Mapping the future

South American indigenous youth combine technology, elders’ wisdom to reclaim ancestral lands

August 18, 2010

A group of people sitting around a wooden table in a green-painted room.

At the student residence of CWS Argentine partner JUM, in Castelli, indigenous youth from the Gran Chaco, are attending high school, teacher training and other schools, with scholarship assistance from CWS. —Photo by John Senning

GRAN CHACO, Bolivia

In the remote Bolivian Gran Chaco countryside, a Guaraní teenager and an old man walk side by side through the dry brush, looking at the ground and the horizon.  The boy is taking notes to reconcile with a global positioning system (GPS) mapping project he has in progress.

The teen is one of tomorrow’s generation of indigenous leaders in the vast Gran Chaco region of South America, spanning parts of Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay. He and other indigenous youth are now mapping out the future for their people and delineating their past, in part by using GPS technology to document their peoples’ legal cases to reclaim their ancestral lands.

Armed with their high-tech skills, the Chaco youth have still had to call on their elders to visit the lands with them and show them historical points to be mapped, bringing the two generations closer.

But GPS training is just the technology tip of a broader youth education initiative supported by humanitarian agency Church World Service — whose partners include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) — in the Gran Chaco. Young men and women from Guaraní, Qom and other indigenous groups are gaining higher education opportunities, training in community development, and accessing technology rarely available to the region’s marginalized groups.

In Argentina, 18 indigenous teenagers have already become leaders in their communities after training in how to analyze community problems and develop projects to solve them.

“We’re nurturing leaders,” said Martha Farmelo, CWS communications officer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Farmelo recently led a group of supporters from the United States who met with indigenous students in the Argentine Chaco.

“The indigenous communities of the Gran Chaco are depending on the new generation to protect their survival as a people, and to help continue struggles like cases to reclaim their ancestral lands that take a long time to realize,” Farmelo said.

“As part of our long-term Chaco initiative, an increasing number of young men and women are now completing high school, and many are going on to universities and vocational institutes in some cases for the first time in the history of their communities.”

As one indigenous Paraguayan student told a group of North American supporters, “We study for our indigenous community.  Math is intimately linked to rights.  Even when you read the law you have to understand the numbers in order to use that legal right.  My diploma will belong to my community.  I have to work to give it back to my community.  I have to help.”

Church World Service partner organizations in the Chaco initiative are helping provide and find other sources for scholarships and are securing safe housing arrangements for indigenous students, as they leave the familiarity of home for further education.

In Paraguay, ten indigenous young people received the opportunity to attend university, through six scholarships from a bi-national company and four from the Embassy of Venezuela to study in that country. In Argentina, one student graduated as a geography professor, another recently graduated as a lawyer and another as an economics professor.  

Two indigenous graduates of a law school in Bolivia now work for the Office of Indigenous Affairs of the Municipality of Villa Montes.

One group of Qom youth in Argentina says completing their education has raised their self-esteem and strengthened their cultural identity — and they’re returning home, with training in nursing, law, and bilingual and primary education.

Students in Castelli, Argentina, told a recent group of New England visitors why they’re learning. “Today, we haven’t quite arrived.  Our communities are not OK.  By studying, we hope to obtain what we want and the well being of all.”

“Through education we can know what our culture is and not lose our dialects,” said another. “We’ll be able to manage in both languages. Other peoples have lost their language.  Only in the Chaco have communities held on to Qom, Wichi, Mocovi (languages).”

“In indigenous communities where unemployment, alcoholism and suicide rates among youth are especially high, initiatives like the Chaco program are not only giving young people encouragement, they’re giving entire communities hope for the future,” said CWS’s Farmelo.

On the technology side, Church World Service’s Chaco program, launched in 2005, began providing GPS training for indigenous adults and youth to shore up land claims with detailed documentation. Teenagers are using GPS to refine maps of indigenous territories, marking land boundaries and indicating sites such as burial grounds.

In Argentina, since the program began, 18,939 hectares have been digitally mapped in that country, which assists in land claims. Twenty-five Argentine youth are also now trained to use tools and instruments for the planning and management of the indigenous territories.

One youth who trained in GPS and other informational technology was contracted by the government of the Chaco Province in Argentina to accompany an official in all of the indigenous communities he covered while evaluating possible irregularities in land allocations that may have slighted indigenous communities.

Last year the Argentine government signed an agreement to provide a donation of 140,000 pesos (about US$37,000) to support the process for the indigenous Guaraní community of Vinalito to take possession of land they had been granted collective title to in 2008. Work is underway to secure potable water, basic housing and other services, and several families have already moved onto the lands.

Ten more young Bolivians also learned GPS last year, so they can participate in their peoples’ demands for land access and defense of the territories’ natural resources.

In 2009 the Bolivian government took necessary steps to prepare the transfer of title for 10,000 hectares to local indigenous communities. Indigenous legal advocates participated by monitoring the government’s work and ensuring that it was carried out successfully. The Ministry of Land signed an agreement dedicating the necessary resources for carrying out similar work in additional lands marked for these communities.

In Paraguay, indigenous groups received two favorable rulings on their right to their ancestral lands from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. However, the government has yet to comply, meaning two decades of advocacy must still continue.  

Across Chaco’s tri-national expanse, the Church World Service supported indigenous youth initiative is being supported and implemented through a collaboration between CWS, strong local partner organizations, and with funding from the public sector and secular and faith-based sources such as the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the United Methodist Commission On Relief (UMCOR).

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