June 19, 2008 / 3:30 PM / 11 years ago

Refile-Bolivian Guarani resist forced labor on ranches

(Refiled to fix typo in headline)

By Eduardo Garcia

CAMIRI, Bolivia, June 19 (Reuters) - Guarani Indians exploited for generations on Bolivian ranches say the leftist government’s pro-indigenous policies have encouraged them to fight against living conditions described as modern slavery.

In the steamy Alto Parapeti region of eastern Bolivia, most land is owned by a few non-indigenous people, some of whom, according to the government and international observers, force landless Guarani Indian families into labor.

After interviewing Guarani Indians, ranchers and local officials, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported in June that many Guarani live in a state "reminiscent of slavery" and urged the government to eradicate the problem.

"They live in extreme poverty and are subjected to punishments including lashings," said the commission, which is part of the Western Hemisphere’s top diplomatic body, the Organization of American States.

Investigators from the commission traveled for hours from the town of Camiri in Santa Cruz province, through mud and rivers for a dusk meeting in a rundown village with 40 Guarani who complained of physical and mental abuse from ranchers.

"We don’t have land, we don’t have education or health care ... We’re treated like animals. That’s slavery for me," a young Guarani Indian told the Commission in interviews witnessed by Reuters.

"Except animals get five hectares (12.35 acres) per head and we don’t," said another.


President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, has pledged to empower the country’s indigenous majority, which includes 30 ethnic groups, and do away with the "supremacy" of a light-skinned minority.

Morales aims to help some of the tens of thousands of ethnic Guarani who live in eastern Bolivia by creating a 390,000-acre (158,000-hectare) reservation in the Alto Parapeti, a rural region in Santa Cruz province.

"With this government we have seen some positive progress," a Guarani leader who asked not to be named told Reuters.

The Guarani who met with OAS rights investigators said they are organizing themselves to demand fair salaries, better treatment from their bosses and the right to the land on which they live and work.

Many said they live in mud huts in the fenced ranches where they work and must ask permission to leave the premises.

Some accused their bosses of firing workers for taking part in meetings organized by an association of Guarani Indians.

For that reason the commission asked Reuters to withhold their names or the name of the village where they met.


"We have brothers and sisters that live in a state of slavery, but modern slavery... without shackles," said Wilson Changaray, who leads the Guarani Peoples Association.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report did not estimate the number of Guarani families trapped in poverty on haciendas, where babies are born into a way of life perpetuated for generations.

Reports over the last four decades by researchers and non-governmental organizations have denounced cases of Guarani deprived of education, paid only in food and clothing, or even living in debt bondage.

The Guarani language — spoken by groups in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil as well as Bolivia — has a word to describe the hopelessness in which many Indians live: "paravete," or "forever poor."

Land owners in the Alto Parapeti region refute the slavery accusations and have vowed to resist Morales’s land-reform plans.

Setting up a reservation would require seizing land from ranchers or forcing them to sell, although non-indigenous people would be allowed to own land within the reservation.

Cliver Rocha, head of the government’s land reform office, said ranchers are trying to block the government’s efforts to scrutinize land ownership and working conditions in an "armed and violent" way.

"About 90 percent of the land in Bolivia is in the hands of 10 percent (of the population) ... (and most land owners) are neither indigenous nor farmers," Rocha said.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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