Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

PARAGUAY: The Struggle for a Parcel of Land

Alejandro Sciscioli

ASUNCION, Dec 3 2003 (IPS) - ”In our institution, we have some 50,000 landless peasants unable to grow food to feed their families,” said a leader of the National Campesino Organisation, one of dozens of groups that represent small farmers in Paraguay, many of whom find themselves in the same situation.

According to unofficial statistics, the problem affects around 600,000 people, or just over one out of four rural inhabitants of this landlocked Southern Cone country of 5.2 million, where 43 percent of the population lives in the countryside.

Paraguay’s campesinos (peasant farmers), who have become increasingly organised, have long pressed the national authorities to provide an answer to their demand for effective land reform, but have rarely received any response.

The panorama – occupations of rural property left idle, unmet basic needs, political manipulations and corruption – ”will probably be responded to by the government with repression, as has always occurred,” sociologist Tomás Palau told IPS.

”It is a very long history that has constantly repeatedly itself for the past 130 years, basically beginning at the end of the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870),” he added.

Palau explained that when Paraguay was defeated in that war by Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, the victors distributed the country’s land, divided into large ranches and forestry plantations along the ”latifundium” model predominant in Latin America, to foreign – mainly Argentine, Brazilian and British – companies and business elites.

”The campesinos were then pushed off the land, and they concentrated on the outskirts of Asuncion and in the southern departments of Guairá and Paraguarí,” he said.

In the early 1960s, the dictatorial regime of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) launched an agrarian reform and settlement programme, and founded the Institute of Rural Welfare (IBR) in 1963.

”Actually, that programme was a political payment for the support that certain campesino sectors gave (Stroessner’s) Colorado Party in the 1947 revolution,” said Palau.

The land was distributed in 10 to 20-hectare lots. The beneficiaries were not only campesinos, but military and civilian supporters of the dictator as well.

The process ”should have culminated in a de-concentration of land ownership. But with large extensions of land handed out as political payments, the lots once again turned into latifundia (giant landed estates),” said Palau.

More than six million hectares have been parcelled out since the creation of the IBR, says Bartolomé Sánchez González in his book ”Agrarian Policies and Development”.

Of that total, around five million hectares went to 10,000 privileged people, and the remaining one-fifth of the land was distributed among 100,000 low-income families.

Three factors came together to give rise to the first occupations of land by organised groups of peasants, in 1982.

Palau pointed out that ”The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the start of the phenomenon of migration of Brazilian settlers into eastern Paraguay, to which was added the high rural birth rate, of 6.7 children per woman, and the start of the construction of the enormous Paraguayan-Brazilian Itaipú dam.”

When the main work on the Itaipú hydropower dam was finished, the unskilled labourers were laid off, which left some 30,000 Paraguayans, 90 percent of whom were the sons of campesinos, with neither jobs nor land.

”With the passage of the years, they grew into adulthood and formed their own families, and couldn’t return to their parents’ land anymore. These people were left living in slums in the Alto Paraná, and they organised the first occupations of rural property,” said Palau.

Another problem that aggravated the situation faced by Paraguay’s campesinos was that the settlements created by the IBR ”were never furnished with the basic social infrastructure of piped water, schools and health services, nor did they receive the necessary technical assistance,” Carlos Tallone, an agronomist and consultant, told IPS.

In 1982, Paraguay entered into recession (widely defined as at least two consecutive quarters of negative Gross Domestic Product).

That year, the local currency, the guarani, was allowed to float freely, after being fixed at 147 to the dollar for 20 years. The currency collapsed, triggering a long process of inflation and devaluation.

With the negative economic outlook and the end of the Itaipú works as a source of employment, ”investment in the country came to a halt, and poor people who had migrated to the urban centres were left in a precarious situation, while in the countryside, things just got worse,” said Tallone.

A study carried out by the National Police Division of Order and Security at the request of the Education Ministry shows that invasions of rural property by organised groups of landless campesinos have only taken place in eastern Paraguay.

As of October, there were 223 ”irregular settlements” in Paraguay, 150 of which were the product of occupations of rural property by landless peasants. According to the report, the invasions of land involve a total of 195,000 hectares.

The rest of the ”irregular settlements” consist of slums in urban areas where groups of homeless families have occupied land to build ramshackle houses.

By the late 1980s, the publicly owned land available for distribution to campesinos through the IBR had run out. The response by the landless peasants was to invade property that they believed was owned by the state ”because no title deeds exist, and the owners have left it partially or totally unproductive,” said Tallone.

”In addition, during election periods many occupations occur, incited by local political leaders with links to the ruling Colorado Party,” he added.

Palau noted that ”With the increase in livestock rustling, the invasions of property, and the security forces’ failure to take control of the situation, the large landowners have set up paramilitary groups.”

Paraguay ”is in a situation very close to what is happening in Colombia,” he said, noting that the drug traffickers who operate in the northern departments of Amambay and San Pedro, the main marijuana-producing areas in Paraguay, also have their own armed groups that pressure the landless activists.

Parliamentary Deputy Olga Ferreira with the centre-right Beloved Fatherland Movement, a member of the parliamentary human rights and municipal affairs commissions, said the campesino movements ask the legislature to approve ”between five and seven expropriations of land per week.”

The parliamentary resolutions on ”around 100 expropriations” are still pending, she added.

Paraguay is not the only country in the region facing demands for land from organised campesino movements.

In Brazil, the Landless Movement (MST) has been organised on a national scale since 1984. Since then, its members have occupied portions of more than 3,900 latifundia, which evolved into settlements of over 450,000 rural families on some 22 million hectares of land.

In Bolivia, the Confederation of Settlers is made up of 24 regional and departmental federations, which represent one million rural people who have ”settled” on land in seven departments.

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