First Take: Territories and Territories

The Shifting Guarani Space

By Carlos Reboratti

St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier illuminate the world with their torches, copper engraving by the Guarani Indian Juan Yaparí, for a Guarani edition. Illustration from Father J.E. Nieremberg's Of the Difference between the Temporal and the Eternal, 1700.

Territory is one of those useful words with relatively different meanings—but not different enough to prevent us from using it in diverse circumstances without necessarily falling into conceptual errors.  Whenever we use the word “territory,” we are referring in principle to an area defined by the existence of something or someone, which imbues the term with meaning (in our case “Guarani territory”).

This area generally refers to a concrete space, posing questions of territorial definition: what are the borders? Who determines them and how? What are the effects of territorial change? To demonstrate the wealth of possible answers, we are going back in history some 2,000 years, when the Guarani people already inhabited the area approximately located in what is today the eastern part of Paraguay, southwestern Brazil and northeastern Argentina. First, let's define “Guarani territory” simply as the place where Guaranis lived. However, it was not an exclusive territory, since other ethnic groups also lived there, and the Guarani people did not claim to control the entire territory. Given the character of the Guarani presence, it was a virtual territory. Because of their semi-nomadic lifestyle and without any permanent architecture, they left no visible traces and did not organize the territory. We could say, however, that although fewer Guarani exist today than before the arrival of the Spaniards, they left an indelible stamp: their language. 

This territory began to slowly fragment after the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors arrived. They came from a culture in which land ownership is a fundamental factor (and possibly totally foreign to the idea the Guaranis and other indigenous groups had about the land). The first thing they did was to create borders on the space where they considered they had the right to exclusive possession. The Spanish were the first to claim this right, defining their possession of the territory where the Guarani people lived. Two symbols seal this claim: the founding of Asunción and the decision that the Guarani area lay within the geographic domain of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The virtual territory was transformed into a concrete and exclusive one; this type of territory needs maps to formalize its borders.  In the first Spanish maps, notably imprecise, it's easy to figure out that the Guarani territory had changed “owners,” and the Spanish crown now controlled (or desired to control) the area.  The Guayrá provincial government was created within the Peru Viceroyalty to emphasize this point. Given the absence of what we today call infrastructure, the first marks of ownership were cities (sailing ships don't leave lasting imprints nor do long marches by foot or on horseback). First the Spaniards founded Asunción, then Corrientes and Concepción. 

In the 16th century, another innovation sprung up: a territory within a territory. The Jesuits arrived with a clear idea of territorial organization: to gather large groups of indigenous people into urban centers connected through a network of roads. This organization was meant to last: the buildings are made of stone and still stand. With the Jesuits, the territory became concrete, formal and organized. The problem arose with the definition of its eastern limits, disputed by the Portuguese who advanced from the virtual line of Tordesillas towards the west, pushing the Jesuits across the Uruguay River. As often happens, the formal (political) limits of the territories were not decided from within the territory itself, but from afar: in 1767, the Viceroyalty of the River Plate was created. Although the new viceroyalty covered almost the entire Guarani territory, it broke it into three fragments: the Paraguay regional government, the provincial government of the Missions (created where the Jesuits, expelled ten years earlier, had founded their missions) and the River Plate provincial government in the extreme north. These were partly formal territories and partly virtual: basically no one was really sure what the Missions' territorial limits were, and this ambiguity lingered in the years to come. 

From 1810 on, territories began to be fragmented yet once again, corresponding to the border definitions of the new republics: Paraguay and Argentina started to define their borders based on the old regional governments, while Missions remained a zone of weak formal presence of the state. The fragmentation would continue until the end of the 19th century with the end of the Paraguayan War, when the two countries and Brazil—now an independent republic—defined their borders through bilateral agreements and international mediation. At the same time, the three countries created the domestic divisions necessary to rule their territories: provinces in Argentina (Corrientes and Missions), departments in Paraguay (Alto Paraná and Canendiyú) and states in Brazil (Santa Catarina and Paraná).

Beyond the formal borders, and sometimes just ignoring these borders, other territorial processes were taking place related to the exploitation of natural resources and the  value of property. The rich Atlantic forest, the specific space of the former Guarani residents and the base for their material existence, began to be exploited by the colonial powers. While the dispersed indigenous population practicing some migrating agriculture had had relatively little impact on the forest, that could not compare to the impact of those who were cutting down timber and harvesting wild yerba mate, beginning in 1880. The rivers were used to transport the lumber, which limited the exploitation to relatively small zones because of the technical characteristics of the production and transport of wood.  The gathering of yerba mate, on the other hand, was organized through the concession of large territories and operated by Argentine or Brazilian companies. In his narrative about a trip he made to Missions in the late 19th century, J.B. Ambrosetti described the area as one where the state had practically no presence, a curious form of spontaneously organized territories. Yerba mate and the lumber trade, forms of mining the rich forest, leave few indelible marks except for two:  the docks on the Paraná River that were used to ship yerba mate production and in many cases grew into new settlements, and the picadas, rudimentary trails deep in the forest hacked out to reach the yerba mate plants, which would be used for the next territorial actors: the colonizers.

In the 20th century, colonizers began to arrive from far and wide to the old Guarani territory in search of land: in Argentina, the federal government set up colonies in Missions to attract Central European immigrants, who first worked with yerba mate and then tung and tea; in Paraguay, colonization was more spontaneous early on, by thousands of peasants from the center of the country, partially replaced later by an influx of Brazilian colonizers. In Brazil, two strands of immigration converged: the first were corn and bean farmers from German and Italian colonies in Rio Grande do Sul in the southern part of the country, established in the 19th century; the second came later, spurred by private colonization from Paraná based on coffee production. The presence of frost determined the borders of these two communities. In the mid-20th century, the former Guarani inhabitants and the Atlantic forest too had been cornered and decimated by the advance in agriculture, and the new territory was organized by a dense network of towns and cities connected by roads: Encarnación, Posadas, Eldorado, Montecarlo, Cascabel, Chapecó…

And other powerful actors came on the scene to generate new changes in the organization of the Guarani territory: soy and the dams.  With international trade eager for food products, soy, produced in southern Argentina and central Brazil, stimulated farmers to search for more land to plant, expanding to the heart of the Guarani territory, demolishing what was left of the Atlantic forest in Paraná and advancing to eastern Paraguay in one of the most devastating and swift processes of deforestation on the planet. Curiously, the territory that was fragmented among countries reunified, only half-jokingly, with the appearance of the “Soy Republic,” now controlled not by the state but by agrobusiness. Rivers resumed their old importance, and the Paraguay-Paraná axis was transformed into a cargo corridor to the Plate River.   

The rivers also were protagonists of another moment of territorial organization with a series of dams constructed all along the Paraná, Uruguay and Iguazú Rivers. Some dams are huge, like Itaipú and Yacyretá, designed to provide electric energy for large urban centers. Their regional impact has been controversial, in part because of the flooding of great extensions of land and the displacement of entire towns, and in part because these dams do not leave an imprint on the territory beyond this flooding. 

As we can see in this quick and necessarily incomplete overview, the Guarani territory is constantly transforming and its uses have been modified over the years, along with its forms of organization and the populations that identify with it. Successive territorial fragmentation has radically modified the Guarani geography, according to the historical imprints corresponding to each given moment, some very obvious like the formation of cities, others less tangible like culture and language, although the Guarani language persists as a continual imprint through the names of places in the region: Mondaí, Itacaruaré, Cunha Porã, Caaguazú.

Carlos Reboratti is an Argentine geographer and the head researcher for CONICET on environmental resources in Argentina. He is the author of several books, including La naturaleza y nosotros: El problema ambiental, Claves para todos and Del otro lado del río: ambientalismo y política entre uruguayos y argentinos.