All the waters: Aroma of the Paraguayan Gran Chaco

The Yishinachat community smells like rosewood and dust. Near the houses, smoke from fragile little braziers lit on the floor complement the aromas inland: the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Yishinachat is part of the department of Boquerón, the country's largest: one third of the territory of Paraguay, with only 2% of the total population. Español

Bruno Grappa Migue Roth
15 October 2019, 12.01am
Member of the Yishinachat indigenous community in the Great Paraguayan Chaco
Winning photograph of the Survival, Open Democracy and El Espectador contest

This report is one of the two winners of the journalism contest on indigenous issues organized by Survival International, democraciaAbierta and El Espectador.

For Isabel (not her name in Nivaclé) the environment, their homeland, the country is perhaps forty-five square kilometers; perhaps Neuland, four hours if the roads allow; as much Filadelfia, one hour from Neuland.

Her hours – Isabel’s hours - are incessant repetition, not easy, questions on the firewood, predictions about the day the dappled goat (from the community herd) will give birth; or "will Jacinto bring batteries? Will Jacinto remember to bring batteries? When he arrives, will Jacinto bring the batteries?"

The Yishinachat community smells like rosewood and dust. Near the houses, smoke from fragile little braziers lit on the floor complement the aromas inland: the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Yishinachat is part of the department of Boquerón, the country's largest: one third of the territory of Paraguay, with only 2% of the total population. Asunción is so far from this place as any other city in the world. Isabel never went beyond Filadelfia, the provincial capital, and was there three or four times in her life, and she does not even remember. She remembers all the blondes together.

Blondes are Mennonites, who arrived back in 1920 and settled in the Chaco Boreal, where they established colonies with their three pillars: faith / work / unity to tackle what they called "the green hell." Hell was better for their economy than Russia and Germany, from where they fled. There were decades in which the model of large estates consolidated and Stroessner, president of a lapidary dictatorship that lasted thirty-five years in Paraguay, distributed among friends and contacts huge surfaces of "free land" now exploited for soy. But the great Chaco offered it to the blonde immigrants, because it seemed futile. Currently, the Mennonites cooperative establishments generate 75% of Paraguay's dairy production and its livestock is exported to the most demanding international markets.

The relationship between Mennonites and Indians was, from the beginning, irregular but peaceful. However, some disregard for native peoples can be perceived in the environment, which are considered the lowest social sector. They, the Mennonites, a vivid portrait of the blessing of progress, see in them – the others – poor Indians. At most - the Sunday after church - poor Indians: the obvious portrait of failure; a dirty mirror of ourselves according to them - if we did not do what we should.

Isabel knows this but has other concerns. Paulina (also not her name in Nivaclé) also perceives it. She is health promoter – most like a doctor to the community – and she perceives it: for the rest (Mennonites, Paraguayans, foreigners or Creole) they are the lowest rung. But she does not complain or dwells on the wrongs, because she has more important matters to think about: that children complete their immunization record – that they indeed receive the vaccines –; examine the homes to see if there are kissing bugs (insects responsible for the transmission of Chagas disease) and ask for the umpteenth time, some sort of commitment to combat them.

Old records of fumigation.
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At the box of Isabel’s door I see an old paper taped by the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare where they left record of only two of the five fumigations indicated, the last visit: 2011.

Even if they had fulfilled the promise of the five fumigations, it would have done little: researchers from the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires, together with colleagues from Bolivia, Paraguay, the United States and France, conducted a regional research for three years to evaluate the effectiveness of fumigation protocols implemented by the official Chagas control programs, with the intention to understand the process of re-infestation of the houses. The result has been published in a recognized scientific journal: the protocols that are used internationally fail to eliminate the insect vector of the Chagas disease. The investigation not only revealed that the attempts to interrupt the transmission of the Trypanosoma cruzi – the parasite responsible for the disease – are insufficient; it also revealed that the insects have become resistant to the usual pesticides.

Unknowingly and meanwhile, Paulina checks the water filters, an essential element for community vitality. She recounts that before the arrival of the filters there were abundant cases of diarrhea, vomiting, headaches and infections, “because we drank contaminated water from the Tajamar; even those who had a cistern got sick because there were microbes in the water.”

To pump and supply water from the Tajamar to a network of twenty taps, the National Environmental Sanitation Service implemented a windmill. Currently it serves to bring water to the livestock. The community has about fifty heads of cattle and another fifty goats. They farm in gardens where they produce corn, beans, watermelon, pumpkin, sweet potato, sorghum and melon. Another part of what constitutes their income is hunting and labor in the neighbors’ lands, on the same land lacerated by barbed wire which they have always known before being obliged to ask permission.

A group of owners – the present landowning elite – is in possession of almost all livestock and agricultural land: Paraguay is one of the countries with the worst distribution of land worldwide. In addition, the great American Chaco is the region where deforestation advanced the most. Bulldozers, symbol of the extractive model, raid the remaining safe strongholds from the industrial desecration, pushing the poor indigenous populations to small precarious parcels. There is a strong interest in attracting foreign investment; the sale of biofuels increases, concentrating wealth even more: it is an unfortunate irony to see trucks overflowing, dripping grains that could feed the stomachs of those who watch the truck pass without knowing that the load they carry could feed the community for a whole year and others for two: three bags of grain are needed to fill a tank with ethanol; those same bags would serve to feed a whole family for months. Damned equations.

Both in the Yishinachat and other communities of the area, the shadow of hunger threatens and insists to target children under five years old: it is estimated that chronic malnutrition affects four out of ten children. The situation becomes more critical if we consider the lack of drinking water.

Filtering water into something helps prevent disease
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Isabel walks into the Chaco. She takes a cloth, a plastic container and five-gallon bucket in her hand: let’s go to the Tajamar. The Tajamar is like a large puddle in which she gets to her knees; puts the cloth in the mouth of the bucket as a filter and cleans the container she will fill with water. She tells me that used to be their main water source and they used to drink it directly. She wraps the cloth in her head and lifts the bucket. Walks back balanced and strong; despite her fragile body she has an extraordinary strength. I told her and she said that it was not always like that, some time ago she could barely lift the bucket and walked sick every now and then and the children, the neighbors’ children, and the neighbors as well. But now they have ninety Yambuis for water treatment: filters manufactured by a nearby Nivaclé community. The filters are built by local potters using Chaco materials.

The program could solve much of the problem of drinking water supply on the short – and medium – term without permanent subsidies; also create employment opportunities and local development without dependency. However, it does not yet have the necessary support to reach the corners where it is needed most.

Diego Dorigo, project coordinator for a humanitarian agency describes the filters as an "efficient technology and well accepted; inexpensive and easy to maintain." Diego talks with pause. He is a tall, simple, humble guy; It is one of those people who can fix their lenses with a grimace, without even touching them; he is a biologist and expert in public health, health policy, service organization and epidemiology with an emphasis on emerging diseases: he knows a lot. In communities they appreciate it and I notice how glad they are to welcome him. In the evening, under the light of a shy smolder I ask about details of the filters: they are built from a calcinated mud base, a mixture of clay and sawdust, and impregnated with colloidal silver. The ceramic deposit is 25 liters and comes with a lid that can be ceramic or galvanized sheet, and a tap to hygienically manage the water. Diego technically speaking, is a researcher and scientist, but puts a lot of effort so we can understand, "filters produce water of very good quality, reporting a turbidity and bacteria removal percentage of close to 100%."

If the program is so effective, I ask, why is there no more support?

Diego tilts his head to the right, closes his eyes, raises his eyebrows and stretches his lips. It is an expression of grief rather than confusion, almost resignedly: improving the living conditions of native communities in Gran Chaco substantially and effectively, can be a nuisance for those who have other interests. It is said: America is the place where deforestation thrives the most. Livestock, oil and forestry groups benefit when the Nivaclé are thirsty.

A los grupos ganaderos, petroleros y forestales les conviene que los Nivaclé tengan sed
Concurso Survival, Open Democracy y El Espectador

We surround a disservice fire with a rather decorative function: crackles and illuminates ungracefully. Humbert, fixer colleague and Paraguayan friend, laughing at my attempts to intimidate mosquitoes with smoke, "they will bite you just for curepa". In the Guarani country they say that every Argentinian is a pigskin or curepa.

Among the comments on Diego’s phrase and swipes the air, we discussed the situation and tried to remember who said that charity was an obscene solution. We debate possible perpetrators and make a bet. Days later we find our answer on the Internet: it was the Slovenian philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek, who wrote that charity involves elements of hypocrisy and it is a basic constituent of the modern economy: "today the act of selfish consumption itself includes the price of its opposite: at Starbucks they say it explicitly: ‘when you buy here, you're buying something more than a cup of coffee, you're buying a coffee ethic (...) because we use more fair trade coffee than any other company in the world, we ensure that farmers receive wages for their hard work; invest and improve farming practices and ..." bla-bla-bla. It suggests that with your purchase you are helping the environment, and you're helping starving children in Guatemala, and so on and so forth. The same about Toms Shoes, with its almost absurd One for One program. It is not only about buying coffee, shoes or whatever, but about your redemption as a consumerist. It's a short circuit: the act itself of selfish consumerism includes the price of its opposite.”

The practice spread and came in handy to governments and the Latin American corporate branding that take advantage of compassionate responses to improve positioning and sales with the support of actresses and singers, in addition to demanding thousands of dollars to appear angelic, they draw revenue in social networks: one kind post adds them 10,000 likes; the video comes close to a million views and it reaches expected peak subscriptions. Business Charity: charity became a commodity.

Cooperation funds that are activated in the region tend to be at the service of clientelism. Current joint initiatives tend to be shown as immaculate, shiny, well made up beneficence. Multinationals are leading campaigns and present themselves as the voice of the voiceless. They do not risk anything, they go about their business, and they do very well: humanitarian euphemisms through; its advertising singer sings a chorus in the foreground asking for safe water for more families; they do not talk about potability and free access to a good that belongs to us as humans.

Years ago, the Paraguayan government requested a loan of twenty million dollars to the big banks, supposedly to complete a program of sanitation and drinking water. Years later, the United Nations Development Program ranks the country among the fifteen worst water managers worldwide.

UNDP places Paraguay among the 15 countries that handle water worst in the world
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If it is not one, it is another: behind the scenes, marketers compete to see who creates the most shocking claim, who is the most creative deceiver. With the claim they arm with a strategy ranging from the cute face chosen to lead a campaign, redesigning labels and merchandising, the composition of a catchy single, finding poor locations not very complex to shoot, to the scouting of children who will appear in the video – replacing the locals, who are usually less graceful to the publicity palate.– The standard campaign (teaser, launch and gratitude) has scheduled times and well-targeted niches. But the money put into the charity works promised gets diluted adding agencies and funds that end up being financial injections that favor elitists sectors to the detriment of social justice.

Oscar Wilde in 1891 lucidly described such attitudes: "It is easier to have sympathy with suffering than to have sympathy with thought. People are surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous famines; They should be strongly mobilized for all this. According to admirable intentions, but misdirected, they join very serious and emotionally to the task of remedying the ills they see, but their remedies do not cure the disease but prolong it. His remedies are part of the disease. They try to solve the problem of poverty by keeping the poor living or entertained. But this is not a solution, it is an aggravation of the difficulty."

Irregular generosity of certain firms to the Chaco region or marginalized is supported by popular reaction and solidifies on social networks, like to like, to continue the cycle of welfare donations that numb consciences. Those who put more money in corporate social responsibility are often those who produce more inequality.

According to Wilde: "The proper aim is to try to reconstruct society on such foundations that poverty is impossible; but altruism has really hindered the development of this goal. The worst slave owners were those who were good with their slaves and thus prevented the horror of the system to be comprehended by those suffered it and understood by those who saw it. Charity degrades and demoralizes. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property."



The fire goes out and so does the conversation. I unfold the mesh and slip inside. I watch the insects, listen to them; I hear rumors from the Tajamar and I think how fragile are we next to Isabel, which is not her name in Nivaclé and I will never know what is.

How long could I survive under the same conditions as her? I say this: tolerating the puddles, the bucket, the bugs; the illness; the good white people that come with the emphatic claim that they do know what to do and how to live; and then all the same or worse. Centuries of insolence and enforcement.

Humbert is still awake. Cuts the silence and tells me it would be easier to make noni if ​I told a story. Always witty, he ends: "You know why curepa? Because we are used to be put to sleep with fairy tales."

This article was originally published in El Espectador. Read the original here

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