By Peter Tase
Dr. Kregg Hetherington is a social anthropologist whose work focuses on environmental politics, bureaucracy and international development in Paraguay. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Davis, and currently works at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Guerrilla Auditors: the politics of transparency in neoliberal Paraguay, as well as numerous articles in English and Spanish. His current research focuses on the way the soybean boom in Latin America’s southern cone is transforming how governments understand their role in agriculture.
Peter Tase: According to your extensive research on Paraguay, what are some of the challenges that Paraguayan Society is facing today, not only towards the lack of implementation of the Rural reform but also reducing the gap between the rich and the poor in the country?
Kregg Hetherington: If we want to talk mainly about the distribution of wealth, I think Paraguay is currently going through a very interesting and dangerous moment, one in which policy decisions could have serious implications over the coming decades. In the past two years the Paraguayan economy has shown growth rates (by some estimates over 10 percent) that haven’t been seen in forty years. (Since about 1982, Paraguay has had a very poor economic performance overall, with the exception of only a few years). But the current growth is extremely concentrated, mostly in a relatively small area of the eastern frontier of Paraguay, populated primarily by immigrants from Europe (most of whom arrived between the 1890s and the 1940s) and Brazil (who began to arrive in the 1970s). They have established themselves as successful farmers and taken advantage of the high productivity and prices of soybeans in the last few years, becoming the main driver of the economic recovery. But this area is not only economically distinct, it is also culturally and socially very distinct from the rest of Paraguay, meaning that there aren’t many mechanisms for sharing the wealth generated there with the rest of Paraguayans, especially the poorer peasant and indigenous groups and people living in the outskirts of the main cities.
Many countries try to deal with these sorts of problems through taxation, but until this point Paraguay has both extremely low and highly irregular tax policies that have made it hard to do this.
PT: What would be the top five priorities for the incoming government to address in its first 100 days in the helm of government?
KH: 1) Actually, I think the Cartes’ government has already failed at what I think its first priority should have been, which would be to show, in the composition of the government, that it intends to take the interests of the rural poor seriously.
For the most part, official Paraguayan politics simply excludes the poor from the political conversation. Of course, this would complicate the process of governance, but in the long run could lead to much more interesting conversations about the future of the country. Cartes completely failed to do this. Where he’s perhaps done a little bit better is in signaling that he will not run his government entirely for the enrichment of his own party. The government of Fernando Franco, which took over in 2012 in a “parliamentary coup” (a legally dubious impeachment hearing of 2 hours) has spent the last year trying to make up for its 7 decades out of power by stealing whatever it could from the state. The track record of Cartes’ Colorado party is hardly much better, and one can expect a lot of irregularity in the government going forward. But it’s nice to see appointments to government positions that respond to something more than internal party politics and more to the actual skills of the people involved.
2) It is terrible that a year after peasants and police died in a completely avoidable shootout in the rural district of Curuguaty (the event that lead to Lugo’s impeachment) there has been no serious, independent investigation of the event. The current bizarre court proceedings is a show trial of a handful of peasants caught up after the event rather than an inquiry. Since the massacre, five more peasant leaders have been assassinated without a single charge being laid. How the Cartes government chooses to address (or not address) this situation will help to set the tone of what goes on in rural areas of the country for the next five years.
3) How the new government deals with tax policy is going to say a lot about its intentions going forward. Since the last government of Fernando Lugo began in 2008, taxation has been a point of great political fighting which is likely to resolve itself soon. At the moment, the position of the Cartes government does not look promising – the taxes will do little to redress the tiny percentage paid by the rich, and look to gut the land reform agency.
4) The question of land and wealth distribution in the countryside is extraordinarily complicated, with a lot of blame to go around for the current situation of the rural poor. How much the government can do about this is always an open question. But it would be nice to see them try to steer the conversation away from two questions on which it always gets stuck:
a. The legality of landholdings. In a country with the most uneven distribution of land in the western hemisphere, whether or not people have their titles in order is a red herring on which the land question has been foundering for a decade. The question should be why it’s uneven and how to fix that.
b. In a land so fertile and so well watered, there is no reason the economy should be utterly dependent on a single crop, or a single model of large-scale production. Fostering initiatives that change this is necessary.
5) Paraguay is currently undergoing an environmental transformation that should make everyone very concerned. The eastern half of the country is almost completely deforested, while the Western half is quickly catching up as wealthy ranchers move their cattle into the west to make room for soybeans in the east. I have very little hope in this regard, but if there were one agency that I think the new government should overhaul in its entirety it would be the Secretariat of the Environment, which should become a full ministry with much more resources to do its job.
PT: After visiting Paraguay for many years, what are some of the socio linguistic and cultural differences between the communities located in the various departments that you have visited?
KH: Paraguay’s an extremely diverse country, much more than most people realize. The traditional national population is centered on Asuncion and about eight departments in the eastern half of the country. Most speak Guarani as a first language and Spanish as a second, but much more powerful and official language. Beyond that, as I’ve said, is a band of immigrant communities, many of which retain their languages of origin (especially Portuguese, German, Italian, Japanese, Ukranian, Korean). The western Chaco region is different again, with an economic center composed of Canadian Plattdeutsch-speaking Mennonites and another 13 or so indigenous linguistic groups.
PT: What is the perception of Paraguay in Canada, as you know only a few days ago the Canadian Foreign Secretary had conducted an official visit to Paraguay?
KH: There is very little perception of Paraguay in Canada beyond the usual stereotypes about corruption and cronyism, or the familial ties between Mennonites in Manitoba and the Chaco. The Paraguayan government’s interests there in the past few years have centered mostly on the business conducted by Rio Tinto Alcan, the mining company that is building some smelting operations in Paraguay to take advantage of cheap hydroelectricity. I personally think this project is of dubious benefit to most Paraguayans. Beyond this, Canada’s conservative government has had an interest in supporting other conservative governments in Latin America. Someone from the Foreign Relations office put their foot in their mouth when they seemed to be the first country to come out in support of the coup against Lugo, even though this drew condemnation from across the region.
PT: What is the impact of Soy bean producers and intensive exploitation of land, towards the implementation of a sound and fair distribution of land in Paraguay? As you may know In Paraguay only 10 percent of the population owns over 80 percent of the land?
KH: The figure, according the last census, is actually closer to 5% of farms (a smaller percentage of the population) concentrate about 90 percent of the land. But you can find lots of different figures around because the record-keeping is so poor it’s actually quite hard to calculate. As I mentioned before, I think this is one of the most problematic issues for Paraguay now and historically. It’s been developing for decades (arguably since the Paraguayan War ended in 1870), but soybeans have come on the scene in a big way really since the 1990s when they started being planted in huge extensions by migrants on the eastern border region with Brazil. Most soy farmers of course just want to try to make some money as farmers which make perfect sense. But because they are so unregulated and their crop is so much more profitable than other crops in Paraguay they lead to all kinds of problems. For most people they are out of reach because it takes a lot of capital investment to get the equipment necessary. A second group are heavily indebted to the silo owners and the really big players, as well as the powerful farming cooperatives, who give them the chemicals and the equipment, and they have an interest in aggressively seeking new land. As they do so, areas of countryside are deforested and become less desirable for small communities to live in, but they also push land prices up, making it hard for anyone to own land who isn’t making big profits from soy. All of this simply means that the soy frontier moves; it moves quickly, and it pushes people out of its way. I’ve seen what this looks like in communities of people who don’t have much land, don’t have much money, and don’t have much access to health services or jobs, and it’s extremely ugly – we’re talking about a whole spectrum of effects, from people no longer being able to enjoy their homes because of the smell of wafting pesticides, to people losing access to water, to local community organizers being assassinated for speaking up against the changes. In a way this is a classic story of frontier brutality. I’ve suggested above some initiatives from the government that might mitigate the situation, although I think it’s unlikely to happen. I continue to think that the most likely solution lies in a well-organized rural resistance that would force large producers to change their practices.