Written by Phyllis Richards
|Benigno Rojas, leader of an Enxet Sur community in Paraguay accompanied by CWS Chaco Program. Photo: Paul Kelly“|
“The forest as we once knew it will never be the same again. The loss of thousands of species of fauna and animals and the changing climate is very real to us. But what will not change is our relationship with the land – our profound respect for nature remains firm. It is the basis for our indigenous identity. We know that without land there is no future. Without land there is no life.”
South America’s Gran Chaco region covers almost 1 million square kilometers in the border areas of northern Argentina, southwest Paraguay and southeast Bolivia. It is an ecological region with great biodiversity, and is the biggest forest reserve in South America after the Amazon. It is home to 25 different indigenous ethnic groups including Guarani, Wichi, Qom and Enxet Sur. For thousands of years these indigenous peoples lived in harmony with their eco-system before losing most of their land and today they live in conditions of social exclusion and often extreme poverty. The Gran Chaco is the victim of desertification and the depredation of natural resources, mainly deforestation due to soy cultivation and cattle ranching by medium and large local and foreign companies.
Started in 2005, the UCC/OGHS supported CWS Chaco program is a long-term tri-national initiative involving local partners in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay working to strengthen the organizational capacity of groups of indigenous men and women to secure legal title to their ancestral territory and use the land in ways that are economically, socially and culturally sustainable.
The program accompanies and provides legal and technical advice to indigenous lead land claims for a total of 8320 square miles – a surface slightly larger than El Salvador or Israel – while also working with indigenous people on using the land sustainably and ending hunger in their communities.
Community organizing and providing indigenous organizations with legal training so that they can advocate for their rights is another key focus of the program alongside the empowerment of indigenous women who, due to increased male migrant labor, often find themselves alone in their communities. The program also supports indigenous youth to finish high school and access tertiary studies.
Starting 2013, CWS and fellow ACT Alliance member CREAS launched the Ecumenical Small Grants Fund of the Gran Chaco region. The fund provides seed capital to carefully selected small-scale initiatives prioritized by indigenous communities and grassroots women and youth-led groups in areas like food security and livelihoods and climate change adaptation and education.
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