IN A LANDMARK DECISION, THE UN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMITTEE has found that Paraguay’s failure to prevent and control the toxic contamination of traditional lands, due to the intensive use of pesticides by nearby commercial farms, violates the indigenous community’s rights and sense of ‘home’.

This is the Committee’s first decision to affirm that in the case of indigenous people, the notion of ‘home’ should be understood within the context of the special relationship between them and their territories including their livestock, crops and way of life, such as hunting, foraging and fishing.

“For indigenous peoples, their lands represent their home, culture and community. Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community. It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole”, said Committee member Hélène Tigroudja.

The Committee’s decision, on 13 October 2021, follows a complaint filed by the elected community leader and a teacher at the community school, on behalf of all the 201 Ava Guarani people of the Campo Agua’e indigenous community in the country’s eastern district of Curuguaty.

The Campo Agua’e indigenous community lives in an area closely surrounded by large commercial farms that use fumigation, a process that utilises chemical smoke to kill pests, to produce genetically modified soybeans. The fumigation, including the use of banned agrochemicals continuously for more than ten years in the area, had killed indigenous community’ chickens and ducks, affected subsistence crops and fruit trees, impacted hunting, fishing and foraging resources, contaminated the waterways and harmed people’s health.

The environmental damage also had severe intangible repercussions. The disappearance of the natural resources needed for hunting, fishing, woodland foraging and Guarani agro-ecology, led to the loss of traditional knowledge. The ceremonial aspects of baptism (mitãkarai) are no longer practised as the materials from the forest necessary to build the dance houses (jerokyha) and to make the liquor (kagüi) no longer exist. By halting such ceremonies, children are denied a rite crucial to strengthening their cultural identity. Most alarmingly, the indigenous community structure is being eroded and disintegrated as families are forced to leave their land.

After lengthy and unsatisfactory administrative and judicial process in Paraguay, the community brought their case to the Human Rights Committee.

“More than 12 years after the victims filed their criminal complaint regarding the fumigation with toxic agrochemicals, to which they have continued to be exposed throughout this period, the investigations have not progressed in any meaningful way and the State party has not justified the delay”, the Committee said in its decision.

It further found that Paraguay did not adequately monitor the fumigation and failed to prevent contamination. “This failure in its duty to provide protection made it possible for the large-scale, illegal fumigation to continue for many years, destroying all components of the indigenous people’s family life and home”, it added.

The Committee recommended that Paraguay complete the criminal and administrative proceedings against all the parties responsible, make full reparation to the victims, take all necessary measures, in close consultation with the community, to repair the environmental damage, and take steps to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future.

* Source: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights