Column entry, “Living with Fences,” by Dennis Smith

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Column Title: Bearing Witness: Reflections on a Life in Mission

July Column Entry: “Living with Fences”

Column Description: If you hang around long enough, mingle with enough folks in enough places on this fragile planet, and pay attention at least part of the time, life happens. And with life, stories. In this monthly column, Dennis Smith, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication, shares communication insights and wisdom gleaned from 43 years of service as a Presbyterian mission worker in Latin America. Through mission service, God gifted Dennis with quite an assortment of relationships. Through them, the Divine whupped him upside the head and “invited” him to pay attention. To be present. To bear witness.


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Living with Fences

So much has changed.

Doña Lindaura still remembers when the Weenhayek people, her people, moved across the Chaco with the seasons. Life on this vast savannah was harsh, sometimes brutal, but the Weenhayek knew they could survive by discerning the natural cycles of bounty and scarcity inherent to these lands.

Over countless generations, Doña Lindaura’s ancestors had learned to hunt and fish, to gather seeds and fruits from the wild. They learned what herbs could be used to treat what maladies, and how to dye and weave natural fibers into useful things, things of beauty.

We are near Yacuiba, in southern Bolivia, near the border with Argentina. Cold in winter, scorching hot in summer, the Chaco savannah covers more than a million square kilometers of Bolivia, Argentina, and Paraguay. Several indigenous groups live in this sparsely populated region, including the Guaraní, Qom and Weenhayek peoples.

Land in the Chaco had always belonged to the whole community, not to families or individuals, but early in the 20th Century South American governments began to encourage European immigrants to settle in the region. It seems not to have occurred to these governments to consult with the indigenous peoples who had lived in the Chaco since time unremembered.

Wheat farmers were followed by cattle ranchers and then by soybean magnates. All of them brought fences. With the fences came hunger and thirst for Doña Lindaura’s ancestors. An ancient way of life began to disappear.

But Doña Lindaura still remembers a time before fences.

Her tale is not a romantic tale of longing for the past. She fully understands how hard life was for her mother and grandmothers as they eked out a living on these unforgiving lands. But then, she remembers, there had been a sense of order to the universe; one knew what things meant and what to  expect.

Here in Yacuiba, when the Europeans arrived, an early struggle for the Weenhayek people was for the land itself.

This struggle forced the indigenous peoples of the Chaco to make difficult choices. As Doña Lindaura tells it, her people had to decide how to respond to uninvited change. Change imposed with all manner of violence: physical, economic, political, symbolic.

The immigrants were not going away, nor were the governments that now claimed authority over their lives. How to resist? Was it possible to engage the usurpers on their own terms? Seek protection through laws and courts and government ministries? Did schools and clinics provide mechanisms for survival, even if alienating and deeply flawed? What about escape to the city?

For those that stayed, a common vision sustained their struggle: “This land belongs to all of us, to our sons and daughters, to their sons and daughters. The land is who we are, it gives us dignity.”

The battle against the fences proved to be hard, slow work, especially since the children of the European settlers represented powerful economic and political interests. The indigenous communities in the Chaco found an ally in CERDET (Centro de Estudios Regionales para el Desarrollo de Tarija), a local civil society group staffed by young lawyers and technicians who were willing to join in this struggle.

Together with their allies, the Weenhayek people formulated demands. The powerful responded to these demands with threats. Indigenous activists blocked roads. They moved to build broader alliances regionally, then nationally, then internationally. They learned to negotiate with the powers that be.

Most recently, they have fought to put limits on the cattle ranchers and soybean farmers. Some pesticides must be banned. Pollution of rivers and ground water must be curbed. Traditional rights of way, hunting, and fishing rights must be respected. Language must be respected.

To this day, the children of the Europeans, supported by government policies, continue to usurp ancestral lands. They make their fortunes by supplying city folks all over the world with more and cheaper hamburgers, by supplying agribusiness with the soybeans that make possible more and cheaper pork bellies and fried chicken.

Over time the indigenous peoples of the Chaco have had to deal with the fact that ranchers and fences are not going away. Not only that, as governments open up the Chaco by building roads, other indigenous people have immigrated from the Bolivian highlands bringing commerce, seeking opportunity.

Little by little, CERDET and similar non-governmental organizations began to teach Doña Lindaura and her relatives how to grow organic gardens, free of the deadly poisons used by the big farmers. They brought in methods from Brazil’s arid northeast and taught people to harvest rainwater and store it in underground cisterns. Even when the summer heat surges to 120° F the water comes up cool and pure.

As Doña Lindaura and her neighbors—mostly her extended family—tell this story, they remember that she used to be shy. Never would she have had the confidence to share all this with strangers. But as her husband, a woodcarver and leader in the community, began to attend training workshops she began to tag along. Gradually, she moved from the background to the foreground. She found her voice. She came to understand that she was a person of worth who had something to say.

Another institution that helped to sustain this struggle was the church. Mission efforts in this barren backwater had fallen mostly to small, independent Pentecostal churches. Curiously, these churches had a relatively light cultural footprint that allowed some indigenous communities to preserve traditional leadership structures, elements of their ancestral spirituality, and an understanding that God walked with them.

I had seen this before, in a previous visit to another part of the Chaco.

Six years earlier I had accompanied Reverend Hugo Malán, a Waldensian Bible scholar from Uruguay, on a visit to Ciudad Castelli in Northern Argentina. During the 16-hour bus trip from Buenos Aires, Hugo described how over the years he and his colleagues from ISEDET, the ecumenical seminary in Buenos Aires, had provided leaders of the Qom community with biblical and theological training.

In that process, he, as a scholar, had to unlearn Western ways of intellectual inquiry. He had to learn not to be intimidated by silence in the classroom, how to sit with a question. He had to pay attention as his students discerned what foreign words written in a book—considered sacred by the Christian tradition—might mean to them, in this place, here and now. He had to learn to give his students the space to leapfrog centuries of imposed Western interpretation and find in the stories points of contact with their own understanding of the world: commonality of Spirit, commonality of struggle, commonality of hope—and how to honor that commonality in service to the common good.

When we arrived, we met Hugo’s local teaching partner, Reverend Auden Charole, a young Qom pastor. Auden shared with us his new book, published by the provincial government, that documents Qom knowledge of local wildlife, including the legends told by the elders explaining each creature’s place in the community of all created things. Auden drew many of the illustrations for this pioneering volume.

Auden explained that his parents are Christians; he came to know the Gospel as a child. When he was 16, however, he left the church and went to work as a day laborer for a family of European immigrants that had usurped Qom lands. “It didn’t occur to me to value my own culture; I had no hope of defending my rights as a person,” he observed. “But then in 2001 our community experienced a re-birth of our rights as a people, of our self-esteem, of our traditions. It was the Bible School that provided the space where we made all these discoveries. This is where our leaders gathered. I was able to finish my schooling here. Now I have a family and when I look at my young son, I am encouraged to continue the struggle for our rights, for our land.”

As we sat in and observed the class, we witnessed faithful men and women from an oral culture working hard to interpret Bible texts and link those teachings to their own time and place.  It’s one thing to learn the language of the land, of flora and fauna, of a community; it’s quite another to unpack subtleties of meaning from the printed page. We noted that Hugo and Auden had the good sense not to provide easy answers, nor to interrupt the silences as the Qom leaders struggled with the texts.

Thinking back on that time with Hugo and Reverend Charole in Argentina and seeing before me the measured certainty with which Doña Lindaura moves in her community, I understood that fences come in many guises.

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