How the struggle for land in Paraguay dominates the political events as well as the political agenda in the country.
Each bullet hole on the downtown Asunción, Paraguay light posts tells a story. Some of them are from civil wars decades ago, some from successful and unsuccessful coups, others from police crackdowns. The size of the hole, the angle of the ricochet, all tell of an escape, a death, another dictator in the palace by the river.
On June 22 of this year, a new tyrant entered the government palace. The right-wing Federico Franco became president in what has been deemed a parliamentary coup against democratically-elected, left-leaning President Fernando Lugo.
What lies behind today’s headlines, political fights and struggles for justice in Paraguay is a conflict over access to land; land is power and money for the elites, survival and dignity for the poor, and has been at the center of major political and social battles in Paraguay for decades. In order to understand the crisis in post-coup Paraguay it’s necessary to grasp the political weight of the nation’s soil. Here, a look at the history of Paraguay’s resource war for land, the events leading up to the coup, and the story of one farming community’s resistance places land at the heart of the nation’s current crisis.
The Coup and the Land
Hope surrounded the electoral victory of Fernando Lugo in 2008, a victory which ended the right wing Colorado Party’s 61 year dominance of Paraguayan politics. It was a victory against the injustice and nightmare of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), and a new addition to the region’s left-leaning governments. The election of Lugo, a former bishop and adherent to liberation theology, was due in large part to grassroots support from the campesino (small farmer) sector and Lugo’s promise of long-overdue land reform.
Yet Lugo was isolated politically from the very beginning. He needed to ally with the right to win the election; his Vice President Federico Franco is a leader in the right wing Liberal Party and was a vocal opponent of Lugo since shortly after Lugo came to power. Throughout Lugo’s time in office the Colorado Party maintained a majority in Congress and there were various right wing attempts to impeach the “Red Bishop.” Such challenges have impeded Lugo’s progress and created a political and media environment dominated by near-constant attacks and criticism toward Lugo.
At the same time, Lugo was no friend of the campesino sector that helped bring him into power. His administration regularly called for the severe repression and criminalization of the country’s campesino movements. He was therefore isolated from above at the political level, and lacked a strong political base below due to his stance toward social movements and the slow pace of land reform. None the less, many leftist and campesino sectors still saw Lugo as a relative ally and source of hope in the face of the right wing alternative.
The issue that finally tipped the scales toward the June 22 Parliamentary coup against Lugo was a conflict over land. In April of this year, 60 landless campesinos occupied land in Curuguaty, in northeastern Paraguay. This land is owned by former Colorado Senator Blas N. Riquelme, one of the richest people and largest landowners in the country. In 1969, the Stroessner administration illegally gave Riquelme 50,000 hectares of land that was supposed to be destined to poor farmers as a part of land reform. Since the return to democracy in 1989, campesinos have been struggling to gain access to this land. The April occupation of land was one such attempt. On June 15, security forces arrived in Curuguaty to evict the landless settlement. The subsequent confrontation during the eviction (the specific details of which are still shrouded in confusion) led to the death of 17 people, including 11 campesinos and 6 police officers. Eighty people were wounded.
The right blamed Lugo for the bloody events at Curuguaty, an accusation which was unfounded, but served as fodder for the ongoing political attacks against the president. In response to critics, Lugo replaced his Interior Minister with Colorado Party member Candia Amarilla, a former State Prosecutor known for his criminalization of leftist social and campesino groups, and who was trained in Colombia to export Plan Colombia-style policies to Paraguay. Lugo also made the Police Commissioner Moran Arnaldo Sanabria (who was in charge of the Curuguaty operation) the National Director of Police.
In this way, Lugo handed over the state’s main security and repressive powers to the Colorado Party. The move was an an effort to avoid impeachment from the right, but it backfired; the Liberal Party opposed Lugo’s replacements and, empowered by the criticisms leveled against Lugo’s handling of Curuguaty, collaborated with the Colorado Party and other right wing parties in Congress to move forward with the impeachment.
The backdrop to this political fight is a struggle over how to control, use and distribute Paraguay’s vast land. Approximately 2% of landowners control 80% of Paraguay’s land, and some 87,000 farming families are landless. While Lugo failed to meet many of his campaign promises to the campesino sector, he did in fact work to block many of the right’s policies that would worsen the crisis in the countryside. For example, Lugo and his cabinet resisted the use of Monsanto’s transgenic cotton seeds in Paraguay, a move that likely contributed to his ouster. Yet even before Lugo was elected, political alliances and victories were shaped by the question of land. Multinational agro-industrial corporations are fully entrenched in Paraguayan politics, and their fundamental enemies in this resource war have always been the Paraguayan campesino.
A Sea of Soy
For decades small farmers in Paraguay have been tormented by a tidal wave of GMO soy crops and pesticides expanding across the countryside. Paraguay is the fourth largest producer of soy in the world, and soy makes up 40 percent of Paraguayan exports and 10 percent of the country’s GDP. An estimated twenty million liters of agrochemicals are sprayed across Paraguay each year, poisoning the people, water, farmland and livestock that come in its path.
Managing the gargantuan agro-industry are transnational seed, agricultural and agro-chemical companies including Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Bunge. International financial institutions and development banks have promoted and bankrolled the agro-export business of monoculture crops—much of Paraguayan soy goes to feed animals in Europe. The profits have united political and corporate entities from Brazil, the US, and Paraguay, and increased the importance of Paraguay’s cooperation with international businesses.
Since the 1980s, national military and paramilitary groups connected to large agribusinesses and landowners have evicted almost 100,000 small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities in favor of soy fields. While more than a hundred campesino leaders have been assassinated in this time, only one of the cases was investigated with results leading to the conviction of the killer. In the same period, more than two thousand other campesinos have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance to the soy industry. The vast majority of Paraguayan farmers have been poisoned off their land either intentionally or as a side effect of the hazardous pesticides dumped by soy cultivation in Paraguay every year. Beginning in the 1990s, as farmers saw their animals dying, crops withering, families sickening, and wells contaminated, most packed up and moved to the city.
The havoc wreaked by agro-industries has created some of the most grave human rights violations since Stroessner’s reign.A report produced by the Committee of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of the United Nations stated that “the expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems, and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities.”
The expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities who occupy the vast land holdings of the wealthy. Most rural Paraguayans cultivate diverse subsistence crops on small plots of ten to twenty hectares, but do not have titles to their land nor do they typically receive assistance from the state. The Paraguayan government has historically represented the soy growers in this conflict by using the police and judicial system to punish campesino leaders.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
*[This article was originially published by Upside Down World on July 16, 2012].
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