"This is the future"

By Chris Hufstader
Lorenzo Charup is confident about the long-term prospects for his community, now that the Chiquitano people have legal title to Monte Verde.

The dry season has been a tough one for 60-year-old Lorenzo Charupá, a slim man wearing a frayed Adidas baseball cap. Standing next to his cattle cooperative's barn, on a hill deep in the forest, he can still smell the burnt vegetation from a recent forest fire as strong winds whip through the trees. The fire burned some of the brown, dry grasses and sugar cane stalks that were intended as food for the co-op's 54 cows. "Normally we feed the cows all the sugar cane in the dry season, so now we're not sure what we are going to do," Charupá says. He and his compañeros are clearing a new pasture, crossing their fingers that there will be enough grass to get their cows through the southern hemisphere winter and into September and October when the rains come.

Charupá does not seem particularly worried, as he is used to the uncertainties of raising cattle. Moreover, he is confident about the long-term prospects of his community: in June of 2007, the president of Bolivia announced that the Chiquitano people had successfully completed all legal requirements to attain title to a vast area of Santa Cruz's eastern forest known as Monte Verde.

Claiming the original community

The indigenous people took advantage of an agrarian reform law passed in 1996 that allowed them to claim "original community territories" known by their Spanish initials as TCOs. The Monte Verde TCO has immense significance for the Chiquitano people. Their ancestors were moved out of Monte Verde in the 1700s by the Spanish and relocated to communities run by Jesuit priests. Chiquitanos were enslaved on haciendas and eventually forced to tap rubber trees in the early 20th century. The area near Charupá's village is part of San Antonio de Lomerío, a place of refuge for escaped slaves. Their descendents organized groups to work on the legal claim for their territory, while illegal logging decimated their forests.

It took more than a decade of hard work and sustained Oxfam support for the Chiquitano people to achieve their goal. Oxfam helped three local organizations, in Lomerío, San Javier, and the village of Monte Verde to coordinate their work and collaborate with the Center for Legal Studies and Social Research (known by its Spanish initials CEJIS) to get the technical training to gather satellite positioning data on the TCO borders and investigate 158 land claims by ranchers and other nonindigenous people trying to grab a piece of the territory. Only a small number of these claims were legitimate, and it was only through the legal support, technical data, and satellite photos gathered by the community members and CEJIS that the Chiquitanos could defend their claim from these interlopers, some of whom were using forged documents.

Change can be dangerous

Violence has been a continuous threat to the Chiquitano people for the last 200 years. Individuals forced into slavery were murdered if they tried to escape, and later when the ancestors of escaped slaves in Lomerío organized to win back their territory, their leaders were intimidated and attacked. "We heard of incidents in other communities where entire families had been pulled out of their houses and hung by their wrists under trees," Juan Soqueré, leader of the indigenous Chiquitano community in San Lorenzo said.

Opposition to the land investigations and the legal process from civic committees, representing nonindigenous business and ranching interests opposed to the indigenous people, became violent. When the land investigations exposed fraudulent claims, there was a strong reaction. One of the worst incidents involved Leonardo Tamburini, now 41 and the director of CEJIS. In 2001 while investigating one fraudulent claim, he was kidnapped.

"They beat me so badly they almost killed me," Tamburini said. "They put me in a pick-up truck, and took me to the Cattlemen's Association headquarters in San Javier—which is next door to the church. They had me there for about an hour. There was a cattlemen's congress going on, and they paraded me around the patio of the restaurant, all beat up and bloody, saying 'This is what we do to the people who want to take our land away from us.'"

Tamburini refused to sign a document recognizing the cattlemen's claim to half the territory of Monte Verde, and after the mayor of San Javier intervened he was released. "They didn't accomplish what they wanted," he said.

Juan Soqueré said that gaining the legal title to Monte Verde has brought peace for the Chiquitano. "There are no more threats. And those that threatened us before have left the territory, and now we are all calm, living in peace."

The future is now

There are 33 communities, comprising roughly 5,000 people living in or near the Monte Verde TCO. They are now looking to the future and envisioning the best ways to manage and enjoy the roughly 3,830 square-mile territory.

Lorenzo Charupá says such planning will be essential for the future. "We are deciding together what areas are for crops," he says. "We are setting aside areas for grazing, hunting, and to preserve trees. We have a map showing all the different areas and what we will do there. Everything has its place."

José Luis Rivera, president of the indigenous organization of San Javier, says they have several ways of making more money:

  • Grow more beans, rice, corn, yucca, and other crops for their own use and for sale in local markets.
  • Expand cattle raising improving their pastures, and produce more milk and cheese for sale.
  • Handicrafts produced by local women: hats, hammocks, leather belts, and ceramics.

With the legal title in hand, the community has the confidence to make proposals to development organizations that might have otherwise been reluctant to support agricultural projects on lands the community did not legally own. "These institutions will have no doubt we can do these projects on our own land," Rivera says. "We have the right to our land and can respect our culture."

Outside Rivera's temporary office, his compañeros are building a new office to replace the one burned down by thugs last December. The walls are up, and the smell of sawdust mixes with the wood smoke and cooking scents from a nearby restaurant. Pablo Solis Chuviru, 57, is looking at the new building and reflecting on the struggle to gain the legal title to Monte Verde and what it means for the future for his small village, Turuxnapez, which means "Heaven's Door" in the local Bésiro language. "I hope we can hunt and fish, and use our trees in an orderly way," he says, resting in a chair in the winter sun. "Now we are using a forest management plan so that our children will benefit from the forest. This is the future for them; they can see the fight we won. For them it is a treasure."