HOTLINE - week of June 27, 2011

Empowerment in South America's Gran Chaco region; Fighting hunger - even after a direct hit

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The indigenous peoples of the Gran Chaco region live in extreme poverty, facing hunger, discrimination and exclusion.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey/ACT Alliance

Empowerment in South America’s Gran Chaco region

The indigenous peoples of the Gran Chaco region have experienced lifelong racism and exclusion, pushed off their native lands by development.  Spanning parts of Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia, the region is roughly the size of South Africa.  For thousands of years the Chaco peoples lived in harmony with their eco-system; now the region’s natural resources are being depleted, mainly through deforestation by large agricultural companies cultivating soy and sugar cane.  The native peoples’ rights to that land – and their ancestral practices of sustaining it?  Gone by the wayside.

But now, the Chaco people are pushing back, with help from the Chaco initiative, a long-term multinational effort led by CWS.  Our goal is to improve the quality of life of the indigenous people by strengthening communities, helping them assert their land rights and live free of hunger and oppression.  Though they have been living in extreme poverty, discriminated against by the local and national governments, these indigenous families are now working with advocates to establish land claims and provide evidence to support them.  In fact, advocates in Argentina have made progress in what may be the largest land claim process in South America today – involving 15,000 people and more than a million acres.

CWS-led initiatives range from securing basic infrastructure (roads, water, education, food production) to offering training in sustainable forestry to promoting community mobilization.

The Chaco program is all about empowerment.  Along with advocacy assistance, the program provides materials and support to talented indigenous youth pursuing post-secondary school studies, often the first in their communities to do so.

In 2010, 21 students of Qom and Wichi descent received room and board, books and emotional support while pursuing degrees in areas like bilingual education and mathematics.  In Paraguay, one student graduated law school and five others are pursuing degrees in nursing, law, political sciences, rural economics and business.  In Bolivia, a Guaraní graduate is returning to serve his community as a lawyer.  Six more are studying psychology, law, chemistry and nursing.  And in Argentina, 12 Guaraní youth are taking government-certified courses in carpentry and education.

“Our communities need their own professionals,” says Milner, an 18-year-old Enxet Sur youth from Paraguay.  Through the Chaco program, Milner has become the first in his village to finish high school, and is studying law at the University of the Chaco.

The need is great, he says, “for lawyers who understand our historical land issues; for doctors who live in our communities, know about our traditional medicine and can be there any time; and for teachers – so children can keep on studying.”

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Fighting hunger – even after a direct hit

The F-5 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, was the worst of the 68 twisters that hit the U.S. on May 23, 2011; it killed at least 142 people and injured some 900 more.

The tornado destroyed a third of the town, including Murle and Edna Lassman’s home and their church, Peace Lutheran.  Still, they are grateful.  “No loss of life in our family.  No serious injuries,” says Murle.

“People will be affected by the tornado for many years to come,” Edna says, “but I’m seeing a lot of good things happening.  There have just been people from all over the United States willing to help.”

Remarkably, there is still help coming from Joplin, as well.  “Two weeks after the tornado, our church held a pie and ice cream social for a local literacy organization,” says Edna.  “If we can do that, we can certainly do the CROP Hunger Walk in the fall,” she adds, referring to the CWS events that take place across the country to help eliminate hunger.

To that end, CWS partners with local and international organizations to build food security for vulnerable communities, helping them develop sustainable access to adequate food and nutrition.  The CROP Hunger Walks help a wide range of programs – from local U.S. food pantries to emergency relief for tsunami survivors.  From seed banks in Kenya to farming cooperatives in Haiti.

It has been “a very disastrous spring in Missouri,” says Kari Davidson, Associate Director of the CWS Great Plains region.

But in Joplin, though wreckage from the epic twister still lines the streets, Davidson sees people looking beyond their own needs.  Of their dedication to the CROP Hunger Walk, she says, "They just have a very strong belief in the alleviation of hunger.”

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