“Here you have people displaced from their land.”
Our car bumped down a stretch of red dirt road as the brightly lit stars shone above us and persistent mosquitos found their way through the open windows. We journeyed for hours across Paraguay, from West to East, and were soon delivered to Puerto Barra. Here, close to the border of Argentina, lives one of Paraguay’s few remaining indigenous tribes – the Ache. With backpacks filled with worn clothes and anticipation, our expectations of living with the Ache were formed in accordance with stereotypes about tribal living. We pictured jungles, we pictured face paint, we pictured hunting. However, due to displacement, the Ache’s life no longer resembles that of their ancestry and each of us received an authentic education on life for the Ache as we lived with them for a week.
Theirs is a story of land loss, of injustice, of being hunted and of struggling to survive the advance of civilisation. Within the last century, Ache people were kidnapped and sold in Paraguay’s public squares as domestic servants. This demand stemmed from the common view that the indigenous peoples were essentially animals and therefore even a life of slavery in a home was an improvement for them. Additionally, around this time land was bought and sold for agricultural purposes, encroaching on their jungle homes. The Paraguayan Government was indifferent to the fact that native people lived on this land and portions of the jungle were destroyed in place of soybean farms. The Ache’s displacement within their own land and the destruction of the jungle consequently uprooted the wildlife and prevented their hunting for food. Diseases such as the flu were introduced and this tribe’s lack of immunity meant large loss of life.
As this was happening a Christian missionary heard of the Ache’s struggle for survival and sought to find them and aid them. He negotiated with a Paraguayan slave owner to obtain an Ache Indian (being sold as a slave) as a guide, and he was able to set him free from his owner. Together they brought aid to the Ache living in the jungle. To this day, the missionary’s son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren invest in the protection and wellbeing of the Ache people. As a tribal group, they likely wouldn’t have survived if this missionary, Rolf Fostervold, had not made friendly contact with them. Currently, there are around 2000 Ache remaining.
This indigenous tribe now lives in separate communities on small portions of land where their original jungle has been completely destroyed. We were honoured to stay with a small community of 200 Ache and to daily wander around their wooden houses and down the red dirt paths. We were privileged to meet Lorenzo, the man who was sold as a slave but later freed, as well as others of the older generation who lived through the loss of their jungle. We enjoyed being shown the arrows that they’ve carved and the baskets that they’ve weaved. They are an extremely intelligent people, skilled and knowledgeable with their land, with farming and with hunting.
Displacement and land loss is now a part of this tribe’s story and it completely, thoroughly changed their way of life and the effects of this transition are still in play. The Ache now live between the tension of seeking to maintain their traditions and adopting ways to make life easier for them, all the while adjusting to life without a jungle.