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Tekoha Sauce: community fights to recover land at Itaipú

An indigenous community vs the giant hydro-electric company



Written for LAB by William Costa

‘We were very happy when we lived on the banks of the Paraná River. We had our houses, we had our animals and our mint crops, which we sold on the Brazilian side of the river’, says Carmen Martínez. With notable melancholy, the 84-year-old says that she does not know how to begin talking about the countless memories she has of her former home in the east of Paraguay alongside the Paraná—one of South America’s great waterways—and of the hardships she has faced since her indigenous community, Tekoha Sauce, was forced to leave it during the construction of the immense Itaipú Dam in 1982.

Carmen is sat on a plastic chair by the side of a dirt track. On one side of this narrow road is a seemingly endless field used for large-scale commercial agriculture. On the other side is the Limoy nature reserve—a 13.3 km2 area of dense forest administered by Itaipú Binacional, an institution owned and run jointly by the Paraguayan and Brazilian states that is responsible for the Itaipú Dam. This thin strip of land between the two contrasting landscapes is, at present, the temporary home of the 43 families that make up Tekoha Sauce.

Amanda Martinez. Photo: William Costa

By Carmen’s side is her granddaughter Amada Martínez, a community leader. Amada explains that Tekoha Sauce is just one of many indigenous groups—all belonging to the Ava Guaraní nation—that were forcibly evicted from their ancestral lands in eastern Paraguay during the construction of Itaipú. Now, Martínez states, Tekoha Sauce are engaged in a legal struggle to recover their lost land whilst also facing the dire threat of a second eviction at the hands of Itaipú Binacional: this time from their current temporary settlement at Limoy.

Progress at what cost?

The Itaipú Hydroelectric Plant was built as a joint project by the Paraguayan and Brazilian states—both then controlled by military dictatorships—over the period 1973-84. This symbol of progress was constructed on the Paraná River, which marks the shared border between the two countries, and, at the time, was to be the planet’s largest hydro plant (at present, it is the second largest in the world in terms of capacity—after the Three Gorges in China—but retains its title as the hydroelectric facility with highest energy production). Within the frame of this unprecedented engineering project, the Paraguayan government expropriated an area of 1650 km2. This included space to accommodate part of the plant’s enormous new reservoir lake, which covers a total of 144 km2 across the two countries, so large that it has changed the map of South America, and roughly 100 km2 for the creation of nature reserves.

Mariblanca Barón, a researcher who has written about the impact of Itaipú on the Ava Guaraní, claims that 38 indigenous communities, consisting of approximately 688 families, were forced from their ancestral lands along the Paraguayan side of the Paraná as a result of the original expropriation. This action has been condemned for its violation of international treaties and Paraguayan law, which both state that indigenous peoples must consent to any move and must be given land of at least comparable quality to that being left behind.

In her book, Los Ava Guaraní Paranaenses, Barón demonstrates that irregularities took place from the very beginning of this process of eviction. A survey commissioned by Itaipú Binacional in 1977, which was used to coordinate the removal of the indigenous peoples, was completely lacking in documentation about the inhabitants of the area and in provisions for their relocation. The prominent anthropologist Bartomeu Melià, one of the three academics that carried out the report, himself subsequently denounced it as being a very short, half-baked document (‘muy a medias lo hicimos’)  that, contrary to Itaipú Binacional’s stance, cannot be used to justify the transfer of the Ava Guaraní.

On the Brazilian side of the border, a recently released report commissioned by the country’s Public Prosecutor’s Office states that the rights of Guaraní groups living in Brazil were also severely violated during the construction of Itaipú. No such report has been carried out by the Paraguayan state.

A court order prohibits the community from fishing, hunting, building new houses and gathering firewood whilst at Limoy. Photo: William Costa

A community uprooted

The violations of the rights of the indigenous communities in Paraguay can be clearly seen in the case of Tekoha Sauce. Carmen Martínez says that they were notified that the rising waters of the new reservoir would completely flood their ancestral territory and that they were then moved, along with members of several other communities, to an area that the state had selected for their relocation. She claims that this new location, Jekyry, was entirely inappropriate for their needs. There were no wild animals for them to hunt and there was no river. Quite apart from the importance of fishing for their subsistence, contact with the Paraná, going back countless generations, had produced an important spiritual relationship with water; this was impossible to maintain in Jekyry. Carmen says that soon after being relocated, many members of the community died of sadness: “We lost everything: our land, our houses and our way of living”.  

The members of Tekoha Sauce preserve their important relationship with water. Photo: William Costa

Describing the experience of her parents and grandparents, Amada adds, “The community was never consulted about whether they wanted to go there. They just took them there by force and, as they  had no other option, they stayed”.

The young leader states that the fact that the indigenous groups did not have deeds to the land has played against them: “It was state-owned land. Back then you didn’t need to have deeds; you owned the land by living on it. The indigenous groups had always been there. It had always been indigenous land.”

“Before, we trusted in people’s word; it was the most important thing there was. Now, we Guaraní have learnt how important papers are”.

With the support of a coalition of local and international NGOs Tekoha Sauce have become the first of the 38 communities displaced by Itaipú Binacional to embark ona legal battle to recover their lost territory or be given suitable replacement land.

In response to these claims, Itaipú Binacional denies any wrongdoing (this has also been the institution’s reaction to recriminations contained within the report commissioned by the Brazilian Public Prosecutor’s Office). In a letter sent to the Paraguayan Senate in May 2019, it contends that it fulfilled its legal obligations when it relocated members of Tekoha Sauce back in 1982.

Lucía Sandoval, one of a team of lawyers representing the community, disputes this view. She claims that the extremely poor quality of the terrain to which Tekoha Sauce were taken violates the law: “The state was obliged to provide them with land of equal quality to that which they previously inhabited so that they could continue living there as families and continue practising their culture without sacrificing their traditions. That’s what Law 904 states, and in no way did the manner that they were treated correspond to that”.  

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Tekoha Sauce’s legal team is currently awaiting the final decision of Paraguayan authorities. If a favourable decision is not obtained, they plan to take the case to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Leti Galeano, leader of the coalition of NGOs supporting the community, says that “The case meets all the legal requirements to go to the Interamerican Court. First, we’ll use up all the options here in Paraguay, but we already know that nothing gets solved here. It’s almost time to take the case to the international bodies”. In recent years, three indigenous communities in other parts of Paraguay have seen land disputes with the state decided in their favour by the IACHR.

Tekohá Sauce is one of many indigenous communities facing land-ownership problems in Paraguay. The United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, has written about this worrying situation. She states that, of the almost 500 indigenous communities in the country, 134 are landless and 145 are experiencing problems related to land possession, such as conflicts with the state or private businesses.

The territory is still above water

The struggle of members of Tekoha Sauce to return to their home on the banks of the Paraná long predates the current legal battle. Amada recounts that “Since I was a little girl I’ve heard the stories about what happened. The people of Sauce never stopped belonging to that place”.

The community is living between two contrasting landscapes: the Limoy reserve and an area of intensive agriculture. Photo: William Costa

She mentions that members of the community frequently returned to the area, and that through these trips they discovered that their territory had not been flooded in its entirety as Itaipú Binacional had told them. They found that some of their land had been designated as part of a nature reserve—they were able to find their old graveyard within this reserve—and another large section is now owned and cultivated by a soya farmer.

This irregular transfer of land is not surprising. During the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner—which lasted from 1954 to 1989—6,744 km2 of state-owned land were granted unlawfully to friends and allies of the military regime. Although it has not been possible to ascertain how Tekoha Sauce’s land ended up in the hands of a commercial farmer, many similar cases took place with complicity from authorities

Armed with this information, in 2015, the community decided to take action. Under the leadership of Amada and her father Cristóbal Martínez, they returned to their former home. A large group of families entered the soya plantation and began to build their homes. This occupation was to be short lived: in September 2016, a court ordered the removal of the indigenous group. An eviction force consisting of mounted police, paid workers and representatives of the National Institute for Indigenous Affairs (INDI)—the very institution supposedly charged with defending the interests of Paraguay’s indigenous peoples—were present for a violent destruction of the Tekoha Sauce settlement. Their houses were burnt down and their animals taken and killed, according to members of the community.

The Tekoha Sauce legal team claims that this eviction was illegal due to the lack of notification given to the community—they are currently appealing for the court order that permitted the eviction to be declared void.

The support given by the Paraguayan state to the soya farmer, at the cost of the indigenous community, forms part of a historic trend. As Luis Rojas, a researcher in rural development, mentions, in Paraguay—the country with the highest level of inequality of land ownership in the world, according to the World Bank—laws, taxes and judicial decisions tend to work in favour of the powerful, landed class and against indigenous and peasant-farmer groups.

“We are here because we have nowhere else to go”

Following this violent eviction, Amada claims that Tekoha Sauce saw no other option than to move to their current position on the edge of the Limoy nature reserve, just a few kilometres from their former territory.

The community is living between two contrasting landscapes: the Limoy reserve and an area of intensive agriculture. Photo: William Costa

Leti Galeano mentions that the community has made it clear that they are only occupying this tiny space out of necessity whilst continuing the legal battle for the recuperation of their own land. However, Itaipú Binacional, which administers the reserve, has denounced the community as unwanted invaders, stating that they pose a threat to protected wildlife.

Itaipú Binacional, whilst refusing to hold talks with the indigenous families about the loss of their lands in 1982, is now actively pursuing the eviction of the community from their current location at Limoy. The institution has already pushed a measure through the courts that prohibits members of the community from hunting, fishing, building new houses and from using wood from the reserve. Margarita Heralasky, a member of the community’s legal team, states that this action puts the human rights of the families of Tekoha Sauce in danger as “It prohibits them from carrying out any activities, even including those necessary for their own subsistence”.

Beyond this highly restrictive decree, it has also been recently disclosed that Itaipú Binacional has requested an eviction order from the court that could see the indigenous group forcibly removed. In response to this dire threat, Amnesty International released an urgent action appeal on 2nd July, calling for activists to write letters to petition Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez.

Fighting a giant

The 43 families of Tekoha Sauce are confronting the power of the parastatal body responsible for the world’s second biggest hydroelectric dam on two fronts. They continue to push for Itaipú Binacional to compensate them adequately for the extreme violation of rights that separated them from their home by the River Paraná whilst also resisting eviction from their temporary home at Limoy.

Leti Galeano says that the extreme persecution experienced by Tekoha Sauce could be a sign that Itaipú Binacional is afraid. If the indigenous families manage to recover their territory, it could set a precedent for the recuperation of land for some of the other 37 communities that were evicted during the construction of the dam, each with their own story of suffering and injustice.