Some 160 miles southeast of Asunción, in the great rural outback known around the capital simply as "el campo," the village of Tacuaro is the regional hub of Paraguay’s Mbya people. The first inhabitants of the country’s once-great Atlantic forests, the Mbya are the larger and less politically organized of eastern Parguay’s two main indigenous groups. Both have been systematically oppressed by Paraguayan government and industry, but the neighboring Ache people have managed to regain title to much of their ancestral lands. Most Mbya, meanwhile, live on reservations like the one at Tacuaro, sunburned plots that represent fractions of their former territory. Once wide-ranging hunter-gatherers, today's Mbya have struggled to adapt to sedentary, small-scale agriculture, and most live in considerable poverty.
In an article from 1963, Thompson describes the relative economic stability that helped keep Paraguay's dictatorial general Alfredo Stroessner in power for thirty-five years. “The situation is one of the least menacing in South America,” he writes. “...[I]nflation has been checked, fiscal problems have been brought under control, and...there is evidence of progress on very basic levels.” But when the Paraguayan economy began to flag in the 1980s, the Stroessner regime undertook a kind of reverse land reform, intensively parceling out indigenous land in the campo
for commercial ranching and agriculture projects. Tracts were awarded to political cronies, and many of those sold their new lands to Brazilian speculators, absentee landlords who then decimated the forests to make room for cattle, cotton, and sugarcane. Only recently have some Mbya communities, including the Tacuaro band, started joining indigenous protests in the capital, demanding legal title to more of their former homelands.
I visited Tacuaro with a group of traveling medics, a team of Americans and Paraguayans from a Maine-based organization called the Andrea Ritz Clinics
. For a week, we roamed across the campo
, making house calls along muddy jeep tracks and holding pop-up clinics in cinderblock schoolhouses. In Tacuaro, we set up our table beneath a lime tree, next to the clapboard house of the community’s chief. Most of the patients were children, wide-eyed kids suffering infections, parasites, and malnutrition. Most were dark-haired and dark-eyed; a few had the telltale blonde hair and fair skin of a Brazilian parent or grandparent. As a rule, they were shy and unspeakably cute.
While the doctors saw patients and dispensed medication, I played with a few of the kids awaiting their turn. One held a piece of yarn with a coatimundi on the end of it, a small and fuzzy animal like a snouted raccoon. Thompson had one in Rio as well, a housebroken pet that he claimed to have rescued from an abusive owner in Bolivia. The coati skittered around comically at the end of its leash, scratching at the dirt with fishhook claws. In the wild, a coatimundi can shred a heavy log like a housecat tearing at newspaper. Here, I thought, was an animal that could raise some hell if it ever got tired of its leash.
There are twenty-six families living in the Tacuaro band of Mbya, and judging from the line to see the medics, they’re averaging a minimum of four kids per family. Which means that the hardscrabble reservation at Tacuaro will sooner or later have to support more than twice its current population. When that day comes, the available and arable land may not be sufficient. And three volunteer medics dispensing antibiotics beneath a lime tree — that may not be sufficient either.
When the medics had treated their last patient, we climbed back into the truck and drove off along the red clay roads. A troupe of Mbya children chased after us, and I watched as they grew distant in the side-view mirror. Then we turned a corner, and I lost them behind a green wall of sugarcane.
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