a series of unstable wooden structures on dry land, where the community finds it impossible to cultivate food or hunt for survival
Like food, water is scarce and the approximately 100 children that live in the community have received little education due to lack of resources – teachers and adequate facilities.
“In these conditions, we cannot have animals, we cannot leave our children alone because if a truck comes on the highway, there can be accidents. Once, a girl was hit by a truck and she still has problems walking,” Gladys told an Amnesty International team which recently visited the community.
“We also have many problems with the water, especially in the dry season. Sometimes they (the authorities) bring us water and sometimes we have to go and get it from a lake two kilometres away.”
End in sight? The traditional lands of the Sawhoyamaxa are in the eastern edge of the Chaco region of Paraguay and have been in the hands of private owners for several decades.
The community has two settlements – Kilómetro 16 and Santa Elisa – along the same road, but separated by approximately a 30 minute car ride .
In 1991, the indigenous community initiated procedures to gain legal recognition of their rights over a portion of their traditional lands. 15 years later, the Inter-American Court of Human rights issued an historic ruling ordering the Paraguayan state to return their traditional lands by May 2009.
Almost four years on from that deadline and with the community still living in temporary settlement, a door seems to have opened.
Negotiations are currently taking place between the current land owner and the government representatives for the land to be returned to Sawhoyamaxa.
Legal community representatives, the local NGO Tierraviva, have been told that the landowner has been offered alternative lands. But there’s still no clarity on the terms of the negotiations or a timeline for its resolution.
“We are going to claim what is ours, and that is our land,” said Gladys.
Carlos Mareco, leader of the Sawhoyamaxa community, agrees.
“The state has to find a solution. There is a verdict. This situation of abandonment is a reality for all indigenous communities. All indigenous communities are very abandoned.”
“It is a scandal the Sawhoyamaxa issue hasn't been resolved yet, particularly after three presidents have come and gone. Three governments have formed, but no one is taking responsibility for complying with the ruling of the Inter American Court,” said María José Eva, Researcher on Paraguay at Amnesty International.
“The Sawhoyamaxa cannot wait any longer, particularly in the conditions they have been forced to live in. Authorities in Paraguay must commit to resolving this situation and returning their ancestral lands before the end of the year.”
Second-class citizens According to official figures, there are around 108,600 Indigenous people in Paraguay – 1.7 per cent of the population – although this is likely to be a significant underestimate of the true figure. Most live in worrying conditions and levels of poverty and illiteracy are significantly higher among Indigenous Peoples compared to the rest of the Paraguayan population.
Historically, Paraguay’s Indigenous Peoples have been marginalized and subjected to grave and systematic abuses. A Truth and Justice Commission, which investigated abuses committed during the military dictatorship of General Stroessner (1954-1989) and the transition to democracy, documented unlawful killings, slavery, sexual violence and the sale of children.
Access to ancestral lands can make the difference between survival and extinction for indigenous communities of Paraguay.
Starting over The situation of the Sawhoyamaxa is not rare for Indigenous peoples in Paraguay.
Access to the lands, however, has not yet been effectively granted – as the finalization of a road to access them is still pending after nearly a year – and the community is fighting for the authorities to comply with their responsibility of ensuring that access to essential services – including facilities to move, housing, drinkable water and a school – are provided.
“Living by the side of the road is very dangerous. Over there, in our new community, things will surely be different,” Aparicio Martínez from the Yakye Axa community told Amnesty International representatives.
“Authorities in Paraguay have the responsibility of ensuring that both the Yakye Axa and Sawhoyamaxa indigenous communities are able to return to their lands and enjoy basic services there to develop their community and live in dignity, as directed by the Inter-American Court,” said María José Eva.
“Land is important to us because we use it to survive, to grow food and raise animals. The forest is important for us because the forest is life. Here, on the side of the road, we cannot grow anything, that is why we are fighting to go back,” said Gladys, but it’s hard to hear her as a truck passes by.