Exposing Paraguay's complex social history of ethnic groups
An EU-funded project narrated the social tensions between Paraguay's different ethnic groups through the history of a tannin factory - the first to hire indigenous people. It aimed to foster discussion on the current and future socio-political situation in the former Spanish colony.
© ruslanita - fotolia.com
Nestled in the belly of South America is the small Casado tannin factory that helps reveals the stories of Paraguay’s different social groups from the indigenous Guarani to the ruling classes of Spanish descent. The EU-funded ARCHFACT project explored the plant’s past in an effort to promote dialogue between these groups and highlight how indigenous people have contributed to the country’s economic development.
The factory, located in the town of Puerto Casado, manufactured tannin a substance extracted from ‘quebracho’ trees and used for tanning animal hides. Its history from 1889 to 2000 involves former workers, Salesian missionaries, the Casado-Sastre family who owned it and the descendants of Argentine managers and technicians.
“What makes this history particularly interesting is that half of the factory’s work force since the late 19th century was made up of indigenous people the only factory in Paraguay to hire them,” says Valentina Bonifacio, anthropologist and researcher at Italy’s Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and an EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow. “By narrating the history of the factory, I am also analysing the relationship between the different groups that worked in it for almost one century.”
Making Paraguay’s social history accessible
Bonifacio organised four exhibitions about the project two in Paraguay, one in New York and one in Venice. Through images and explanations, they presented the history of the factory and the role of indigenous people in contributing to the economic development of Paraguay.
The project also produced a book narrating the oral history of the factory’s 100-year history. It allows a wide audience to uncover previously unspoken aspects of both the plant and the country’s past. Bonifacio hopes it will help foster discussion on the current socio-political situation in Paraguay and the direction it could take in the future.
“The book shows the history of the exploitation of natural resources and land distribution,” she says. “In Puerto Casado the recovery of this history is particularly important given the fast pace that development is taking and the big changes that all the area is undergoing.”
Bonifacio also started a website where she uploaded her research fieldwork including video interviews, photos and documents. Her aim was to stimulate feedback from the locals to encourage them to take part in the project.
“I also hope that the reconstruction of this common history between indigenous and non-indigenous might foster a dialogue between the different groups of people in Puerto Casado a relationship that is fraught with many tensions today,” she says.
Throughout the project, Bonifacio interviewed 72 ex-factory workers both indigenous and non-indigenous as well as major political figures in the area. She also rescued abandoned administrative documents from the factory ruins.
Going forward, the Museo del Barro in Asuncion, the Paraguayan partner of the project, has resolved to help bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous artistic work.
Bonifacio received funding in 2014 for the project through the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship programme. She was the first Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow in Italy to be hired as a tenure-track researcher by her host institution, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.