Sunday, 7 March 2010

Paraguay - The Gran Chaco

In searching for Paraguay's version of Bayan-Olgii (the remote province of western Mongolia) I've come up with the Chaco. The difference between Paraguay's remote province though, and that of other countries, is that it takes up 60% of Paraguay's total land area. Despite the fact that only 2% of Paraguay's population lives there.

It sounds like a place where nature remains untamed by man, a place of thick, thorny jungles, dangerous snakes and spiders, remote forest tribes, salty earth and Mennonites clad in black.

Despite all of this, Paraguay seems determined to hold on to the Chaco, even fighting a war over it, with Bolivia, in the 1930's.  One of the Chaco's main gateway towns is called Villa Hayes, after the 19th US President, Rutherford B Hayes, who was asked to arbitrate, by Argentina, after the War of the Triple Alliance. Argentina was hoping to gain the Gran Chaco, as part of its territory, but Hayes decided it should remain with Paraguay. Not remembered for much in his own country (and most of that negative) Hayes has gone down in Paraguayan history as a national hero.

Having been persecuted in Europe and fleeing conscription in the various different homelands, it's not really surprising that the only Europeans who would settle on a terrain as hostile as the Chaco, would be the Mennonites. The Mennonites are defined by their pacifism, but also their religious extremism, choosing uncomplicated, traditional lives over the unholy commercialism of the modern age.

I've come across some of their descendents before, in Uzbekistan. Originally being invited by the Russian Tsars to live peacefully and farm along the Volga River, Stalin had them moved to Central Asia during the Second World War. Being mostly of German and Dutch origin, they were considered to be 'internal enemies' of the Soviet state. Many of them fled to North and South America and the Paraguayan government sold vast tracks of the Chaco to settlers and gave them a certain amount of autonomy so that, until this day, the Mennonites of Paraguay live in a 'state within a state'.

Without sounding too negative, I can't help wondering how sustainable Paraguay's control over the Chaco is. Like the Russians in Siberia, or the British in the Falklands, sustaining a population and sovereignty over the Chaco, might prove difficult for Paraguay. Already a lot of the land in the Chaco's eastern border has been bought up by Brazilians and some of the Chaco's main smuggling towns, like Pedro Juan Caballero, have more to do with the economy and cultural influences across the border, than with far-away (and difficult to get to) Asuncion.

Image credits

The picture of the villagers in El Chaco was provided by flickruser Fiona L Cooper - Fiona is originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, but has been teaching English and teacher training in Paraguay for the last few years.  You can find out more about Fiona and her life on her blog http://fionalouisecooper.blogspot.com/
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