SÃO PAULO, Brazil – Over the past four years, inhabitants of the Chaco region in Paraguay have endured a deadly cycle of severe drought for several months, followed by heavy summer rains that flood most districts and farmlands.
In 2023, residents – most of them members of Indigenous communities – suffered with an unprecedented eight-month dry season, a time when it was impossible to grow food and produce milk and honey. Now, in a moment when the impact of the lack of water is still felt, the first rains are beginning – and already demonstrate that the inundation time is near.
Oblate Father Cristóbal Acosta, a missionary of the Vicariate of Pilcomayo in Chaco, has been one of the few voices calling attention to the hardships faced every year by the local villagers.
His contributions, and those of the Catholic Church, have drawn tributes even from unexpected quarters.
“We are Evangelical Christians, but Fr. Acosta is my hero. He has no limits to help our humble people. The Catholic Church has been one of the most important organizations working with us,” said Victoriano Ruiz, a member of the Sanapaná people.
Over the past months, Acosta has not only collected donations and distributed food kits to the neediest families in the locality of Teniente Irala Fernández, but has also denounced the situation to the press and to the authorities on multiple occasions.
“With no rains during so many months, people couldn’t even grow food for their own consumption. The Indigenous communities usually plant potatoes, cassava, beans, and watermelons. Everything was lost,” Acosta said.
The rainwater kept in tanks since the beginning of the year ended a few months ago, and many communities had to resort to the local reservoirs, which are polluted and produce salty water.
“Diseases like diarrhea have been common among many families over the past few months,” Acosta said.
In 2020, then President Mário Abdo inaugurated an aqueduct connecting River Paraguay, in the Eastern part of the country, to the Chaco region. It was celebrated as the solution for the ancient drought problem in the Western zone of Paraguay.
“It was just an illusion. The president said that it would solve our problems. But it worked for only a few months and has been abandoned since then,” Ruiz told Crux.
Acosta said that the aqueduct, whose construction demanded US$130 million, along with two desalination plants, were expensive mega projects that have never really helped the local people and are now inactive.
“The Paraguayan legislation says that water must be provided to all the people, but such a right is not ensured by the government,” Acosta said.
His parish encompasses an area occupied by 5,000 families. About 75 percent of them are Indigenous who have faced the Chaco’s droughts since time immemorial, but, Acosta said, things are getting more and more complicated over the years.
“Our culture allows us to survive even during harsh droughts. We can fish and collect fruits in the woods. But there has been hunger among us,” said Ruiz, in whose district, called Nueva Promesa, 200 families live.
A literature teacher, Ruiz said that there was no water for two weeks in the school where he works.
“I told Fr. Acosta about it and he helped us to get a water truck on three occasions in October and November,” he said.
At some point, the school was the only place where there was water in the district, and many people would go there in order to get some water for their families. Despite so many difficulties, only a handful of students left the school this year, Ruiz said.
Antonio Benitez, a member of the Southern Enxet people, told Crux that this week there were moderate rains in his community. The marks of the drought are still visible everywhere: the fields are empty and there is no livestock. Now, he fears the floods.
“The rainy season is beginning and that is good, but we’ll have to prepare the land to plant and soon they’ll all be inundated,” he said.
Benitez’s community has 860 families. Most of it is surrounded by large farms owned by cattle ranchers. During the drought, they didn’t have water to drink at some points.
“But it’s forbidden to get sick here, given that we don’t receive any kind of medical attention from the government,” he declared, ironically.
Benitez said the Church is the only institution that has been accompanying his people on a daily basis.
“We have to start growing our food now that it is raining, but we don’t have seeds or anything else. It’s impossible for us to obtain credit in a bank, and the government doesn’t incentivize our production,” he lamented.
Acosta said the Church has been trying to help the neediest Chaco families over the past four years, in which the droughts have been more severe.
“As members of the social pastoral ministry, we’re always working to help the people. But we also struggle for their rights. That’s part of the Vicariate’s mission,” he said.