Indigenous rights and development in South America’s Gran Chaco

In the heart of South America, the Gran Chaco covers almost 1 million square kilometres. It is the biggest dry forest in the world, spanning territories in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. The region has some of the most acute levels of poverty in Latin America.

Across the three countries in this area, two ACT members are working on a rights-based development programme with indigenous people. The region, isolated from the large cities, has weak communication systems. Consequently, abuses of indigenous rights and human rights are often unreported, and impunity for these crimes is widespread. Environmental destruction is also largely uncontrolled. The result is that climate conditions in
the region are increasingly unpredictable and humanitarian emergencies caused by long periods of drought or extreme flooding are now common.

Twenty-five indigenous groups live in the Gran Chaco, including the Guaraní, Wichi, Qom and Enxet Sur communities – groups who lived for centuries as semi- nomadic hunter-gatherers before losing their land to non-indigenous farmers and cattle ranchers.

Food security, empowerment

A long-term ACT programme has been supporting indigenous people in the Gran Chaco as they reclaim their ancestral lands, improve their food security and nutrition, and empower indigenous women, young people and organisations working against poverty. The programme provides legal support and accompaniment to communities in their land claims process, and has seen great success in one of the largest claims in all of South America, involving 15,000 people in 12 communities.

The end of a 20-year struggle

In June 2014, Argentina signed a decree handing over a legal land title to those communities, ending a 20-year struggle and beginning a new phase of work, focused on sustainable development projects. Over the past nine years of the programme, indigenous communities have recovered 1,788 square miles of their ancestral land. ACT members are now working with communities on sustainable development and land management for these re-
acquired lands.

The programme begins with participatory mapping in the communities, collecting detailed information about natural resources such as water, what land available for hunting and gathering, and areas of potential tension. Participatory approaches in community-based organisations help prevent conflicts over resources. They ensure that development meets the needs and priorities of the communities and makes good use of local resources and knowledge.

Indigenous groups in the Chaco region are achieving improved food security as a direct result of their work with ACT, such as resources for kitchen gardens and honey production to improve nutrition. Support for small handicraft businesses is improving income streams and livelihoods, and particularly empowering women. The ACT programme also works to protect at-risk human rights defenders, such as community leaders working non-violently for justice and against inequality in the Chaco.