“We need help in the fight against forced labour among indigenous peoples”
Brussels, 9 August 2011 (ITUC OnLine): Pillaging of the environment, poor education, worker exploitation… the indigenous peoples of the Chaco region face a multitude of problems. Coordinator of the Chaco Inter-Ethnic Council, Crecencio Caceres, aged 47, is calling for international solidarity to help defend indigenous workers’ rights and fight against forced labour. (Click here for video of the interview.)
What led to the formation of the Chaco Inter-Ethnic Council?
There are seven “pueblos” (peoples) with different cultures and languages in the department of Boquerón alone. We have the Nivacle, Manjui, Ayoreo, Angaite, Enxet, Guarani Occidental and Guarani Ñandeva.
We needed to unite to defend the indigenous cause, so that the pueblos could move forward armed with a common purpose. The seven ethnic communities in El Chaco have always got along. There is no history of struggle or massacre between us.
The Chaco Inter-Ethnic Council, founded on 7 November 2008 in Filadelfia in the department of Boquerón (Paraguay), is a way for all of us to preserve our indigenous cultural identity. The heads of 80 out of the 126 indigenous communities in Boquerón have joined the Council.
An indigenous political force is needed to defend our land and natural resources. El Chaco is prey to rampant deforestation, and if it isn’t adequately defended, it could be destroyed within 20 years. Many plants have been lost, and it is very difficult to recover them. Land is being cleared for cattle ranches.
Many things depend on environmental protection: natural medicine, the native trees, the flora and fauna, even the foxes. We have all kinds of wood, like palo santo, a hard wood that is sold all over Europe, and samu that is used for handicrafts.
Another important issue is that we want to be consulted when big development projects are announced for El Chaco. A number of projects have been proposed: the “bi-oceanic” route, aqueducts, pipelines, major projects.
Could you tell us more about your struggle?
We have to defend our fundamental rights. We have the right to live on our own land. We believe that the Council can serve as a channel of communication and dialogue between the municipalities, the regions and the central government. If there is no answer, then we can take these cases and abuses to the international level.
The best way forward is to educate our people and build our capacities. We want free education for our young people. We want to take control of our own education so we don’t lose our culture. The elders can still teach our young people many things, so that we don’t lose our traditional way of life.
Health is also very important. As well as modern medicine, we want to promote our shamanic medicine as valid form of healing. We are working to ensure it survives.
Water is a big problem, there is very little of it. We have, in fact, been suffering from drought for the last eight months. There is no access to safe drinking water in the whole central Chaco region.
You took part in the ITUC trade union workshop on forced labour in the indigenous territory of El Chaco, held in November 2010 in Asunción. How can international trade unions contribute to defending the indigenous cause?
Seventy percent of our indigenous colleagues do not know their rights. It is important to inform them of their rights as workers. We want to form an alliance with trade unions. It is the only way to defend our rights, so that we see some improvement year by year. Workers need to be more insistent and fight harder for their rights. Many problems would be solved if we could resolve our labour problems.
How did you benefit from the ITUC seminar?
It was very important for us. It was like a door opening and a tremendous opportunity for us to develop good relations with the trade union movement, and vice-versa. It made us realise that there is a strong resolve to support indigenous people, especially in El Chaco, to help us achieve our objectives. We want to build a strategy that will solve the problems we face, first and foremost the problem of forced labour.
I now believe that the ILO and international trade unions have confidence in our indigenous organisations. We want to work directly with the trade unions and not through intermediaries.
What can you tell us about forced labour in El Chaco?
The people who suffer the most are the ranch workers. If they are lucky they may earn between 800,000 and a million guarani (around 175 – 220 USD) a month. And they have to pay for their food and social security out of this. Children have to go to school and they have to pay for this too. Workers receive nothing if they are ill, and they have to pay for medicines.
They work for at least eight hours a day, often much longer; they have to look after between 3000 and 5000 cows, six days a week, in the best of cases. This goes on day after day. Our colleagues are faced with total discrimination. They should not have to live like this.
Forced labour will not be eradicated within the space of a year. It is going to take some time. But we have started now and slowly but surely we are going to eliminate forced labour in the ranches. Our aim is to create a revolution. We want a revolution, not with arms but with intelligence and wisdom. We are also capable of campaigning with force. Little by little the people of El Chaco are waking up and demanding their rights.
Indigenous women in Paraguay are in a particularly vulnerable position. How are you addressing this?
One of the Council’s key aims is to encourage women to assert their rights. We are of the opinion that women should participate side by side with the men. They should not be sidelined. Women are part of the Council and we want them to organise.
Interview and photos: David Browne
See the “Union View“: The alliance between the indigenous peoples and trade unions in Latin America:
Also see the Spotlight interview with Carlos Manami Condori: “El Chaco – The alliance between indigenous peoples and trade unions is very important”
Also see the written and video interview with Marta Dora Peralta: “Domestic workers are exploited and discriminated against”
New ITUC report on indigenous peoples in Latin America
Brussels, 08 August 2011 (ITUC OnLine): To mark the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, the ITUC is releasing a new report entitled “The Alliance Between the Indigenous Peoples and Trade Unions in Latin America”. The report points to the discrimination, feudal exploitation, isolation and forced labour suffered by indigenous peoples in Latin America.
The International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, observed by the global community each year on 9 August, serves to raise awareness about indigenous peoples’ cultures and the great diversity they represent. It is also an opportunity to scale up efforts to tackle the exclusion, discrimination and poverty that remain an everyday reality for a large part of these peoples. Many are those still faced with discrimination, marginalisation, extreme poverty and conflict around the world, especially in Latin America, where indigenous peoples suffer the worst violations of their rights, despite it being the continent where ILO Convention 169 has been the most widely ratified.
The ITUC report explains how in Guatemala a new bill conflicting with ILO Convention 169, concocted by the private sector in cahoots with the Guatemalan government, is currently before parliament. The international trade union movement, together with indigenous peoples’ organisations from the country, has firmly denounced this bill breaching the Convention. “This bill poses a serious threat to the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples, especially with regard to consultation,” said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. “It responds exclusively to national and international private economic interests.”
The international trade union movement also recalled during the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June that Guatemala must comply with the precautionary measures advocated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has called for a suspension of works at the Marlin gold and silver mine – an immense operation violating the Mayan people’s rights.
The indigenous peoples of Colombia and Guatemala have demanded their right from the European Parliament to be consulted over free trade and association agreements. “ILO Convention 169 must be included in the free trade agreements the EU is negotiating with the sub-regions of Latin America, along with mechanisms to ensure that governments and companies respect the Convention,” insisted Manuela Chavez, who is in charge of trade unions and indigenous peoples in Latin America at the ITUC.
In Paraguay, as the ITUC report highlights, thousands of indigenous workers and their families are subjected to feudal exploitation on the large ranches and farming estates. According to trade union and indigenous peoples’ organisations, the days of slavery, now in the contemporary form of forced labour, are far from over. Women and children are also exploited in large numbers as domestic labour.
In Brazil, the Quilombolas* and indigenous peoples suffer violations and discrimination in the areas of consultation and participation, the right to land and natural resources, development and health. The Brazilian government has pledged to meet with the national trade union confederations before the end of 2011 to tackle these issues, and particularly those related to land rights violations.
(*) The Quilombolas emerged during the fights against slavery and racial discrimination in the country, during which black communities with social and community relations were formed.
Also see the videos: El Chaco: a rights-free zone for indigenous workers and Paraguay: better protection for domestic workers.
Brussels, 8 August 2011 (ITUC OnLine): As the collapse in world share values threatens to trigger renewed downturn and with it a surge in unemployment, union leaders have called on G20 leaders to convene an emergency Summit to take the initiative to regulate the markets and avert economic collapse.
“Three years ago G20 leaders said they would never let the financial markets dictate economic policy again – sadly their actions were woefully inadequate, and we are now experiencing the consequences” stated ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. “It is not too late; an emergency G20 summit must do what they promised then, and introduce effective regulatory measures backed by employment targets for their policies.”
“Stock markets have responded predictably like panicking sheep to the vacuum of leadership from the G20” criticised TUAC General Secretary John Evans. “The only acceptable way to exit from this crisis is to stimulate growth and job creation yet the governments are talking of further austerity. The private sector will never generate jobs as long as companies see no reason to anticipate higher demand for their products. Decisive pro-employment measures are urgently needed.”
Brussels, 3 August 2011 (ITUC OnLine): The delegates at the II Conference against Impunity in Guatemala, convened by the ITUC and its Guatemalan affiliates and held from 21 to 22 July in Guatemala City, have condemned and expressed grave concern at the killings of two women, members of the national front for the defence of public services and natural resources, FNL, who have paid with their lives for their outstanding commitment to the fight waged alongside the Guatemalan people.
Lesbia Elías Xurup, a member of Comunidades en Resistencia contra Unión FENOSA, fighting against the energy group’s abuses, was savagely hacked to death by machetes at her home in Comunidad de La Selva, Santo Domingo, Suchitepéquez, on 21 July. The assassins went directly to her home and, not content with killing her, chopped off one of her hands.
María Santos Mejía, secretary of the independent maquilas union Sindicato de Maquilas Independientes, was shot in the head several times by assailants on a motorbike. She leaves orphaned her four children and four-month-old baby.
In a letter to President Colom, the ITUC urged him to take every step necessary to bring an end to the constant murders and violations of the rights of working people. “It is essential that the Guatemalan government take urgent measures to guarantee the full exercise of human, labour and trade union rights in the country and to end the murders of trade unionists and women trade unionists,” insisted ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.
The Conference adopted a Statement bringing together a series of demands calling on the government to stop the incessant violations of workers’ fundamental rights, including the right to life, to end impunity and the femicide plaguing the country, to strengthen the judiciary, etc.
Brussels, 1 August 2011 (ITUC OnLine): On Friday 29 July, the ITUC wrote to the president of Malawi to strongly protest the bloody repression of peaceful protests in various cities of the southern African country on 20 and 21 July. Indiscriminate violence from the authorities led to the death of 18 people.
Civil society, including Malawi’s trade unions, has been critical of a number of recent laws which limit the freedom of the press, restrict lawsuits against government agencies and officers, and limit civil liberties. Under the current situation, the Malawian police can, e.g., search any house without a search warrant, and the press cannot publish anything which is “deemed to be contrary to the public interest”. Protestors also wanted to protest against the quickly deteriorating economic conditions, characterised by crippling fuel and foreign exchange shortages. The workers of Malawi have been hit hard by the economic crisis. Shortage of foreign exchange means that companies cannot bring in raw materials and parts, which has resulted in massive job losses. Shortages cause basic goods to become unaffordable.
Despite the brutal police crackdown, protestors took their demands to the district commissioners, and called on the president to address these demands by 16 August. Subsequently, a great number of local civil society leaders and labour leaders had to go into hiding, as they fear for their lives after having received threats.
“This is not worthy of a country which adheres to the principles of democracy,” said ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow. “Confronted with such particularly harsh conditions as the ones currently hitting Malawi, citizens and civil society organisations should not face even tougher repression when standing up for their basic rights.”
For more information, contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 02 04.