Professor of History and indigenous activist in La Paz (Bolivia) Carlos Mamani, who is coming to the end of his four-year tenure as President of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Questions, denounces the "very alarming" plight of the Guarani indigenous people in El Chaco and explains how the alliance between trade unions and indigenous people can help in defending the fundamental rights of these peoples who face widespread discrimination.
Could you explain the work of the UN body you preside on indigenous questions?
Our work is defined by United Nations mandate to examine questions regarding indigenous peoples: economic development, social, cultural, environmental and human rights.
We oversee the application of the 2007 UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. We promote and distribute everything to do with indigenous peoples around the world. Our forum is made up of 16 international experts, of whom I am one. Every year we hold a summit for two-weeks, with indigenous representatives from all over the world.
You recently attended the ITUC-TUCA seminar on Forced Labour in Paraguay (November 2010- Asuncion), with special reference to the Chaco region. How would you describe the situation in El Chaco?
First of all let’s define what we are talking about. El Chaco is not just in Paraguay. It also stretches into Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia. In Bolivia alone it covers three departments (states) and in Paraguay it makes up 200,000 square kilometers, about half of the country.
The situation is very alarming. For me it is most preoccupying and unfortunate to see the situation of the indigenous people. It’s not neo-colonialism. It is colonialism, pure and simple. For the indigenous people, it’s as if colonialism has never stopped. And the worst thing is that the worst abuses have been started by the Mennonites (Christian, mostly-ethnic German settlers); with their concept of being “God’s Chosen People” and “The Promised Land”. It’s a system of Apartheid.
By and large Latin America is still run along the Spanish colonial system. In this way we could say that here in Paraguay colonialism never went away. If anything we are seeing an expansion of colonialism.
The 1932-1936 Chaco War between my country Bolivia and Paraguay for control of the territory was a colonial dispute, because the land belonged to neither country. It belonged, and still belongs to the indigenous Guarani. The victims of this war were the Guarani, who have been forgotten.
The Chaco was ceded to the Mennonites to populate the area, a classic colonial concept. When the Spanish colonials came here they also tried to “populate” their conquered territories.
Before the Spanish conquest, the population of Guarani was around four million people. Now it is about 300,000. We talk about a “genocide”.
These are very strong denunciations. But what exactly can you and the UN Forum do to improve the situation?
Our mandate is to expose this and show the world what is happening. We have to show the political, social and economic condition. It is absolutely necessary to state unequivocally that this land belongs to the indigenous people.
None of the indigenous peoples is looking for independence. How can they be independent when they are the original owners of the land? They are looking for self-government in the context of autonomy.
Another thing we are talking about is cross-frontier access; because the people cover all the countries I’ve already mentioned. But we are not talking about secession. The Chaco territory has been split between four nations, so we need a special treaty to encompass this — to rectify the problem of freedom of movement across enforced colonial borders.
We are talking about fundamental freedoms. There has been permanent discrimination. Indigenous people are treated as third or even fourth-class citizens. They have no rights to speak their own language and practice their own religion.
The people are victims of this so-called “Development.” But “Development” for us is a holocaust.
Many people say the United Nations is little more than a “talking shop.” What do you say to this?
The United Nations is the only international organization that is fighting for and guaranteeing the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Without the UN, we would lose a powerful friend. Yes, the UN has problems. Things take time. Until now, the UN still doesn’t have a permanent representative, a formal seat for indigenous people. But it is a powerful international voice for indigenous people.
How can the international trade union movement help in this struggle?
Historically in Latin America, the indigenous movement has had very important assistance from trade unions, the Marxist parties and the international media.
Here in Paraguay, the alliance between the indigenous people and the trade unions is very important. If, for example, we want to denounce the way indigenous workers are being treated and exploited, then we can do this through the trade unions. Because the unions are members of the ILO, they can take the fight to an international level.
In your own country, Bolivia, there have been some very real advances in the fight for Indigenous Rights. What can we learn from the Bolivian experience?
The exploitation that’s happening here is the same as in other Developing countries. All that governments and trans-national companies want to do is to exploit indigenous lands. They destroy homes, establish private police forces and divide the communities. All these entities have so-called “Social Responsibility” laws and programmes. But these are only cosmetic operations, designed to deflect criticism and avoid true responsibility.
Paraguay still has a very weak system because of the long legacy of dictatorship. But in Bolivia there have been great advances. We have adopted the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights as internal Bolivian law. In Bolivia we view indigenous territories as stolen land and so we have been returning it since 2008. What’s happening in Bolivia is an example to the rest of El Chaco.
Interview by David Browne (photos David Browne)
Also see the video: Guatemala: gold mine plundering sacred resources