The Maskoy linguistic group inhabits the Paraguayan Chaco region and comprises some 15,000 people (2002 national census). The Enxet are often referred to as the Lengua-Maskoy, but this is understood by most – who self-identify as Enxet – as a pejorative term. (They are divided into two major sections, the northern and southern Enxet). The Maskoy linguistic family also includes the Maskoy-Toba, Sanapaná and Angaité peoples.
The majority of the southern Enxet live in an area known as the Anglican zone, in four small ‘colonies’ purchased for them by the Anglican Church, while the rest of their extensive lands have been taken over for cattle ranching. Many Enxet people work for corporate landowners or ranchers, under very poor conditions and for a low wage.
Since the nineteenth century the colonisation of the Chaco – essentially a venture of foreign private enterprise – has threatened the traditional livelihoods, indeed the very survival, of indigenous communities living there, although still in the early 1900s they remained practically independent from the Paraguayan state. Government-sponsored development of the region was stepped up in the 1930s following the War of the Chaco (1932-1935). Religious missions, such as the South American Missionary Society, have also been key actors in the settlement of Maskoy and Enxet traditional territories.
Over the last two decades indigenous groups have submitted an increasing number of land claims to the government, and there have been several instances of these being upheld. In 1987, for example, a group of Maskoy were reported as living in unhealthy and poverty stricken conditions on land now held by the Argentine firm Carlos Casado. They were awarded 30,000 hectares.
However, many attempts by Enxet to claim legal right to a small part of their land have resulted in continued harassment by ranchers including the burning of their homes. The Asociación Rural (Rural Association), a powerful organisation representing Paraguay’s major landowners, has managed to prevent Congress supporting indigenous land claims on numerous occasions.
Enxet have become increasingly politically conscious in their dealings with religious missions and foreign landowners. Like other South American indigenous peoples such as the Brazilian Kayapó, they are ‘reinventing’ the history of the colonization of their territory so as to support their land claims; this has led to increased confidence in themselves as a group.
Despite such progress (and theoretical support from the constitution and Paraguayan laws), many Enxet and Maskoy communities still lack land titles; one claim for 160,000 hectares of their traditional territory has been in process for several years. Some Enxet continue to work on the large cattle ranches in appalling conditions, others subsist through hunting and gathering but access to land is controlled by the landowners.
Access to education and health services continues to be a major problem, as does the lack of political representation of indigenous peoples in Paraguay. Enxet and Maskoy peoples have, though, become more active in international forums and have managed to secure the support of international NGOs in their struggle.