Guarani Women Arise! Indigenous Leader Matilde Lucio Wins International Rural Women's Day Prize
In small communities across the Ramal Jujeño in Argentina Guarani women are rising up to defend their rights.
Matilde Lucio grew up in a small mud house in a Guarani community in the province of Jujuy, located in northern Argentina. She completed only a few years of primary school before being sent to help her parents work on a nearby estate. Little did she imagine that one day she would be recognized as one of 2012’s outstanding rural women by the Women’s World Summit Foundation. On October 15, Rural Women’s Day, Matilde will be awarded one of 10 international prizes for her creativity in rural life.
“Before I knew nothing about politics – I was nobody. I was ashamed to even speak my own lanaguage. Now I hold meetings with Government officials and tell them what to do,” says Matilde, who for 48 years has been fighting for indigenous rights in the Ramal Jujeño, part of the vast South American Chaco, one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the continent.
And she is not alone. All across the Ramal Jujeño, Guarani women are organising themselves and rising up to demand not only the rights of indigenous people but also their rights as women.
“Women have the right not only to learn and to be part of the struggle, but to be valued for all that we do,” says Matilde, who recognizes that this international prize pays homage to all the Guarani women in the region who have contributed so much to the struggle for rights.
“It is the women who stay in the community,” says activist Juana Vasquez. “The women wear the community on their shoulders. We are the ones who know what there is and what there isn’t, we know what needs to be done. And so a few years ago we came together to learn and try to organise ourselves.”
Matilde, now 64-years-old, played a key part in this process. As soon as her first son Oscar finished primary school, she set out with him to travel across the Ramal to find other Guarani communities, most of whom had been displaced from their ancestral lands during the 1800s and forced to work on the large sugar plantations that were emerging. Prior to Spanish colonization, these Guarani people had lived in what was known as the “Chaco Gualamba”, which spanned parts of northeastern Argentina and Southern Bolivia. Today most of the land in the Ramal Jujeño is in the hands of Argentina´s largest sugar processing company Ledesma, currently under investigation for its involvement in human rights violations during the Argentinan dictatorship. Up until recently Guarani communities lived in isolated pockets around it with little contact between each other.
“We would go out and look for our Guarani brothers and sisters – we knew they were out there but didn’t know where. We wanted to find them so that we could begin to work together and organize as communities. Sometimes we would be away for days, hitch hiking and walking to even the most remote places, we had oranges and bananas to eat, sometimes a cup of coffee too. We would come back exhausted, rest for two days and then head out again,” says Matilde. “We met women who were totally alone – the men had left to look for work. Nobody cared – it was like the Guaranies did not exist. And so the first step was to get organized as communities and let the authorities know that we exist.”
A key part of this struggle initially focused on cultural identity – in recovering pride in Guarani identity and in particular the language. Matilde organised radio programs to get information out to communities. Soon the Guarani People´s Assembly was created (Asamblea del Pueblo Guarani in Spanish) and the struggle took on a much broader political focus. In 1994, following a long advocacy process by indigenous and other organizations, the Argentina Constitution was amended with the addition of Article 75-17 which acknowledges the pre-existence of indigenous people in the country and guarantees “the right to a bilingual and intercultural education.” It also recognizes “the legal standing of indigenous communities and the possession and collective ownership of lands they have traditionally occupied” and will “regulate the handover of other lands suitable and sufficient for human development; none of which may be sold, transferred, or susceptible to lien.”
Many indigenous communities were not aware of these changes or their significance. So Matilde and other women, with support from local and international non-governmental organizations, began to organize workshops.
“We were invited to participate in trainings being given by a local NGO,” says Sonia Gimenez, a member of the APG from El Bananal Community. “At first we were afraid, most of us women hadn´t even finished primary school, we lacked confidence and felt shy. I did not speak out or ask questions as I had no idea what they were talking about. But over time we gained confidence. During the workshops we learned about our rights as indigenous people, we now know that we have special rights that correspond to us as as pre-inhabitants of Argentina.”
At first men resisted. They did not want women travelling or participating in meetings.
“The men said it was a waste of time, that the government was not going to listen to a group of women,” says Flora Cruz, who for many years lead the Guarani People´s Assembly. “But we were rebellious. Many of us suffered violence at the hands of our husbands. It was not unusual to see a woman with a black eye – this was the cost of becoming involved in community leadership.”
But then changes began to take place. In some cases it was the construction of schools or houses, in others the installation of running water in communities or the organization of access to Government social programs such as the universal child allowance or the preparation of papers for the legal registration and land claim process. And in 2005, the biggest victory of all – the recovery of 4100 hectares of land in an area known as El Vinalito.
Eventually the men began to put up less resistance and accept the important role women were playing in their communities and in the recovery of pride in Guarani identity. And not only this, but inspired by what they saw, more and more women began to join the struggle.
“As leaders we act as examples to other women,” says Flora Cruz who also now plays a key role in the continental Guarani Peoples Assembly which brings together communities from Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. “Women see me in meetings with the Government, in interviews on the television and they know that I am the same as them, that I grew up without access to education. And so they think, ´If Flora can do it, so can we!´ I always tell women that they should never feel inferior or think they do not have the right to be somewhere because they did not finish school. I tell them they shouldn’t be shy. That they are capable of doing everything, that women are capable of doing everything and anything. To think that 15 years ago we had nothing. We were vulnerable and unprotected – now we have a whole people’s assembly to defend our rights.”
And there are indeed still many human rights violations in indigenous communities in Argentina. The implementation gap between what is stated in the National Constitution and the reality in indigenous communities is immense. Progress towards achieving the stated right to bilingual and intercultural education has been unacceptably slow. Many young people no longer speak Guarani. Classes being taught in schools are more often than not extra-curricular initiatives led by communities themselves without state support.
Progress towards recovering and gaining legal title to their ancestral lands has, since the recovery of El Vinalito in 2005, paralyzed. The expansion of the agricultural frontier for the meat and soya industries in Argentina, and in particular its extensive Chaco region, is causing rapid and massive deforestation. The land recuperation process is slow and painfully bureaucratic and in the meantime communities are being forced on to the margins of urban centres, or pushed onto tiny portions of land surrounded by wire fences without access to water or resources to live sustainably. Most continue to work on large estates where labor rights are almost non-existent –average earnings are $12 USD a day for shifts that can last over 12 hours in harvest season.
The women, however, are optimistic.
“Before we had nothing,” says Matilde, “We were stuck inside the house all day. Now we don’t stop - travelling, going to meetings, organizing events. Now the Government knows that we exist.”
For many, hope in particular lies in the younger generation of indigenous youth who have grown up observing their mothers and their political and communal struggle. Most of the women’s children go to secondary school now and some are even going on to study third level.
“My daughters participate in the APG too and watch how I do things. That way they learn,” says Matilde ,who is the mother of six children. Her son Oscar now works for the municipal government providing technical support to indigenous communities.
“Young people want to participate politically, they need to learn about their rights so that they can go out and defend them, and inspire other young people to do the same,” says youth leader Andrea Cuellar.
The energy of the women is contagious, it is breathing life and awakening a region which historically has been forgotten or ignored. And now with Matilde´s prize and the homage that it represents to all of the women in the region, their struggle has received international recogntion.
Fionuala Cregan is based in Argentina and currently works for the Regional Latin America Office of Church World Service: www.cwslac.org