Four men emerge from the intense heat and steam of the barbacuá into the cold winter’s night in the rural district of Edelira, southern Paraguay. They rest, leaning on pitchforks they have used to turn over the prized load of fragrant yerba mate leaves inside this traditional drying oven. The centuries-old design drives hot air from a fire on to the large wooden frame where the leaves sit.
“I control the leaf’s humidity through intuition,” says Lisandro Benítez, the group’s lead, or uru. “Too humid and it won’t have the right flavour, too hot and dry and it could catch fire.”
The tough green leaves are harvested from trees on the plantations of the 134 small-scale farming families that form the Oñoirũ Association of Agroecological Agriculture. The organic yerba mate is used to brew infusions of the country’s national drink, which has enormous cultural and economic importance in the country.
In their home nearby, Zulma Chávez and Ireneo Vega, members of Oñoirũ – which means camaraderie – sit by a roaring wood stove, drinking mate together. Chávez pours hot water from a kettle on to yerba leaves in a gourd, then uses a metal straw with a filter, known as a bombilla, to sip the bitter, caffeinated tea. She repeats the process, this time passing the gourd to Vega.
“The indigenous peoples invented this way of drinking,” says Vega, switching continually between Guaraní and Spanish, Paraguay’s two official languages. “Yerba mate is a major part of our culture. It is a meeting point that gives us a space to talk among ourselves.”
The gourd is typically passed between everyone – friends, family, even strangers. However, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, authorities have advised drinkers to refrain from communal drinking outside of family groups.
While mate is also hugely popular in nearby Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil, Paraguay is set apart by the prevalence of tereré – an ice-cold version of the drink, popular during the sweltering summer – and the tradition of adding native, medicinal plants – pohã ñana – to tereré and mate, a practice that is passed down through the generations.
In 2020, Unesco recognised tereré in the culture of pohã ñana as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.
“I learned about medicinal plants through my mother. She taught me them, name by name, and I still remember,” says Chávez, 57, as she lists examples: avocado leaf for the kidneys, siemprevive for the heart. She now plans to teach them to her three-year-old granddaughter.
Yerba mate’s historical importance in Paraguay cannot be overstated. Historian Herib Caballero Campos says that the leaf was the mainstay of the country’s economy for more than 300 years, even becoming currency in the absence of metal coins.
The grand stone ruins of 17th-century Jesuit reductions, where missionaries organised the mass production of yerba mate by indigenous communities, are still imposing features in southern Paraguay. However, since Europeans arrived in the region, the industry has been marked by violent exploitation.
Around the turn of the 20th century, widespread debt slavery saw workers known as mensúes sent into the then-endless subtropical forests to gather wild yerba mate, as Spanish anarchist Rafael Barrett movingly documented in a 1908 series of articles.
“Those poor unfortunates were practically sentenced to death. The work and living conditions were terrible,” says Caballero Campos.
Although the mensú system has disappeared, organisations such as Oñoirũ still denounce and fight against wrongs affecting people today in rural areas, where 37% of the population live.
Pedro Vega, Ireneo’s son and Oñoirũ’s general manager, says the Paraguayan state pursues a development model that heavily prioritises industrial agriculture – principally genetically modified soy cultivation and cattle ranching – while offering “practically no support of any type” to small producers.
This model has contributed to Paraguay having one of the highest inequalities of land ownership in the world, has stymied development in rural communities, and stimulated mass migration into urban poverty belts.
Paraguay’s indigenous peoples, the original consumers of yerba mate, have not benefited from the popularity of their one-time spiritual leaf. Some 60% of indigenous people live in extreme poverty according to a 2015 UN report – far above the national average.
“Oñoirũ is part of a movement looking to create a fairer model of society using our natural resources, so that our young people can stay in their communities and have decent living and work conditions,” Vega says.
He says, after receiving initial support from NGOs, they are achieving their goals: the association pays producers more than the large buyers that dominate the yerba market, has created 20 full and part-time jobs, provides training, and is democratically run by its members.
Vega believes members’ commitment and sense of belonging to Oñoirũ also allows them to work through challenges such as a recent fire that led to a loss of yerba mate and processing equipment.
In the well-equipped packing room, Cinthia Núñez, a recent graduate, works alongside her mother Clotilde Moreira.
“The majority of people in the community form part of Oñoirũ – that’s good because it lets the community grow,” says Núñez.
Another key priority for the families is to ensure that their plantations are agroecological. As Ramón Benítez, a founding member of the association, walks through the vegetation on his smallholding, he explains that the forest has regenerated since he stopped ploughing the land to grow soybeans 25 years ago.
“There is a yerba tree that the birds germinated for us – we’re in its natural habitat,” he says, pointing. “I stopped growing soy because it was poisoning me.”
Edelira, like huge swathes of Paraguay, is affected by the widespread use of agrochemicals, often in violation of regulations, prompting denouncements from the UN. The recent documentary Paraguay’s Poisoned Fields highlighted the damage to health as a result.
In 2003, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera died after being sprayed with pesticides in Edelira. The case led to Paraguay’s first conviction for death caused by indiscriminate use of agrochemicals.
Standing by a stream running through his land, Benítez expresses grief that the fish have disappeared since soy was planted in a neighbouring field.
“It affects our health; it affects the animals. We reported it to the authorities, but they never came,” he says. “We aim to produce without damaging the environment, in harmony with everything.”
Addressing gender issues has also been a key part of Oñoirũ’s plan to improve life in the communities.
In the studio of the association’s community radio station, Mabel Sánchez, president of the Oñondive (Together) Women’s Committee, reflects on the progress made against deeply conservative values and gender violence that affect rural women’s lives.
“Since we’ve got organised, [women and men] have been able to work together. It wasn’t like that before. Before, only the men got organised, only they had meetings. We women stayed at home,” she says.
As well as running workshops on gender issues, and fully participating in decision-making and yerba mate production, the women of Oñondive have their own projects, such as an initiative to cultivate medicinal plants both for export and to commercialise their own products.
“When we sell the herbs, we’ll be able to manage our own money as protagonists in our homes,” says Sánchez.
Oñoirũ’s model is producing great dividends for its members. Pedro Vega says that, as sales have increased and more members have joined, yerba production has grown from 864kg in 2015, the first year of sales, to about 220 tonnes in this year’s ongoing harvest.
The product’s popularity in urban centres such as the capital Asunción is rocketing, and Oñoirũ is exporting to Argentina, the US and Russia as international interest in the leaf increases.
Back by the barbacuá, the workers load more logs on to the drying oven’s fire, prepare fish to be grilled over red embers, and place a metal kettle by the campfire to boil. The hot, stimulating sips of mate will be their constant comfort as they watch over the precious load of leaves through the cold night.
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Migration crisis: The Nicaraguans who are learning to swim to avoid drowning in US river crossing | International
Seeing his son with the water below his waist, standing firm on the stones of the riverbed, Pablo Cuevas ruled out using the 60-meter rope he had bought to cross the Rio Grande with his family, because it would prove more of a hindrance than a useful tool in their desperate attempt to reach American soil.
“Dad! The river is calm!” shouted the 22-year-old from about 30 meters away from the bank. Faced with the imminent arrival of Mexican or American border agents, the man let go of the rope, hugged his five-year-old grandson very tightly and entered the waters. It was mid-morning on April 17, less than a month ago. The Rio Grande, a “treacherous” river according to the migrants who have lived to tell the tale, was calm that day. It was a lucky break for this family that fled Nicaragua because of their father’s job: Pablo Cuevas is a renowned human rights defender in his country.
Accustomed to tense situations back home due to his clashes with gangs and police officers under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Cuevas concealed his fear of jumping into the river so that his wife, daughter-in-law and his other grandson would not lose the courage they had rehearsed during the 40-day journey to Ciudad Acuña, in Mexico’s Coahuila state. The trip had taken them across Central America and Mexico, along a road rife with robberies, kidnappings, extortion, fatigue, hunger and death that 49,738 Nicaraguans followed in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. That is the largest number of migrants from this country to try to cross the US border in recent history.
It was on the first week of March, as he sat inside his home in Managua, that Cuevas made the decision to join this unprecedented exodus to escape the political violence and precarious economic situation that Nicaragua has been experiencing since 2018, following social protests that were brutally repressed. by the police and paramilitary groups. The country’s sociopolitical crisis has deepened since June 2021, when the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple intensified the hunt for opponents that facilitated Ortega’s re-election and perpetuation in power.
“Before the government closed the CPDH (Permanent Human Rights Commission),” says Cuevas, alluding to the last such organization left in Nicaragua, I received threats and intimidating messages. Someone from the government told me that I had better leave… I have never been a fan of desk jobs, I always liked to be out doing field work, but there came a point when I could no longer practice freely, and my wife was having nervous breakdowns thinking that they could arrest me at any moment. So we decided to leave, and the route through the Rio Grande seemed the best, after analyzing it with many users I had who had already crossed into the United States,” he tells EL PAÍS.
The Cuevas family’s greatest fear was drowning in the river. Between March and April 2022, news of Nicaraguans killed in those waters shocked the country: 10 people registered by the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico, although there are other agencies that put the number at 14, such as the non-profit Comunidad Nicaragüense en Texas. There were cases like that of a four-year-old girl swept away by the current, or the most recent drowning, on May 1, of Calixto Nelson Rojas, a radio host for Radio Darío, a station that was burned and attacked by the Sandinista regime. The death of the radio journalist was recorded by a Fox News reporter: it happened before the eyes of US and Mexican border agents who did not help him because they were prohibited from doing so, even as Rojas cried out for help. The reason for not saving him was that a Border Patrol officer allegedly drowned weeks ago while trying to rescue two migrants.
Cuevas, a man who was well informed thanks to his work as a human rights defender, knew about the dangers of crossing the river. “We began to do introspection exercises with the family, to remember one of our camping trips to the sea in Nicaragua, specifically once an undercurrent dragged us out to sea, but we were able to swim and save ourselves,” says the lawyer, who is now living in Florida, where he has started an organization to help other Nicaraguan migrants. “So I told my family to remember to bury their feet firmly in the bottom so we could cross the river.”
The Cuevas were able to cross without a rope and without a life jacket. However, some 3,000 kilometers south of the Rio Grande, in Nicaragua, dozens who have decided to leave the country and do not know how to swim are taking precautions before heading north: they are signing up for Mario Orozco’s swimming lessons.
‘I know it is a dangerous river’
With no major signs of a solution to the sociopolitical crisis, Nicaragua has become a country on the run. In 2021 alone, the United States Border Patrol tallied 87,530 Nicaraguans who tried to enter the southern border without documents. An exponential increase occurred in June, when the Ortega-Murillos imprisoned all their adversaries and ended the possibility of a resolution to the conflict through transparent elections. If one asks people in Nicaragua about the best decision in this scenario, the majority, especially young people, will answer the same thing: to leave. Migrant groups leave at dawn from some gas stations in Managua, while others who feel politically persecuted, such as Pablo Cuevas, do so clandestinely across the Honduran border.
Border Patrol figures from January to March of this year provide a measure of this booming exodus: 70,066 Nicaraguans have surrendered to patrol officers. “But there is an underreporting,” says the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico. There has been a change in the migratory dynamics from this country, driven by political violence that has aggravated endemic ills (a precarious economy and lack of jobs). In 2018, at least 120,000 Nicaraguans applied for asylum in Costa Rica. But the pandemic plunged this latter country into an unemployment crisis and Nicaraguans reconfigured their flight path. First, because Costa Rica has collapsed and second, because Joe Biden’s immigration promises were interpreted as greater flexibility by the US government.
Suddenly, the migrant caravans in which Hondurans and Salvadorans used to predominate began to be led by Nicaraguans, who are now also prey to the mafias along the route. Among those preparing to flee the country, crossing the Rio Grande became the best option despite the dangers of its waters. That is why the post on Facebook by professional swimmer Mario Orozco offering free lessons went viral in Nicaragua.
Orozco assures that some of his friends drowned in the Rio Grande and that moved him into action. “I am a professional swimmer, I know the techniques to swim in open waters. So I took one of my days off to teach and avoid these tragedies,” he says, emphasizing that his work is humanitarian and not political. The swimmer is concise and prefers not to delve into details. He does not say why but, for those who live in Nicaragua, it is understood: anything that the Sandinista government views as criticism can cost jail time.
The pool where Orozco teaches is usually packed, as a reflection of the urgency to leave Nicaragua. “I know it is a dangerous river,” says Roberto García, a Nicaraguan who left the country a few weeks ago and is now in Tapachula, Mexico, where he is “preparing myself mentally” to ford the Rio Grande. “There are those who take swimming lessons; I, for example, am watching YouTube videos, asking other friends who have already crossed where it is less deep; the current less strong… I am afraid, but the situation is more critical when I am going to cross with my son,” confesses García, an auto refrigeration technician who used to provide services to the Supreme Court of Justice.
García was imprisoned for seven months for participating in the 2018 protests in Nicaragua. Upon release from prison, his workshop was never able to recover due to police harassment and lack of customers. Weary, he decided to migrate. “I don’t even want to think about the day I’m going to cross the river with my wife and son. It unsettles me. My son is 10 years old and I only think of him, especially when I see so many brothers drowning in the news… like that announcer from León. It was a horrible video. One feels powerless. I don’t want a similar video of us,” he says. He also doesn’t want to leave one last message like that of the radio host Calixto Rojas before jumping into the waters of the Rio Grande: “Today I’m leaving for Piedras Negras at one in the afternoon. Tomorrow at eight I will be trying to cross the river.”
‘Cramped and unsafe’ Glasgow housing unit forced to suspend mother and baby services | Immigration and asylum
A housing unit has been forced to close its services to mothers and babies after a damning report found that the “cramped and unsafe” accommodation breached their human rights.
In its report, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said the unit, which housed asylum-seeking mothers and their children, had radiators and gas cookers dangerously close to babies’ cots, a lack of natural light and little ventilation, and no space for babies to crawl, play or walk.
Each of the 38 rooms measures approximately 5 metres by 3 metres (16ft x 10ft) and contains a single bed, cot, kitchenette and shower.
The unit, run by a Home Office subcontractor, Mears Group, was opened in January 2021 to house mothers and babies while Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Women were moved out of flats in the city centre and accommodated in the unit on the periphery of Glasgow’s Southside.
The accommodation was described as “prison-like” by the charity Amma Birth Companions, which repeatedly called for its closure. Mears said the last mother and baby had now left the unit and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner confirmed that the women had been relocated to more appropriate accommodation.
The removal of mothers and babies from the site comes after criticism of accommodation provided for asylum seekers in Glasgow when a knife attack at a hotel in the centre of the city in 2020 left six people wounded and the attacker shot dead by police. Campaigners from a Glasgow group, Refugees For Justice, said the attack was a “direct result of the dysfunctional UK asylum support and accommodation system” and that there was an accommodation crisis in the city.
Ai* arrived at the unit in the autumn of 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She lived there for seven months, and, following the birth of her daughter in March this year, she was moved out.
“When I first arrived, I thought I was only going to stay for a few hours, but then they gave me a key for the room,” she said through an interpreter. “When I opened the door, I was really scared. The room was so small, with no privacy and you [could] hear all the babies crying all around.
“Then there were mice in the room. I told my midwife, who complained to the staff at the unit, but they did nothing. They just told me to cover up the food.”
Ai, who was in a safe house for trafficked women until she arrived at the unit, says that she was asked to sign a tenancy contract, which stipulated that nobody could stay over to support her with her baby, and imposed a 10pm curfew.
“Every mum has to manage by themselves,” she said. “There were so many loud noises, and fire alarms going off in the day and at night, which scared my baby. Sometimes we had to take our babies outside at night, when the alarm went off.”
The unit housed 38 women, and Ai says there were only six washing machines, all far away from the rooms.
“I had to wash my clothes and my baby’s clothes in the sink sometimes, pouring dirty water in where I washed plates and prepared food,” she said.
She added that the window in her room would get stuck, with a barrier in front of it, leaving the room poorly ventilated and cold.
Mears said it was aware of a pest-control issue and had put measures in place at the unit, adding that furniture had been arranged so that cots were not set up close to kitchen equipment.
In a statement, Mears added: “The mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation.
“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children. As accommodation needs have changed, we now operate the unit as initial accommodation for single females who are newly arrived into Glasgow.”
Maree Aldam, of Amma Birth Companions, welcomed the news that the last family had now left the unit. She said: “Although we welcome the progress made to relocate mothers with babies into more suitable accommodation, we remain concerned about the long-term effects of this experience on the affected mothers and their babies.
“We continue to call on the Scottish government to put in place minimum housing standards that will protect every child in the asylum process from ever enduring such living conditions again.”
* Name has been changed to protect her identity
The headline and text of this article were amended on 19 May 2022. The housing unit is not closing down, as an earlier version said; it remains open for mothers and children, but no longer offers services to mothers and babies.
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