Amnesty International went yesterday today to a public hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in La Paz, Bolivia with 400 people from a range of human rights, campesino and Indigenous organizations and social movements.
They went to hear the Paraguayan state held to account for progress it has made in safeguarding the survival of the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous community. Amnesty International has been campaigning with this community since 2008.
The Sawhoyamaxa community began the struggle to recover its traditional lands 18 years ago, in 1991. The community numbers between 400 and 500 people and has been forced to live on a narrow strip of land alongside a main highway while awaiting the resolution of their land claim.
In 2006, the Inter-American Court reached its verdict on the case, setting an important international precedent for the protection of Indigenous Peoples´ rights. It found that the rights of the Sawhoyamaxa – including the right to life – had been violated. The Court gave the Paraguayan state a period of three years to return the ancestral lands to the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous People. It also ordered the state to undertake a series of measures to ensure their survival in the interim.
It is both the failure of the Paraguayan state to take any serious steps to return these lands by the 19 May 2009 deadline, as well as its failure to provide adequate basic services that led the Inter-American Court to call the state to account for its actions in a second follow-up hearing.
The formality of the hearing – with five Court judges and 14 representatives of the Paraguayan state present – did not diminish the expectant atmosphere in the room. Representing the Sawhoyamaxa was Carlos Marecos, a leader from the community, and Oscar Ayala, their lawyer and the director of Paraguayan NGO Tierraviva.
Carlos Marecos told the judges “on the issue of our land, there has been no solution as yet… we reject outright [any proposal of] alternative lands, because these lands are non-negotiable”.
Indigenous Peoples across the Americas have long experienced marginalization and discrimination. Amnesty International has denounced the persistent and entrenched cycle of deprivation and social exclusion faced by Indigenous Peoples. Faced with a legacy of appalling human rights violations, Indigenous Peoples throughout the Americas have mobilized to make themselves heard.
Here in Bolivia, Indigenous rights have been given new prominence in a new national Constitution, approved after a sustained period of consultation of its Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples. Today, many of these same Bolivian Indigenous groups have joined the Sawhoyamaxa in demanding respect for their land rights and cultural identity. Javier Lara from the Consejo Nacional de Marcas y Ayllus del Qollasuyo (CONAMAQ) said “By not defending [their rights], the Paraguayan state is defending existing structures to continue dominating and ignoring our Paraguayan Indigenous brothers”.
The reality of the precarious situation faced by the community was also brought home today when the community’s lawyer, Oscar Ayala, reminded those present that between December 2008 and January 2009 six members of the community died from preventable diseases, four of them under the age of two. The Vice-President of the Inter-American Court, Diego García-Sayán said that “fundamentally, the judgement has not yet been complied with”. The judges also called upon the state to set up clear communication channels with the Sawhoyamaxa community.
As Bolivian groups have shown their solidarity with the Sawhoyamaxa, so the Sawhoyamaxa express their solidarity with their neighbours, the Yakye Axa. This community, which is also living in precarious conditions, were also forced to take their case to the Inter-American system and, in 2005. the Court ruled that the Paraguayan state should return their ancestral lands.
The Yakye Axa are currently in mourning after the recent death of their former leader, Don Tómas Galeano, an important community figure who could remember the time when he had lived on their lands, and led the Yakye Axa´s attempts to return to them in 1996. The fact that he did not live to see his dream realised – the return of the ancestral lands to the Yakye Axa – meant that had to be buried by the side of the highway, instead of being buried alongside his ancestors on their land.
While some limited steps have been taken by Paraguay to comply with the Sawhoyamaxa and Yakye Axa judgements, no tangible outcome has been reached in relation to the fundamental issue of their land. Continued failure to address their demands will put the very survival of both the Sawhoyamaxa and the Yakye Axa on the line.
Amnesty International hopes that this hearing marks a turning point in the government´s attitude to taking necessary, urgent action on the case, and will continue to campaign with the Sawhoyamaxa and Yakye Axa until it does so, drawing attention to the international solidarity with their legitimate cause.