Carribean conundrum

The Bonbini festival: Papiamento is still there in song, but how much longer in everyday life?


At Aruba’s weekly Bonbini festival, tourists come to marvel at the Carnaval costumes and take in a bit of the island’s folklore. A petite solo singer in a slinky red dress takes the stage, and is belting out a song dedicated to her island and its beloved language – Papiamento.

Most Arubans speak three or four languages fluently. As a colony of the Netherlands, Dutch has been the official language for centuries. But the native language is Papiamento – an Atlantic Creole that combines Spanish, Dutch and African-Portuguese (the language of the slaves brought from Cape Verde and other Portuguese colonies).

English and Spanish are indispensable in the tourism industry – which accounts for almost 80% of the island’s revenues. Aruba’s 100,000 residents play host to more than 1.2 million tourists every year – the vast majority of them English-speaking. The demand for low-wage jobs in the hotel industry has also fed a steady flow of migrant workers from Venezuela and Colombia, just 29 km away. There is growing resentment because many don’t even try to learn Papiamento.

‘Papiamento is definitely being eroded by so much Spanish,’ says 33-year-old Freddy Hardy Orozco, a Colombian migrant married to an Aruban. ‘My own wife and kids confuse Spanish and Papiamento a lot. I’m sure that in a few years, Papiamento will disappear altogether.’ The death of indigenous languages is a global problem. Linguists predict 90 per cent of the world’s 6,000 languages will be endangered by the end of the century. And small language communities are at the greatest risk.

Papiamento is only spoken in Aruba, and the neighbouring Netherlands Antilles Islands of Bonaire and Curacao. All-told, their populations total just over 300,000. But Aruba has started taking the threat of language extinction seriously. Kids learn Papiamento at home, but Dutch in school. They only get Papiamento in kindergarten, then begin formal language classes in secondary school. Children even get English and Spanish in grade 5. But a draft law is moving through Aruba’s Parliament for bilingual schooling. The Government has trained teachers to begin teaching grade one in Papiamento, as of this August.

Teaching kids in their mother tongue should also help counteract rising drop-out rates, says Ramon Todd Dandare, a well-known linguist with Aruba’s Department of Education. He says Papiamento has been struggling against Dutch for centuries, and has survived.

‘The real threat for us today is English,’ says Todd Dandare. ‘That’s because CDs, DVDs, music, are all in English and that’s where our youth live.’

Still, some argue that Aruba’s multicultural nature is what makes it unique. ‘I find that we are very schizophrenic people who don’t know really what we are,’ says Todd Dandare. ‘But I always say that culture is not one culture. Culture is the sum of all cultures in this country.’

*Jen Ross*

Birdsong regained

All’s well that ends well: Federico Duarte and family.

Jen Ross

Federico Duarte and his eight young children used to wake up to the chirp of birds in the forested farmland of Alto Paraná in eastern Paraguay. While living in an inner-city park in the capital Asunción, at the beginning of this year, the sound of birds was drowned out by the traffic rushing past their tattered tents. ‘I had no choice. We were evicted,’ Federico explained.

His was among a dozen families from the country’s impoverished southeast who packed up their desperation and hauled it to Asunción, setting up camp in Plaza Uruguaya with 200 others. In this downtown park, a single handwritten sign hung crookedly from a bright orange vinyl tent proclaiming: ‘Justice for the Displaced.’

Federico’s family had previously lived in the Naranjal zone of Alto Paraná – a humble but happy existence built on subsistence farming... until Brazilian soybean farmers bought up those lands. Neighbouring Brazil is the world’s top producer of soya. But cheaper Paraguayan land has been drawing producers across the border. Paraguay is now the world’s fourth largest soybean exporter, producing almost four million tons in the 2004-05 season.

‘Paraguay is living a soybean revolution. The indigenous people are being removed from the forest where they live and the forest is being chopped down,’ says Alberto Roque, from the NGO Friends of the Earth. ‘This country has experienced the most devastating deforestation in South America. More than 40 per cent of their forests were eliminated in less than 15 years.’

Struggling for some land of their own, thousands of campesinos like Federico began occupying land in rural areas. When hundreds illegally occupied farmlands in November last year, President Nicanor Duarte called out the military to evict them. A general strike in December sparked mass mobilizations across the country, and again the army intervened.

By camping out in the heart of Asunción, just six blocks from the Legislature, Federico and the campesinos in Plaza Uruguaya hedged their bets, hoping their visibility would prevent the use of force. Although some families left in desperation over the conditions, the four-month ‘live-in’ of those who remained got results. In February this year a deal was reached, allowing them to return to Naranjal. The Brazilian landowner agreed to sell them their former lands at bargain prices. The Government agreed to subsidize the difference and is now helping to divvy up the plots.

The National Institute for Lands and Rural Development has bought, or is safeguarding, more than 24,000 hectares and has handed over land to some 6,000 campesinos. There are another 20,000 waiting on the Government’s registry.

As for Federico and his family – they have returned to their beloved Naranjal, amid the birds. Before leaving, his pride at having bought part of those lands was obvious... even if it took an extended urban camping trip to get them back.

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