Among the Guarani of Bolivia, an Empire of the Woman

Once near-slaves to the owners of the giant hacienda-ranches of the Chaco region, Bolivia’s Guarani Indians wrested control of their own lands in a vast social movement that erupted some twenty years ago. The activists, many of them women, have imposed a different social order in the villages of the inland plains to the east of the Andes, writes Anfibia‘s Alex Ayala Ugarte; every family has land, and abusive men are driven out of the village.

Once near-slaves to the owners of the giant hacienda-ranches of the Chaco region, Bolivia’s Guarani Indians wrested control of their own lands in a vast social movement that erupted some twenty years ago. The activists, many of them women, have imposed a different social order in the villages of the inland plains to the east of the Andes, writes Anfibia‘s Alex Ayala Ugarte; every family has land, and abusive men are driven out of the village.

It is the dead of night. There is no light and I am in Isipotindi. The only lantern here is the nearly full moon that pushes back the darkness. At the moment, several of us are gathered around Dona Audia. She laughs frequently, a laugh that convulses her whole body, her shoulders rising and falling. Yapping away next to her is Matatigres [‘Tiger Killer’], a skinny little dog with erect ears who appears incapable of harming a fly; nearby there is also a prolific hen who lays 15 eggs a day. Audia celebrates every joke as if it really were her last; it seems to me that she would sit up from her casket and laugh at a joke at her own funeral, if she had not already planned a more serious death for herself: “Anything I have, I got by fighting, and I have decided to die fighting,” she says.

At 64 years old, with a resolute gaze, her hands still firmly gripping the steering wheel, Audia Perez tells me that being a community leader is totally incompatible with family life. Her relationship with her husband suffered, and she recognizes that it was her own fault: “I abandoned our home,” she says.

Just the same, her activism lifted her up from hardship: no more would she drink water from the same trough as the animals on the hacienda, be treated like a pig, be humiliated each time she confronted her boss. She was freed from all of that and much more because of the protests, because she and other activists blocked the roads in Bolivia to demand their rights. And she has been able to give her nine living children, six men and three women, what she could not give to the other five who died still children.

Isipotindi is a Guarani community located on a narrow strip of land in Bolivia’s Chuquisaca province, between the towns of Camiri and Villamontes. Audia gets bored at home, and each chance she gets she escapes. If she were a car, she would a be a Jeep with a lot of miles on it, and her fuel would be chicha, an [alcoholic]drink made from corn; she always keeps a jar nearby with enough to offer to visitors.

“I never let myself run out of this stuff. It’s good for sleeping.”

Audia’s first fight was against her father. Until her father’s death, he was the boss’s right-hand man. Her second fight began when she turned activist at the age of 42, leaving some of her children for weeks when they were only around 10 years old. This woman’s third milestone was as the head of the torturous 1996 ‘March For Land, Development And Political Participation For Indigenous People’. That fight also involved entering the hacienda ranches of Huacareta (Chuquisaca) to free various members of ‘enslaved’ communities.

“One time,” she says with her eyes closed, “this was in Huacareta, we got sandals for the kids on the ranch who had no shoes and the bosses got mad. ‘They will get used to wearing shoes,’ they said. These people don’t live like that.’ And then they threatened us. They showed us their guns and they bawled us out. ‘Aren’t you scared of us?’ they yelled. But I had already confronted landowners many times, and I liked fighting with them. I still like it. The truth is that bosses never scared me. I just put one foot in front of the other, and I always keep moving forward.”

Her expression changes. She is now more solemn, detached. And her son, Gustavo, who has just arrived and is next to me, says a few words on her behalf: She is “the one who knows everything”, “the one who gives advice”, “the one who owns history.”

audia-isipotindi221Audia Perez, Isipotindi. Photo CC: JG Estellano.

Moises Aparicio Perez is 42, has 23 road blockades under his belt, and activism in his genes: He is another of Dona Audia’s children and a representative of the 15 Guarani communities in the area. Moises lives mostly in Machareti, the municipal capital of the same name that is 20 minutes away by car. But now he is in Isipotindi, in a barn made of sticks, fabric, straw and logs that was a school until not long ago. He chain smokes, occasionally chewing coca leaves and spitting them out as he awaits his turn to talk at a special assembly.

“You are no longer allowed here,” he says a bit later to Mario Espinoza, his face serious, his gaze intense and leveled at Espinoza like a rifle.

Espinoza hides beneath a worn-out hat as he mumbles a few words. He beat his wife. It seems he once even tried to burn her, and this is the zillionth time he has showed up around here without permission.

“Next, you better hear what we are saying. We will tie you to a tree for as long as it takes the police to arrive,” Moises warns him.

The worst crimes in Isipotindi are rape, theft, and domestic violence, and one of the maximum penalties of community justice is exile. Moments later, Espinoza leaves without looking back. The assembly ends and Moises lays out the three basic qualities for a good community leader: “He or she must know who to talk, know how to listen, and know how to make his or her spouse understand.”

“My wife gets mad. She says I’m married to the organization. And sometimes I have lower my head and admit she is right, because I get lost for a week or two and see my kids for only a few minutes. But what I do is always for the greater good,” he explains.

The greater good in Isipotindi has been the purchase of the land where the town sits, by the NGO Medicus Mundi, which has handed out the land to various groups of “freed” communities. It has been setting up a sanitation system. It has been the construction of robust and rather large homes with tile roofs for everyone. It has been job training for peasant farmers. It has been rebuilding the horse corrals.

“When we arrived,” Moises remembers,”we only had a few old clothes and some sleeping pads. We set up in a few tents and started from nothing.”

During those times, there was only a thread of land that connected Isipotindi with modernity, an asphalt road where each day dozens of trucks and buses loaded with fuel, passengers and goods for all tastes passed by.

reina-isipotindi21Reina Cruz, Isipotindi. Photo CC: JG Estellano.

For Moises, the activists’ struggle is what has turned Isipotindi into a model community with more than 3,000 hectares [7,500 acres] of land, 18 head of community cattle, enough space for the cattle to graze, trees that provide shade over the small paths that connect the some 73 families living in the area, and a well-preserved forested area. All this has happened in barely ten years. It is a significant evolution considering similar settlements do not enjoy even half of these comforts.

The photographer Patricio Crooker, who recently visited a “freed” cattle ranch in the region, says there weren’t even utensils to eat with, that the scorpions shared the beds with the Guarani, that a cowboy complained all night about not having medicine to alleviate the pain from a rotten tooth and another complained of how difficult it was to live without anything tying him down.

The land they inhabit is inhospitable, right on the border with Paraguay where the Chaco is more like the “green hell” that the history books describe than anywhere else. The old boss still visits here.

“Sometimes he comes by and drinks mate with people who were his laborers just a few years ago,” Patricio says.

The scene would seem completely normal if the roles hadn’t changed. According to Audia, the bosses are now poor: “Many of them have been forced by the government to pay off accumulated debts of 20, 30, 40 years; meanwhile we who were enslaved by them are now rich.”

In Isipotindi, this transition has been captured on three paintings on cloth that now are now part of the community’s property. They hang one after the other next to the door to home of Gustavo Aparicio, also one of Dona Audia’s children, but not an activist.

“They are talking maps,” he says as he shows them to me.

The maps hang from one of the walls of his cabin, and around them hens peck at the ground. The first one speaks of the past, from when Audia had to walk four kilometers, carrying water so she didn’t die from thirst, when this land belonged to an unfriendly Frenchman who took Audia’s sisters as employees.

The second, made six years ago, talks about a present that is already past. It talks about a community that is just starting out, that resolves its problems in community meetings, makes sacrifices, grows and little by little consolidates.

And the third speaks of future that is coming to pass, a population that is on the road to self-sufficiency with half a hectare [over an acre]per family, equal opportunity for everyone, mud brick ovens and water sources on every corner.

unamed-isipotindi21Unnamed Isipotindi resident. Photo CC: JG Estellano.

Gustavo is 42; he has five children and the thin beard of an adolescent boy. His forearms are pure blocks of muscle. The box full of wax he is carrying to attract bees to his hives seems to weigh nothing to him. The boxes are part of a recent donation to promote beekeeping in the community.

Gustavo usually goes regularly to his plot to cut corn with his father, Alejandro Aparicio, who is 82 years old but can lift up a wheelbarrow full of wood and carry it as if it were full of feathers.

Alejandro lost Audia to her activism, or conversely, it was the activists who won a woman for their cause. He is from the city of Sucre. He worked at [Bolivian oil company] YPFB when he was young. He is part of the tiny 1.5 percent minority in Isipotindi who do not have Guarani blood. He says he came here to be close to his kids.

He is our improvised guide today, continuing a previously failed effort to kidnap a queen bee for the hives. He walks with a slight stoop. His eyes search independently of one another, each in its own direction. He says they are like this because of an automobile accident that split his skull, but this does not seem to have stopped him from having a great memory.

In the area surrounding the community, along with corn they produce peanuts, squash, beans and yucca in abundance. The land is fertile and they hope, in the future, to have three annual harvests. The locals, Gustavo says, have been given more than 2000 citrus starts, along with starts for timber-producing trees, coffee plants and custard apple trees. And as we walk, his father talks about the forest as if it were his medicine cabinet: “With this I cured my prostate.” “With this I make shampoo.” “I got relief from this when I my kidneys were bad.” “That down there is called Netira and it’s good for dandruff.”

Later, he gives a five-minute do-it-yourself course: “Cedar is good for making furniture, and that vine can be used like wire.”

Isipotindi is like a housing development, the hills surrounding it like a supermarket with bargain prices.

isipotindi521Isipotindi, Bolivia. Photo CC: JG Estellano.

Water is the primordial starting point for all life in Isipotindi, and that is why rain is harvested here. The system is simple: During the months of greatest precipitation, the rain that falls on the rooftops runs down gutters and into bags called geo-membranes that can hold around 20,000 liters [5,300 gallons].

According to Moises, this scheme is better than collecting rain in buckets that dry out in a couple days, and it is a good way to alleviate water shortages in the months of the greatest drought- August, September and October. And it is the best way to preserve natural reserves.

Thanks to the harvest, this same water is used later in the community’s system of ‘micro’ irrigation and at the local school garden, which is managed by elementary school students and produces things like lettuce, onions and carrots that are used for school breakfasts.

The project of harvesting water, like most projects here, has been financed by an NGO. There a few at work in the area: Cipca, Accion Contra el Hambre, Caritas and Coopi, among others. A sea of slogans has turned Isipotindi into a postcard village in which the slogan “Live Well” — promoted by the government — has tried to move beyond just the words. Much remains to be done, however. They have not been able to provide 100 percent of people’s basic needs, mothers are almost never paid their maternity stipend, there is no electricity despite a gas duct that passes by right next to the highway, and there is no library for the children.

“We are still poor here and anyone is welcome. We need books, fertilizer, seeds,” Gustavo says, as if he were making a shopping list.

“We are seeking something better for our children. We want them to study, to have opportunities.”

Heading toward a hill, Dona Audia’s son clears the way swinging a machete. His strikes are certain, and as he swings his arm from one side to another he says that around here the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia also took place. Besides, he says, there is a buried arsenal around here and he would not want to stick his shovel in the ground and have everything explode. When we’ve been walking half an hour in the field, Gustavo pauses, dries his sweat and takes a drink of alcohol to ask permission from Illa.

“Illa is the spirit that protects the bees,” he says.

He later finds two bee hives in hollow trunks and says he will empty them when he has time. Right now he is in a hurry. He focuses on his search for a queen bee because the sun will set in minutes, but luck evades him and comes home with empty hands.

“Sometimes the queen bee gets fat, and six other bees will help her fly to escape,” Gustavo says and lowers his head in disgust.

“The bees leave, but the nectar is still here,” he says later. Not unlike what has happened with the haciendas: The bosses left but the Guarani who, after more than a century, once again took over the land that should have never been taken from them in the first place.

Alex Ayala Ugarte Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard