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Human Rights

Tension over Deadly Clash Between Peasants and Police in Paraguay

ASUNCION, Jun 18 2012 (IPS) - The death of 16 landless peasants and police officers in a clash in northeastern Paraguay drew attention once again to the long-standing problem of land ownership in the country, where 85 percent of all farmland is owned by just two percent of the population.

Discussing the incident, analysts mention conflicting political and economic interests, a deeply-entrenched conflict, the danger of a social explosion, and the return to a heavy-handed approach to security.

On Friday Jun. 15, 10 peasant farmers and six police were killed during an attempt to evict peasants from land they had occupied, in the latest episode of violence involving land tenure – one of the most pressing social problems in this South American country.

The incident has put moderate left-wing President Fernando Lugo, who is already facing a threat of impeachment for other problems, up against the wall.

Lugo responded to the killings by replacing Interior Minister Carlos Filizzola with Rubén Candia of the Colorado Party, the main opposition force, whose 60-year grip on power was only broken when Lugo won the 2008 elections.

He also removed police chief Paulino Rojas and his two immediate subordinates, in an effort to mitigate the impact of the incident, which has given rise to conflicting reports and versions.

Candia, who was attorney general until late 2011, was among those named by a senior military officer in 2008 as allegedly taking part in a conspiratorial meeting against Lugo, a former Catholic bishop who took office on Aug. 15 of that year.

The new minister suspended the protocol for evictions of people occupying land put in place by his predecessor, which required that the police exhaust all avenues of dialogue with peasants occupying land before carrying out an eviction.

“What happened clearly shows that there is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of social struggle and demands made by peasants for decades, such as the recovery of land that was ill-gotten (by the current owners),” Luis Aguayo, the head of the National Coordinating Board of Campesino Organisations, told IPS.

The violent eviction took place on an estate in Curuguaty, in the department (province) of Canindeyú, 380 km northeast of Asunción. The estate is in the name of the Campos Morombí SAC y Agropecuaria agribusiness company, owned by Blas N. Riquelme, a Colorado Party businessman and politician.

According to the Office of the General Prosecutor and the National Institute of Rural Development and Land, the rural property in question actually belongs to the state.

The Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ) – which from 2003 to 2008 investigated human rights abuses committed during the 1954-1989 dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner – also stated in its final report that the property is publicly-owned.

The CVJ said the property was donated to the state by the La Industrial Paraguaya SA, and was earmarked for distribution as part of the land reform process.

“We cannot allow the democratic achievements gained after so many years of struggle to be undermined,” said Aguayo, whose organisation publicly denounced that the violence was caused by a group that infiltrated the landless peasants, with the aim of triggering bloodshed and sparking a political crisis.

For his part, Bernardino Cano, an analyst with connections to the Colorado Party, maintained that the clash was caused by armed groups with ties to the Lugo administration.

He said “the backdrop to this is the existence of sectors, which could be of the extreme left or the extreme right, that do not want elections to take place in 2013.”

Paraguay is already gearing up for the April 2013 elections, when Lugo’s successor will be elected.

Cano told IPS that one big problem in Paraguay is that there are many parts of the country where the state has no control, and marijuana is grown widely. “It’s obvious that narco-guerrillas could have been behind what happened,” he argued.

Sociologist Ramón Fogel, meanwhile, told IPS that the reason these violent incidents happen is that there are at least eight million hectares of land that was sold or handed over under “irregular circumstances” in Paraguay.

He pointed out that eight peasants were killed in an earlier conflict in January, in Ñacunday on the border with Brazil.

“That is the issue that all of the sectors should sit down to discuss calmly, with each side compromising as necessary, in order to achieve social peace,” he said. Otherwise, he warned, violence will spread out of control in the country.

Fogel said that underlying the deaths in Curuguaty are growing inequalities that marginalise peasants from development.

The conflict over land ownership is one of the most complex and thorny aspects of this marginalisation, in a country where over one-third of the population is rural, and there is no real solution in sight due to the lack of political will among the different branches of government, he said.

“The judicial system doesn’t leave any avenue open for the recovery of ill-gotten land and for the start of a truly transparent process with respect to land titles and other aspects,” he said.

The latest agricultural census, carried out in 2008, found that 85.5 percent of the farmland is in the hands of just 2.06 percent of the population of Paraguay.

The CVJ found that 6.75 million hectares of land were illegally sold or handed over during the Stroessner regime, and one million in the following 15 years – in other words, 64 percent of the land sold or distributed between 1954 and 2008; 33 percent of all farmland; and 19 percent of the national territory.

Fogel also mentioned another factor: “the hatred of poor Paraguayans, of campesinos (peasants), especially among the elite,” in a country where 2.6 million people, out of a total population of 6.4 million, still live in rural areas.

In response to the killings, Lugo has now handed national security and its large budget to the opposition, ahead of the elections.

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