I am surrounded by “palo borrachos” in the heart of the Argentinean Chaco. Known in English as Cieba Chodatii, their name in Spanish translates as “drunken stick,” humorously describing their swollen pot belly trunks. They are characteristic of dry regions due to their ability to retain water and are an endearing feature of the world´s largest dry forest – the South American Chaco.
CWS Chaco Program member Fundapaz has worked in the Chaco for over 40 years and one of its offices is set in a clearing of palo borracho trees in a village called Los Blancos. With some 5,000 inhabitants, a school that serves as primary by day and secondary by night, a small health centre, one restaurant with a set menu of either pizza or fried chicken, a village square with a playground for children and, most recently, a mobile phone antenna enabling phone signal for the first time ever, it is a veritable urban hub in this part of the Argentinean Chaco. “Los Blancos is like New York for some people,” says Gabriel Seghezzo of Fundapaz.
This becomes evident as we visit Wichi indigenous communities, who moved from Los Blancos to start a new life on plots of their ancestral land deep in the Chaco forest.
Now in its ninth year, the CWS Chaco Program accompanies indigenous communities in the legal process of recovering their ancestral land - much of it occupied by cattle ranchers or mass agro-industries. In addition, as is the case in this part of the Argentinean Chaco, CWS also provides ongoing support to communities who have managed to recover their land and are in the process of beginning a new life on it.
Anacleto, 60, moved in 2010 with his extended family of 25 to occupy a plot of land called Lote eight. This entailed leaving the relative security of Los Blancos to start again from scratch in an isolated rural setting.
“During the day it is like paradise here but as soon as it gets dark, that all changes,” he tells us, referring to the nightly visits of wild animals such as pumas who have been known to appear on the doorstep of his house, having devoured a number of the family’s goats.
Over the past three years with support from CWS, Anacleto and his family have built their capacity to manage small livestock and now have 150 goats. An area prone to chronic drought, when they moved there were no water sources. Support was provided to drill for water, which today they extract using a generator powered pump. They still do not have access to safe drinking water but have successfully approached municipal authorities to provide it. A 500 litre tank sits at the entrance to the community and a water truck visits fortnightly to fill it.
Their next project will be the development of a kitchen garden to produce vegetables to eat - and sell in Los Blancos. They will manage this project themselves through the CWS Chaco Program small grants fund.
“Things are different now. While our ancestors moved from one place to the other, we are staying here, “says Anacleto. “We have lots of plans for the future and we are labouring day in, day out to make them real. It is of great to significance to us that the land is now ours.”
For inspiration, Anacleto can look to the community of Wayayuk which moved to its ancestral land in 2000 and today has its own primary school, three different water catchments systems, houses built with government support, a health centre currently under construction and a growing population of cattle.
“We suffered a lot,” says Simon, a leader of the community. “When we moved here we had absolutely nothing. But we came together and used all our strength to build this community and get to where we are today.”
Simon´s son Bascilio shows us their community development plan. They have divided up their 2,700 acres of land into areas for hunting and gathering activities, cattle management, water sources and areas where women can gather materials for handicrafts.
Back in Los Blancos after a day in Lote eight and Wayayuk, I talk to Antonia over some fried chicken. She has been working in this area for almost 30 years. “The change is palpable,” she tells me, “at first families were reluctant to go, they were scared of starting all over again. The first few years were difficult but slowly they have grown and now I see the young leaders like Bascilio, Simon´s son, with new ideas, committed to the future and to ensuring the best possible life for generations to come.”
As the palo borracho trees retain water and resist drought, the Wichi indigenous people have also resisted hundreds of years of colonization and social exclusion and today, slowly but surely, are recovering parts of their ancestral territory. The CWS Chaco Program will continue to walk with them on their journey of hope, dignity and dreams.
Fionuala Cregan, CWS Program Officer for the South American Chaco