Grand plan for Gran Chaco
An adult literacy class for Wichi indigenous women, sponsored by CWS, which is working here and in other indigenous communities throughout the Chaco to help empower and equip indigenous families to fight to defend their lands and civil rights.
Photo: Paul Jeffrey for Church World Service
The indigenous peoples of the Gran Chaco region are spread across nearly 400,000 square miles of central South America, spanning parts of three countries: Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. Longstanding racism, exclusion, and unsustainable development models have deprived them of their economic, social, and cultural rights, including the right to own lands they traditionally inhabited.
Church World Service and five experienced local ecumenical partners from the three countries have combined to form the Integrated Support Program for the Defense and Promotion of the Rights of Native Peoples from the Gran Chaco.
This program is a coordinated effort to defend and promote the rights of the native peoples of Chaco, who are trying to survive in an historically adverse context. This context is now worsened by globalization and renewed interest in exploiting and controlling existing natural resources, like natural gas reserves, water, and arable lands suitable for export-oriented crops. Several national and transnational companies are expanding their presence within the region. As a Guarani leader stated, "Globalization will have an impact on native peoples similar to that of the Spanish conquest."
Local populations include communities of Guarani, Wichi, Tobas, Moqoit, Weenhayek, and several smaller groups. The area is comprised of hundreds of such communities, with over 200,000 people. The communities and different ethnic groups are organized at various levels so that they have begun to claim rights and territories, often accompanied and supported by local churches. The Chaco Program will promote the gaining of titles to ancestral lands and territories.
Another goal is to make the indigenous peoples' voice heard in the policymaking process and in the discussion and implementation of infrastructure and other development projects, in which they are not currently consulted. Indigenous leaders, including local churches and the ecumenical institutions that work with them, will be empowered and equipped to conduct more effective advocacy.
Training topics will include territorial management; women's empowerment; legal tools regarding rights to land and access to natural resources; and campaigns for public awareness, particularly against racial discrimination and the right to land. The four-year plan includes strengthening an existing network of indigenous journalists from across the South American Gran Chaco.
An indigenous leader is quoted as saying: "Oil companies take our oil; sawmills, our wood; others take the animals of the forests or the fish of the river, but no one cares about the peoples of the Chaco."
To learn more about how CWS supports the water rights of indigenous people in Bolivia, download this CWS resource on water, A River In Their Veins.
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