The Toba-Maskoy Indian wore rubber boots, a T-shirt full of holes and a thin mustache that ran low across his lip. Around him in the dusk and frelight sat his people, the small group of Indian families who looked to him as spokesman. They were living in three shacks of scrap wood and corrugated tin. A barbed-wire fence enclosed them like a cattle pen, and a makeshift burlap wall flapped gently in the breeze.
"We tried," the Toba-Maskoy man said in Spanish, which is not the language of his people. "We tried to plant all kinds of things. But the land does not help you. A little rain comes and the land gets very hard. Three children died in a row. We will not go back to Dos Veinte . The people never want to go there again."
Dos Veinte is Spanish for two-twenty, which is what Paraguayans call the bleak stretch of land to the north where all 700 members of the Toba-Maskoy tribe were forcibly relocated in January.
The area gets its identification from a kilometer marker on the road.It has no name and no settlements, its soils reportedly harden under rain to an impermeable crust, and the Toba-Maskoy still there are living in conditions that in the last six months have focused international attention on the swelling despair of the Indians of Paraguay.
According to religious workers and anthropologists who have made it through the occasionally impassible dirt roads to Km. 220, the people living there spent January to March struggling with disease, malnutrition that killed five persons and government-imposed controls requiring the Indians to obtain written permission before leaving the Km. 220 boundaries. Those controls have now been lifted, and government food shipments have eased the hunger. But those who work with indigenous people still believe the Indians have been corralled into land so barren that, as one anthropologist said, "In 10 to 15 years, forget about the Toba-Maskoy."
For the Toba-Maskoy spokesman for the group that left Km. 220, the government relocation killed his last fervent hope that things might change. The Toba leader, who asked that his name not be used to protect him from government reprisals, was one of the 700 tribal members who were promised in October that they would be allowed to take possession once again of their ancient tribal lands -- about 25,000 acres of northwest Paraguay currently owned by an Argentine company called Carlos Casado.
To the Toba-Maskoy leaders and the Paraguayan anthropologists and church groups working with them, this was an unprecedented and enormously encouraging plan. Like many of Paraguay's 70,000 Indians, the Toba-Maskoy lived to the end of the 19th century as hunters, fishermen and nomadic farmers in the dusty scrub country Paraguayans call the chaco .
In the late 1800s, while Paraguay was still trying to recover from a devastating war against Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, much of the chaco was sold to private buyers.
"The biggest was the Casado company, Argentines," said a Paraguayan expert on the area's history, "who bought almost 4 million hectares -- 3,680,000 -- a landholding almost the size of Switzerland. And this completely covered the Toba habitat."
Casado initially left most of the Toba-Maskoy alone. But when the government began encouraging settlers into the chaco , particularly German-speaking Mennonites, the terrain began to close in -- fewer lands, an unbalanced equilibrium that made hunting more difficult and advancing missionaries who sought to guide the Indians to the Christian God.
By the middle of this century, the Toba-Maskoy were mired in the landless, disease-ridden, underpaid, alcohol-poisoned dependency that the English photogrpher Luke Holland recently portrayed in his photo exhibition shown in several U.S. cities called "Indians, Missionaries and the Promised Land."
Holland's photographs are pictures of decaying peoples: the young Maka women blowing gum bubbles, their T-shirts stripped off for the tourist cameras, a Nivakle man gazing into the window of a Mennonite-owned shop full of items he cannot afford, a Guana Indian man whose eyes and clenched teeth are so set with despair that it is difficult to keep from turning away.
"Survival of an indigenous group is possible only with land," said the historical expert, who preferred not to be named. "The land is the base for everything they want to do."
By the end of last year, it looked as though the Toba-Maskoy would have their land. A decree signed by President Alfredo Stroessner promised that about 25,000 acres of the Casado-owned chaco land -- fertile, farmable land like the soil the Mennonites had colonized -- would be returned to the Toba-Maskoy at the beginning of the year.
Carrying all their belongings, the Indians arrived at their land in time to celebrate the new year. The newly appointed director of the government's National Indian Institute welcomed them home. The next day, a convoy of government trucks showed up. The Indians were loaded on board and driven 60 miles north to the reportedly arid soils of Km. 220. The government had changed its mind.
Col. Marcos Morales Valdez, the director of the National Indian Institute, said the order was changed because the government decided the promised lands were too economically useful since Casado had developed it productively. Most of the religious people and anthropologists familiar with the case are convinced that Casado and the other chaco landowners had opposed the land transfer.
"The other landowners were very frightened because if there had been the expropriation, it would have been the first one," said an anthropologist who knows the chaco well. "And it was going to be their turn next."
Casado also owns the Km. 220 land, which is twice the size of the original terrain set aside for the Toba-Maskoy, and Morales said tests show the soil is useful for growing crops. Groups working with the Toba say that is true only with extensive mechanization that will allow the soils to hold rainwater.
"None of the Mennonits would think of trying to make a homeland on that kind of soil," said the Rev. Jose Seelwische, a Catholic priest who is working with the Toba Maskoy, as he bounced a white pickup truck over the dirt roads outside Filadelfia. "To think that a people like the Toba Maskoy, in their cultural situation, can make something like this work, is completely absurd."
So by now, those familiar with the case say almost half the Toba-Maskoy have left Km. 220 and returned to the part-time work and scrap-wood shanties that make up daily life for much of the Paraguayan Indian population. The rest are chopping firewood and eating government staples on land where they say food will not grow.
In a formal complaint filed recently with the Human Rights Commission of the Economic and Social Council for the United Nations, the indigenous support group Survival International and other religious and Indian defense groups have charged Paraguay with "arbitrary deprivation of the Indians' ancestral lands," which Survival International calls "an act of genocide."
Morales said he had heard these charges many times before and considered them ridiculous.
But a professional man who knows the situation in the chaco well said, "What's happening here is more terrible than genocide. What's happening here is a calculated policy . . . just what your country did last century after Wounded Knee. Get the smallest possible reservations. Put the most number of people on them. And don't do anything against them -- 'we're benevolent, we have no desire to hurt them.' And then just let them die tranquilly, because we don't want them, or they're not good enought, or not intelligent enough . . . You just let things go. And that's the worst of all."