Asuncion, Paraguay – Marta Díaz sits among a settlement of makeshift tents made of plastic sheeting in a central plaza in the Paraguayan capital, Asunción, a few meters from the National Congress building. A brightly painted scene hangs nearby depicting burning wooden rural houses as a group of incredulous people look on, reflecting what happened to their community.
“We are not happy here. We came because of the pressure of bad people who threw us off our land, who burned it. We are not free, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Díaz is the leader of Ka’a Poty 1, a community of the Ava Guaraní people, one of the 19 indigenous nations in Paraguay, who were forcibly evicted from their lands in the Itakyry district in the east of the country on June 15. by a combination of armed riot police and private guards.
Since June 16, the 60 adults and 44 children have been camping in the harsh winter conditions of the town square, demanding justice and restitution of their lands.
Ka’a Poty 1 is one of at least seven indigenous communities that suffered violent evictions by state forces and armed civilians due to land ownership disputes in the past three months, sparking a large public outcry and the condemnation of human rights organizations such as Survival International.
State forces and private guards arrive to evict the Ka’a Poty 1 indigenous group from their lands in the Itakyry district in eastern Paraguay on June 15, 2021. [Courtesy of Ka’a Poty 1 Indigenous community]
Díaz said that during the eviction all the houses in the community, its temple and the school were burned. Virtually all of his possessions were stolen, his crops were destroyed, and his pets were killed before his eyes. A pregnant woman had a miscarriage and a 15-day-old baby was hospitalized.
“We lost everything. They didn’t even let us take our clothes out of our houses, ”he said.
Indigenous peoples are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable sectors of Paraguay, with more than 30 percent living in extreme poverty, according to official figures from 2017, well above the national average.
Milena Pereira, a lawyer who assists the community as part of a collective of Paraguayan human rights activists, the Social Platform for Human Rights, Memory and Democracy, told Al Jazeera that, along with the extreme human rights violations during the eviction , the circumstances that led to the judicial order of the operation was totally illegal, violating the constitution and international treaties that guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples to their territories.
A child looks at the burning ruins of a house during the Ka’a Poty 1 forced eviction[ Courtesy of Ka’a Poty 1 Indigenous community]
He said that the main cause of these evictions is the existence of illegitimate deeds on the lands of the communities. In the case of the 1,364-hectare (3,370-acre) territory of Ka’a Poty 1, 12 private deeds overlap with that of the community, which was registered by the state’s Indigenous Paraguayan Institute (INDI) in 1996.
Many illegitimate land documents in Paraguay date back to 35 years of the right-wing dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89). In the period, 6,744,005 hectares (16,664,799 acres) of public lands, including areas corresponding to ancestral indigenous territories, were donated to allies of the regime through an agrarian reform nominally destined for peasants (small farmers), according to the 2008 Truth and Justice Commission of Paraguay. report.
The father of current president Mario Abdo Benítez and Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza were among the beneficiaries.
Peasant families, the intended beneficiaries of the agrarian reform, also today suffer enormous difficulties in accessing land and suffer violent forced evictions from public lands that have been shown to be illegitimately in the hands of private owners.
Paraguay has one of the highest land ownership inequalities in the world, according to the World Bank, as the booming sectors of GM soy and livestock, which cover huge swaths of the country, make land the most valuable commodity. and coveted from Paraguay.
The forces that dislodged the Ka’a Poty 1 burned their houses and refused to allow them to carry possessions. [Courtesy of Ka’a Poty 1 Indigenous community]
The state has never taken any steps to reclaim the “ill-gotten land,” as it is known, or to prosecute the parties involved. Furthermore, rampant corruption has allowed usurpation to continue since the establishment of democracy.
“Obviously there is a fraudulent scheme with the participation of notaries public, officials and employees of the registry,” said Pereira. “There is no line of investigation by the authorities to punish those involved and prevent it from continuing.”
Senator Miguel Fulgencio Rodríguez, chairman of the Senate Indigenous Peoples Commission, told Al Jazeera that deep corruption within the legal system allows illegitimate title holders to win land ownership disputes in court, leading to evictions.
“There is a flaw in the judiciary. The constitution is not respected, the laws are not respected. The UN has even said that there can be no evictions due to the pandemic, but that doesn’t matter to anyone, ”Rodríguez said.
A 2020 Freedom House report concluded that due process in the Paraguayan justice system is limited by corruption and that “people with influence or access to money can often get favorable treatment.”
Pereira is convinced that this dynamic led to the terrible situation in Ka’a Poty.
“Ka’a Poty is the clearest example of the repercussions of this situation of illegitimate deeds and lack of basic mechanisms for the governance of land ownership in the country,” said Pereira.
The 60 adults and 44 children of Ka’a Poty 1 want justice from the government and the restitution of their lands [William Costa/Al Jazeera]
Interior Minister Arnaldo Giuzzio in an interview with Radio Nanduti defended the actions of the police, saying that the forces only complied with court orders during evictions. He said that vulnerable indigenous groups were brought to the capital by political actors who manipulated them for their own ends.
“It is necessary to look at the causes that are creating this type of conflict,” he said. “We have to modernize our legislation because the majority of indigenous peoples now want to have a home.”
Eusebio Villanueva, a member of the Guana people and Co-president of the Youth Network of Legal Promoters of Indigenous Peoples, said that money from farmers in the powerful transgenic soy sector – who have been involved in a large number of recent and evictions of indigenous and peasant communities – “it is worth much more than the INDI documents”.
He stressed that land problems were far from new to indigenous communities. A 2015 UN report found that more than half of Paraguay’s nearly 500 communities were landless or facing property conflicts.
In three cases involving indigenous communities, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2005, 2006 and 2010 that indigenous communities have rights to their lands and ordered the Paraguayan government to pay reparations and costs. It has not fully complied, according to the Coordinating Group for Human Rights of Paraguay (CODEHUPY).
Additionally, a 2020 Earthsight report showed that massive land violations by ranchers were taking place in the protected territory of the Totobiegosode Ayoreo, the only indigenous group in voluntary isolation outside the Amazon.
Beyond exclusion from land, Villanueva said indigenous peoples also endure very restricted access to public services.
“The state doesn’t really guarantee access to health or education,” he said. “There are communities without electricity, without drinking water, and much less with a nearby health center.”
The lack of state support has also put many indigenous languages and cultural practices at great risk.
A court order that will allow the community to return to their land was granted by a judge on July 30, following street protests by indigenous families to demand action from judicial authorities.
The community and its supporters celebrated the news despite the fact that no date had been set for their return to their lands 350 kilometers (217 miles) away.
Marta Díaz is concerned that conditions there are more difficult than ever. Although they receive support from urban organizations and individuals in Asunción, it may not reach their rural territory.
Members of Ka’a Poty 1 held a street demonstration in front of the Supreme Court of Paraguay, demanding that their lands be returned to them. [Diego Pusineri/Al Jazeera]
“Only the red earth without trees awaits us: everything was burned, everything was destroyed,” he said. “Our community had crops: banana, sugar cane, cassava, sweet potato, pineapple. Everything has been destroyed so they can plant soybeans. We are going to rebuild our community, we have hope ”.
With this context in mind, Pereira is part of a group that lobbies legislators to pass a law that guarantees compensation to communities illegally evicted from their lands and, more importantly, prohibits forced evictions in Paraguay.
In the cold of the plaza, Elisa González, a Ka’a Poty 1 school teacher, said she will continue to fight for a brighter future, one that says many of Paraguay’s indigenous communities have been denied for generations.
“We don’t like it here; we want to return to our land, ”he said, looking at the barefoot children playing marbles on the ground. “I want them to be able to study too, so that they can be teachers, doctors … lawyers.”