Disrupting the Patrón: Indigenous Land Rights and the Fight for Environmental Justice in Paraguay’s Chaco (Review)

Joel Correia’s ethnography provides vibrant testimony of the struggles of the Sanapaná and Enxet peoples as they navigate complex dynamics of dispossession and neglect.

July 14, 2023

Disrupting the Patrón: Indigenous Land Rights and the Fight for Environmental Justice in Paraguay’s Chaco, University of California Press, 2023.

“From the age of four I remember growing up on the side of the road without land,” recalls Belfio, a young Indigenous Enxet man from the Yakie Axa community of the Paraguayan Chaco. “Some elders wanted to put their feet on the ground of our land. But they have left us.” Disrupting the Patrón follows the story of Belfio and others in their plight to access land and search for environmental justice in one of the fastest-growing ranching frontiers of Latin America.  Building on a decade of long-term fieldwork conducted in the Paraguayan Chaco among Indigenous peoples, human rights activists, state officials, and ranchers, Joel Correia presents an ethnographic examination of Indigenous-state relations through the lens of what he terms “legal liminality”—that is, “spaces, situations, and subjects that simultaneously lie within and outside the juridical order.” The book highlights how the Paraguayan State uses this to manage Indigenous dispossession of the Enxet and Sanapaná people, reproducing structural discrimination—state agencies and functionaries use a “façade of care” while deepening racialized forms of neglect and dispossession. 

Correia shows how the environmental violence resultant of land dispossession is closely connected to the extractive cattle ranching economy on which the region is founded, and into which the Enxet and Sanapaná people were incorporated from the time Anglican missionaries first settled the Bajo Chaco in 1889. The author draws on the concept of patrón, which in Spanish can mean boss or pattern, to emphasize the patterns of relationships between ranch bosses and Indigenous workers as well as relations between Indigenous peoples and the State. These relationships, marked by unequal and racialized hierarchies while also embedded in social ties of reciprocity, help sustain the political economy of cattle ranching. 

The book follows three land claims presented by the communities Yakye Axa, Sawhoyamaxa, and Xakmok Kasek, whose members have sought to reclaim the ranches where they had historically lived and served as workers. With the support of a local NGO, they began legal procedures in 1989 during Paraguay’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. An indifferent Paraguayan State was eventually found to be in violation of human and property rights by the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights (ICHR), and the government was ordered to follow measures which Correia labels “restitution as development measures.” This highlights how land restitution was accompanied by development initiatives that, although needed, would actually reproduce perpetual uncertainties surrounding livelihood and land rights as well as the unfair distribution of discretionary rights by the State. Correia reveals how the Paraguayan State refused to resolve the land claims, constraining these communities to live for over two decades in precarious conditions at “the margins”—not only judicially but also geographically—frequently in unsanitary conditions. Amidst these injustices, Correia emphasizes the practical and discursive strategies that these communities deploy as “dialectic of disruption,” that is, working with and against settler law and power in order to rebuild relations with their territories and pursue a dignified life despite structural dispossession.

Following the introduction, each chapter in the book is accompanied by short sections labeled “Ruptures,” with titles such as “Open/closed,” “Land in the Making,” and “Boundaries.” These “ruptures” present ethnographic vignettes that attune the reader not only to the physical and social landscape of the Chaco, but also include spontaneous reflections from Enxet and Sanapaná individuals as they meet the author in rounds of tereré (a cold yerba mate infusion) on hot afternoons or during community events. The speakers share the nuances of their land struggles, their thirst for justice, and their life goals in a context of discrimination, neglect, and broken promises.

Chapter one draws on settler colonialism as a tool to understand the land tenure structures which facilitated the establishment of cattle ranching enterprises in the Bajo Chaco after the Triple Alliance War (1870), fought between Paraguay and an alliance between Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Through documentation of missionaries and the memories of Indigenous individuals, this chapter traces the historical role of British Anglican missionaries in incorporating Indigenous peoples as a labor force in cattle ranches while dispossessing them of their territories. Correia asserts that “The Anglican Mission in Paraguay played a pivotal role in establishing the discursive, political economic, and material structures through which settler colonialism has expanded and operated across the Chaco.” This generalization falls somewhat short of being directly applicable to the whole Bajo Chaco, as the ranching dynamics in the Bajo Chaco during the 20th century were not shaped by the Anglican presence alone, but also by other actors such as small-scale mestizo and Argentinian criollo ranchers. Nevertheless, Correia rightly argues that these histories are important to understanding contemporary land struggles and enduring forms of settler colonialism in the present.

Chapter two argues that the land struggles of the Enxet and Sanapaná cannot be understood exclusively within the framework of neoliberal multiculturalism in Paraguay. While the politics of recognition have opened opportunities for Indigenous peoples to advance their plights since the 1990s, Correia argues that a long history of settler colonialism and racialized governance—marked by missionization, land dispossession, and hierarchical work relations—is the prevailing form of racial capitalism in the region today. It is this enduring legacy, as it intersects with neoliberal and multicultural politics, that creates the current conditions for the Enxet and Sanapaná land struggles.

Chapter three centers on the idea of “biopolitics of neglect” as a tool of legal abandonment used by the Paraguayan State vis-a-vis Indigenous peoples. This chapter juxtaposes the ways in which Indigenous peoples are left in a generalized state of legal and material neglect through the state’s actions and inactions, while the capitalist mode of governance prioritizes cattle life. Correia shows how “the governance of cattle life, as a proxy for settler well-being, takes precedence over ensuring the basic human rights of Indigenous peoples.”

Chapter four focuses on “restitution as development” as part of the strategy of restoration required by ICHR to be implemented by the Paraguayan state. The author shows that, despite this requirement, the Paraguayan state persists in a politics of neglect. Indigenous peoples find themselves in the midst of bureaucratic and judicial processes that “deny the ability to live without everyday forms of environmental violence.” In a typical example of state neglect, seven years after the ICHR ruling, the Yakye Axa community continued to live on the side of the road, as ranch owners did not want to sell the property and the Senate did not vote in favor of expropriation. Eventually the community had to agree to accept a different property.

Chapter five focuses on the ways in which Indigenous peoples engage strategically at times and other times refuse legal orders by settlers to force the Paraguayan state to respond to their demands, in a process to reconstitute collective rights. Specific actions, such as the reoccupation of cattle ranches or the closure of the Trans-Chaco Highway, are extralegal strategies that disrupt not only settler agendas, but challenge the status quo and give Indigenous peoples the opportunity to make their voices heard and envision a dignified future. Alluding to the double meaning of the book’s title and central theme, Correia argues that “disrupting the patrón requires radical action,” but warns that ultimately land restitution alone does not assure decolonization or environmental justice, since colonial patterns of exclusion and dispossession continue to operate today.

Overall, Correia constructs a provocative ethnography which centers on the land struggles of the Enxet and Sanapaná people and offers a timely reminder of the racialized regimes and unequal geographies that mark the landscape of a rapidly changing economic frontier in Latin America.  In revealing how neoliberal policies exacerbate historical forms of oppression towards Indigenous peoples, this book highlights the dialectic strategies of the Enxet and Sanapaná people as they work with and against the law—with and against the patrón—to find collective meaning amidst settler colonial structures. As Correia reminds us in the conclusion, environmental justice can be a transformative tool beyond mere monetary reparations, but only to the degree that it is capable of foregrounding the ways in which local actors define such justice in the context of historical discrimination, harm, and oppression.  This engaging ethnographic and theoretical work is a chronicle of the testimonies and stories of the Sanapaná and Enxet peoples and their land struggles, showing how, despite all odds, they continue to “disrupt the patrón” in search of more dignified futures as cattle ranching continues to dominate the landscape of the Chaco.

Paola Canova is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Frontier Intimacies: Ayoreo Women and the Sexual Economy of the Paraguayan Chaco (University of Texas Press 2020) and the co-editor with Silvia Hirsch and Mercedes Biocca, of Re-imagining the Gran Chaco: Identities, Politics and the Environment in South America (University Press of Florida, 2021).

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