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Guaraní Effort to Strengthen Culture Through Tourism
By Clarinha Glock

In a jungle enclave in northeastern Argentina, a handful of indigenous peoples have set out to study their own Guaraní culture to test its tourism potential.

PUERTO IGUAZÚ, Argentina, Jan 17 (Tierramérica).- After recovering part of their territory in 2005, an indigenous Guaraní community in the northeastern Argentine province of Misiones is working to maintain and expand a cultural tourism initiative.

On about 265 hectares located a 20-minute drive from Iguazú Falls and 10 kilometers from the Argentine city of Puerto Iguazú, people in the Yrypaú community are learning computer skills and foreign languages, even as they delve deeper into their own culture.

The 75 families that live in the middle of a dense jungle coveted by tourism companies have the support of the MATE Project (Argentine Model for Tourism and Employment of Native Peoples), financed by the provincial Misiones government and the Canada International Development Agency.

The idea emerged in 2005 when representatives from Canada's Niagara College contacted the Iguazú Technological Institute, a tourism and hospitality school that forms part of MATE, and proposed to work together on indigenous cultural tourism.

The Guaraní Mbyá in the area only recently officially recovered part of their territory. Like other indigenous populations, they had felt forced to abandon their traditional way of life, which in the modern world could not ensure their survival, and they were tempted to assimilate western customs and lifestyles.

The project for building appreciation of their own identity and culture reached a high point in 2008, when MATE began the process towards autonomy, which allowed it to build financial support from national and international sources.

That year the Canadian non-governmental organization Friends of Yryapú was created, and contributes financially to helping the indigenous landowners the tools needed to move away from reliance on government and private aid.

Young people study ways to maintain their culture while adapting to the new realities, which includes using computers. "Today we don't live like we did in the past," Ricardo Fernández, 40, told Tierramérica. He works as a bilingual instructor in a local school and teaches students about their ancestral customs. "This is the only way that we are going to have the resources to work and to maintain our family," he said.

Meanwhile, most get by with sales of traditional crafts: necklaces, bracelets, rings, baskets and carved wooden figures. Others work informally in nearby towns and cities. And many rely on government aid.

The Guaraní Mbyá are also subsistence farmers, growing millet, sweet potato, cassava and pumpkin. They raise pigs and chickens, while hunting is limited to the occasional bird or small mammal.

The traditional style of housing, with a log structure, bamboo and mud walls, and palm-leaf roofs -- also used in building religious structures -- has been replaced by wood houses with metal or straw roofing.

Few in this community have attended secondary school. The city's schools offer basic classes only through the seventh grade. The MATE Project aims to resolve this educational deficit.

Francisco Medina has been studying computer science for four years, has two children, and understands four languages: Guaraní (his native language), Spanish, English and French. His goal is to work as a tour guide.

"I have two hours of computing per day," he told Tierramérica.

Elvio Barreto, 32, is studying English, which has helped him understand some of the foreign tourists to guide them along the paths through the jungle.

At the Mbyá Guaraní Clemência González Intercultural Bilingual School, or "School of the Jungle," the indigenous peoples live their education by sharing experiences with the instructors. They study ideas of natural and cultural heritage and learn from conferences and videos about the customs and traditions of their people.

The school already has 70 students, ages 13 to 38. Along with the students from Yryapú, there are young people from other Mbyá communities in Misiones, as well as from Paraguay and Brazil.

In addition to guided tours, visitors can buy handicrafts, as well as learn to make them. They can also take in the sounds of a children's choir and listen to stories about the past of this once-powerful indigenous nation.

The revenues from these activities go to a community fund that will help sustain future enterprise as well as fund health and social services and education.

"If it is not oriented to the indigenous peoples running their own business, it is not the time to evaluate the project's economic results. The number of visitors is uncertain and a commercial organization does not yet exist," MATE coordinator Claudio Salvador, a professor and writer, told Tierramérica.

That is a long-term effort. "Our job is to educate for employment through the intercultural method that we create, whose impact we most hope for is to improve quality of life," he said.

The journey through the Yryapú community begins at the fourth kilometer of Highway 12, in Puerto Iguazú. But it persists in the memory, leaving a sensation of having seen a part of history that is not written in textbooks.

In Misiones, there are 100 Guaraní communities of the Mbyá and Ava katú eté groups. Of those, just 25 hold title to their land. Many indigenous peoples live in poverty and rely on government assistance.

The situation is not much different in other South American countries. An estimated 300,000 Guaraní are distributed across the territories of Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia.

Of that total, the branch of Mbyá peoples totals 11,000 to 13,000 people in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. The largest group is concentrated in the region of Chaco, according to Egon Dionísio Heck, coordinator of the Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul.

Alongside other entities working with the Guaraní, CIMI is drawing up a map of the communities and the extension of their territories, updating demographic and environmental data, to be ready by the end of 2011.

"Despite the efforts of some (South American) presidents committed to regularize land titles, the force of agri-business prevails," Heck told Tierramérica.

There is strong growth of the paper industry in Misiones, with the expansion of pine and eucalyptus plantations into the jungle areas home to indigenous peoples, said Heck.

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