Owning land liberates people

Guarani Solidarity Team Project
Entre Rios, Department of Tarija, Bolivia

The Guarani trace their origins to Brazil and Paraguay from where they migrated more than 500 years ago. They mixed with the Chane' Indians who cultivated a great deal of corn and the Guarani themselves became "People of the Corn." More than 50 ways of using corn are found in their daily diet.

The Guarani were the indigenous people most resistant to the invasion of the Spaniards. In fact, the Spaniards named them "Guarani," a word meaning "war" in the Tupi language. After they were defeated at the Battle of Kuruyuki in 1892, they lost their liberty and consequently their spirit, becoming a very oppressed people.

When the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary first met the Guarani people in 1987, most were peons of the landholders who had obtained huge land titles conceded by the Bolivian dictators. There were no schools in the Guarani communities. Most people were illiterate, enslaved, and stoically passive about their condition.

The people had trouble growing their own food because of the onslaught of cattle that destroyed all their crops except those guarded well by good wire fences. Because of their crop losses they became enslaved to the landholders by their own debts. It became necessary for them to "borrow" in order to eat, obtain blankets, or minimal clothing. Huts with palm leaf roofs, often with no walls to protect them from the rains and cold weather, served as their homes. They were often looked upon by the Mestizos as "less than human."

The "Guarani Solidarity Team" project or Support Team to the Guarani People (Equipo de Apoyo al Pueblo Guarani) was initiated to support the people in their efforts to liberate themselves from the landholders. Support was specified in five different areas known as the pillars of the newly organized "Guarani People's Assembly" (Asamblea del Pueblo Guarani). These five areas were: production, infrastructure, health, education, and territory. Their mission was to achieve liberation and a self-sustaining life style for their own people. The team has been a continuous entity from the time of its founding

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Procedures for Establishing the Project

Upon learning the Guarani language, it became possible for the support team to visit the Guarani communities and begin listening to their dreams and aspirations. Their first concerns were to begin a common field where all could work together to clear, plant, weed and harvest. The project began with the coming together of four people dedicated to the Guarani cause: a Presentation sister, a Swiss engineer and nurse couple, and a local educator. The sisters' home in Timboy provided services as an office until a team office was set up in Entre Rios. A grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters made it possible to purchase the tools needed: axes, machetes, spades, large hoes, hammers, barbed wire, staples, and food for the families working in the field.

Naurenda became the first common field, followed by Saladito and then Yukimbia. Each common field began with the organization of the community: first, the choice of a chief (mburivicha), then the choice of the president of the work group, a vice president, secretary, and messengers.

Almost simultaneously, schools were established in each community. Local villagers put up a palm leafed roof structure and walls of wattle. The Team provided someone to plaster the walls, make a blackboard, and put in a cement floor, windows and doors. One of the Team members, a former rural school teacher, principal and supervisor, wielded enough influence with the public school district to begin the new schools and obtain teachers for them.

Through sponsorship by the Team, a young Guarani woman from the community received nurse's training. Many more men and women who obtained scholarships for nursing training followed. A Swiss couple constructed and equipped the first health post in Yukimbia. This became a model for the government to construct and equip many other health posts in the region.

Unlike another non-governmental organization (NGO) in the area that planned projects in the city of Tarija and then advertised these to the people, this project was planned with the people, finding out what their priorities were before writing the projects. Because of this, each Support Team was different, reflecting the priorities of the community; for example, in addition to their agricultural focus, different local communities targeted education as an important need; another identified health care. Others focused on handicrafts, medical emergencies, honey production, a housing project, and a cattle cooperative,

All decisions about priorities, needs, organizational meetings, and problems are made by the Guarani People's Assembly, a native Guarani organization. The Guarani Solidarity Team worked with the Guarani People's Assembly to organize 36 communities along with their work groups and communal fields. Three Guarani agricultural promoters were contracted, one for each of the three Guarani zones. Cattle cooperatives were available to every community. Generally 2 or 4 communities were joined in one cattle cooperative. This took approximately 8 years. Funding was a vital part of this effort. Most of the funding came from Catholic Church organizations like the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, the Raskob Foundation, Koch Foundation, German Bishops' Miserior, and a host of other donors.

Meetings were called every month by the Guarani leaders in the local communities, every two months in the three zones, and every four months as an entire region. Some of their accomplishments included the following:


  • Land and cattle made available in each zone (18 years and continuing)

  • Schools within walking distance for all communities, a junior high school in each of the three zones, and one senior high school in Nurenda ( 15 years)

  • Road projects in all three zones (18 years and continuing)

  • Water projects made potable water available in most of the communities (18 years) and made small irrigation systems available (10 years)

  • Electricity has been installed in a few communities

  • Medical posts have been installed in each zone (15 years) and universal medical insurance made available to all

  • More than 500 houses have been constructed in the Guarani communities; some still need to add bathrooms, dining rooms and kitchens (10 years and continuing)

  • High quality honey production (10 years)

  • Handicrafts draw considerable economic help to the Guarani families. Since growth had been phenomenal and markets scarce, many more markets need to be established (15 years)

  • Seed corn, well known for its high quality, produced by the Guarani farmers (5 years)

  • Peanuts and soy beans produced and added to the people's diet (5 years)

Some of the more important factors that helped the project to achieve success were:


  • The need to acquire legal status for the project. The project "Equipo de Apoyo al Pueblo" is now recognized as a legal entity by the government.

  • The agreement to build the project around the priorities of the Guarani people by listening to their aspirations.

  • A united team effort and good organization in the local communities. Instead of different components working independently of each other, the original Guarani Solidarity Team agreed to combine their efforts and work together for the good of the whole.

  • The Presentation sisters actually living in one of the zones. This afforded them the opportunity to listen daily and learn the language more quickly.

Other resources that contributed significantly were the agricultural consultants, a forestry engineer, agricultural promoters, and Peace Corps volunteers, as well as other volunteers.
On the other hand, progress was sometimes hindered due to unplanned incidents:


  • When efforts were given to more than one project at a time, for example, building houses while an irrigation project was in process, progress became somewhat more complicated.

  • A major setback arose when--after ten years--the Peace Corps announced that they would no longer be able to send volunteers for the same handicraft project. A Bolivian woman was then employed to administer the production and marketing of handicrafts. Without the contacts of the Peace Corps with other Americans, however, commercialization of the baskets became a greater challenge. New avenues for contacts had to be sought through American visitors to Bolivia, through the sale of baskets after mission homilies, and through other friends of the Presentation and Dominican Sisters.

  • Another problem that had to be faced was how to provide food for the families when they were no longer working for the landholders. Food costs therefore had to be calculated into the cost of beginning the common field.

  • In another instance, where a new tractor was being considered for purchase, an NGO who had committed to paying 2/3 of the cost lost its funding. Plans had to be changed to purchase a good second-hand tractor and look for more funding to help with the cost.

Leadership Changes

"In the very beginning," Sister Maura McCarthy declared, "the four founders decided to work on an equal basis as a committee." Later, when the Swiss couple returned to Switzerland, the two remaining Team members shared the leadership. After the Team became legally recognized as a Bolivian NGO, the Presentation sister ceded full responsibility for leadership to a native Bolivian. He became recognized as the coordinator and later as the director of the project. An accountant-auditor was then added as an administrator for the Team.

Sustainability for the Future

A number of measures have taken place to help stabilize the financial situation for the project:


  • The Guarani People's Assembly has begun proceedings to negotiate a large sum of money in return for the petroleum taken from their lands.

  • A sum of $40,000 per year has been pledged by the Swiss Solidarity Team. (This Swiss Team was formed in Switzerland after the Swiss couples returned home.)

  • The Solidarity Team announced that the Guarani Assembly would need to take over the educational project, which had reached the cost of $28,000. The Guarani Assembly is expected to provide the funding and take charge of administering it by January, 2009.

  • The administration of land purchased for the Guarani of Naurenda is in process of becoming administered by the Guarani themselves in the form of a Guarani committee.

  • Plans for other avenues to financial stability are being explored: payment to the Guarani people by oil companies for oil extracted from their territory.

Progress on each of the team initiatives is evaluated regularly. At the end of the year, each team member writes a final report and evaluation of the area for which he/she is responsible.

Good leadership is essential. A good leader must know how to communicate effectively, how to ask questions, show respect for team members, have a sense of humor, and be sensitive to when the team needs to talk things over or have a good party.

Team members must be chosen carefully especially for their commitment to the cause. The cause needs to supersede the job itself. Sister Maura McCarthy, founder of the project, stated, "We often say that sometimes there are no weekends. Guarani meetings often take place on Sundays to accommodate those who need to work on other days." There also needs to be a genuine love for the people served, a love which includes learning their language and customs.

Eventually, the Equipo de Apoyo al Puerto Guarani project will be replaced by the native people's Guarani People's Assembly. For the present, however, the Team continues with projects of urgent necessity, especially those insuring better alimentation for the Guarani people. One of these is the handicraft project of the Guarani women, promoted by a Dominican sister (a Guarani Solidarity Team member) and the Bolivian women working for the Team. The exportation of these baskets have potential for making a better future for these Guarani families.

Currently there are many companies working in the Guarani areas, building roads, schools, pre-schools, bridges, retaining walls against flooding. Due to inflation and the multitude of family needs, many Guarani men and women feel forced to find work in these companies, and therefore are not available for agricultural work, cattle cooperative work, or home building that needs to be done.

Sister Maura McCarthy considered this project the greatest experience of her life. "They have honored me with their trust and their gratitude," she said. "I have learned that I cannot liberate anyone. They liberate themselves. I can only accompany them. How people become liberated is their decision; they must trace their own future and when the time is right, I must get out of their way."

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Background: South America

Bolivia is a landlocked country in central South America.

Entre Rios, is a town in the Tarija Department of Bolivia. The region of Entre Rios was one of the main areas of settlement for the people of Guarani who have inhabited the basin of Parana for thousands of years.

The Guarani people are one of the main indigenous groups in South America; in Bolivia they total around seventy-five thousand. Traditionally, Guarani people were mainly hunters, gatherers and fishermen living in huts arranged circularly around a central plaza, but there are extensive proofs they did some agriculture and domesticated a few animals as well. They are expert craftsmen, especially in creating clothes.

Many of the Guarani people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits.

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Taken from Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World © 2009, sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters and used with its permission. All rights reserved.

For more information about the program or about Seeds of Hope Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World, contact: the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, 10100
Santa Monica Blvd. Suite 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90067-4011 USA. Telephone: 310-785-0746 / Fax: 310-785-0166 / E-mail: info@hiltonfundforsisters.org. Web site: www.hiltonfundforsisters.org.


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