By Gustavo Torres
Campesinos’ demand for land reform has a long history in Paraguay. Now indigenous organizations have joined their fight to recovery their ancestral lands by means of expropriation or purchases by the state.
Since 2008, with the election of former priest Fernando Lugo to the presidency, social and popular sectors had hoped that the left-leaning leader would make a change. But campesino organizations have been let down. In response, they have continued their protests, including marches to the capital Asunción, and even occupation of some large plantations.
“The struggles of our people are for land reform, to stop the advance of agri-business, and the legal and political responses continue to be repression,” said Ramón Medina, director of the national Struggle for Land Organization. He added that 2,000 of his compañeros were charged and some of them when to jail.
“We continue with a government that defends the interests of the large landholders, of the big soy producers,” Medina said. “That’s why our struggle and the mobilizations against the plantation-owners and against the soy expansion have to continue, in defense of our natural resources, and at the same time building alternative political proposals that can be discussed in society … to make democratic changes in favor of the people.”
When asked by Latinamerica Press, former president of the National Rural and Land Development Institute, Alberto Alderete Prieto, and Sixto Pereira, a ruling party senator, agreed that the plantation issue in Paraguay is rooted in the 19th century, when governments began selling public land. Since the end of the War of the Triple Alliance, an 1865-1870 military conflict in which Paraguay fought Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, until 1950, 25 million hectares (62 million acres) had been handed over to foreign companies.
From 1950 to 2000, mainly during the 1954-89 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, 12 million hectares (30 million acres) were put in private hands, said Alderete Prieto. State agencies like the Land Reform Institute and later the Rural Welfare Institute, which is now the National Institute for National Rural and Land Development Institute, took over the process, he said, adding that 74 percent of that land were released by politicians, military and state officials who had nothing to do with the agrarian reform. “Only 26 percent of the land went to the hands of about 150,000 families of small producers,” said Alderete Prieto.
In the Green Revolution in the 1960s, small-scale farming became known as “subsistence farming” compared with the large-scale farming for export crops. That was followed by widespread use of farming chemicals, machinery, transgenic seeds and the country’s reliance on external markets. Paraguay’s forest cover was halved.
For Pereira, the land tenancy is operating outside of the law. “Along with Brazil, Paraguay is one of the most unequal countries with the highest concentration of land in the fewest hands.”
The most recent farming census in 2008 shows that just 2 percent of the landowners hold 85.5 percent of Paraguay’s land, while 300,000 campesino families are landless. Eighty percent of the country’s arable land is in the hands of just 1 percent of the landowners and only 6 percent belongs to small-scale farmers who have less than 20 hectares (50 acres) apiece. Some 260,000 families comprise this last group.
What is happening in the village of Ñacunday, in the southeastern Alto Paraná department, is a reflection of the nature of Paraguay’s land problem.
In April 2011, the fertile lands of Ñacunday, which sits near the border with Brazil and Argentina and whose lands are used for agro-exports, saw a conflict explode, when families started to occupy part of the property of Paraguay’s largest soy farmer, Tranquilo Favero, who has more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres), 400,000 (1 million acres) of them in Ñacunday.
At the end of the year, members of another community association, the National League of Carperos, or tent-dwellers, a movement of landless campesinos with 10,000 people, joined the occupation, installing themselves in tent camps. Rosalino Casco, a leader of the group, said “we are going to fight centimeter by centimeter for this land,” while agri-business executives and conservative politicians accused Lugo’s government of instigating the conflict.
This is a struggle that has continued. In February, security forces peacefully relocated the campesinos from the Santa Lucía community group nearby a forest, while the Carperos moved to a state-owned property.
Lack of political will
The Ñacunday issue put again the land situation in the epicenter of the debate in Paraguay. For the first time, the government has shown interest in making a structural change in Paraguay as a way to help campesinos acquire land or improve land in poor condition. Nevertheless, the government’s message has not turned into action with legal steps to knock down old structures.
Sen. Pereira maintains that the situation in rural Paraguay needs political will of the three branches of government.
“Ñacunday is a case within this issue, taking into account that this country is full of cases like this one, that’s why legal measures are urgent to identify and guarantee the legitimate owners [of the land].”
According to Pereira, who has long-advised the campesino movements, the government needs to measure just how irregular the land tenancy is. He said Paraguay’s area is 406,752 square kilometers (157,048 square miles), but the area of the land titles is more than 500,000 square kilometers (193,051 square miles).
It is a sign that some land has been titled as many as three times, in spite that successive governments have been receiving millions of dollars since 1989 to carry out a land registry which never took place.
“In the entire history of this country, the land has been a source of life, progress and survival for its inhabitants,” said Alderete Prieto. “But it has also been the object and instrument that has made a systematic violation of human rights, destruction of the environment and concentration of power in a few hands possible. This situation shows that the expansion of agri-business tied to the plantations is destroying the campesino and indigenous identity, creating mechanisms of accumulation of capital and dominance. President Lugo has denounced on more than one occasion that the fencing and pastures of the large plantations expel indigenous communities from their lands through illegal appropriations”.