The campesino struggle for land and President Lugo’s halfhearted effort to take a stand as a handful of omnipresent agroindustries make their mark on Paraguayan society and its economy.
After 35 years of Alfredo Stroessner’s brutal dictatorship (1954-1989) and six decades of wasted opportunity under the authoritarian Colorado Party rule, Fernando Lugo’s presidential victory in 2008 marked a historic breakthrough for Paraguay. While campaigning, then-Bishop Lugo characterized himself as the “bishop for the poor,” and was successful in giving hope to Paraguay’s indigenous and disadvantaged communities. However, after two years in office, comparatively little has been done to address the promised redistribution of land to landless farmers as well as the rising tensions between campesinos and large monocrop (primarily soy) producers.
There is no doubt that land reform is the single most important political issue in the country today, yet this controversial subject is far from being adequately addressed, let alone resolved. This is due to the complexity of seizing control of Paraguay’s principal source of economic activity and effectively tackling outside investments by the handful of self-serving multinational enterprises that have impinged on the country. By examining the conflict associated with the newfound bonanza that soy has created and the transnational companies behind its cultivation and export, it will become apparent that the very people who should have the final say over soy production are Paraguayan campesinos, the very ones presently getting pushed off their lands, with a virtually powerless Lugo looking on.
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On March 25, 2010, thousands of Paraguayan farmers marched the streets of Asunción to demand that President Lugo follow through on campaign promises. Farmers across the country, radicalized in their struggle to reverse the unfair treatment and violence exhibited by the local authorities and the police to campesinos and members of indigenous communities and to more effectively appeal for legal protection, have done so without much success. But they have had somewhat more success in being able to more effectively organize their increasingly visible protests. General Secretary of the National Campesino Federation (FNC) Odilón Espínola said, “We can’t speak of change if 80% of the fertile land in the country is in the hands of 1% of the population, while 85% of the campesino have access to only 6% of all the land.” As a result, Lugo is caught between two polarized groups: the campesino movement and Congress, where both sides of the political spectrum, consisting of a hostile Colorado Party majority and members of the Partido Liberal Radical Auténtico (PLRA) are forming an unholy alliance against Lugo. Members of the PLRA are beholden to the country’s land-owning elite, and are generally skeptical of Lugo’s well-intentioned actions. As icing on the cake, Lugo must also deal with the increasing tensions on the all-important Paraguay-Brazil border that looms in the background as Lugo and President Lula further discuss the logistics of energy consumption by the Itaipu bi-national power plant.
Since soybeans were first introduced into Paraguay in 1921, the country has become the world’s fastest-growing producer of the commodity and is now the world’s fourth largest exporter of the crop. According a May 11th LatinNews report, “in the first quarter of 2010 exports rose 27% year-on-year at US$1.1bn, up from US$880m in the first quarter of 2009,” and “soya exports in the first quarter were up by 35% year-on-year at US$705m.” Soy export revenues are likely to rise in the coming months as shipping begins. Due to an increased demand for meat and cattle feed in China and the rising agro-fuel industry in Europe, the soy industry has grown exponentially, creating an adverse effect on the country’s small farmers.
Every year, about 9,000 rural families are evicted due to soy production on large spreads of land, and the numbers of (100,000 and growing) landless families in Paraguay have been forced to migrate to urban slums by violence or chicanery by soy farmers who force these families to sell their land at a minuscule cost. According to the article, “Soy: A Hunger for Land,” freelance photographer, Evan Abramson who did a piece on Paraguay for the NACLA, found that 85% of the soy produced in the country is genetically modified and should be considered to be unsuitable for human consumption. Additionally, soy cultivation utilizes over 6 million gallons of pesticides and herbicides, which the World Health Organization classifies as extremely hazardous. These include 2,4-D, Gramoxone, Paraquat, Metamidofos, and Endusulfa. This intake comes as no surprise, considering the widespread complaints of headaches, nausea, skin rashes, vision problems, respiratory infections, high cancer rates and suspiciously elevated incidents of birth defects and miscarriages to be found in the surrounding communities.
The BBC World Service Programmes did a Monday May 3rd documentary on the “Price of Biofuels,” where commentator Gerry Northam traveled to Paraguay to get a firsthand account with the country’s soy conflict. In looking out at the vast sea of soy fields, Northam asked one of the leaders of the agrarian and popular movement what he feels when he looks into the opaqueness; the campesino’s response was, “We are closer to death because this invasion is invading our lives as human beings, and no human being can live surrounded by poison, and this is what we are doing, we are fighting but its difficult to live […] when I see all the fields, I think this is an attempt against life.”
It is no coincidence that the soy industry has grown in tandem with the increased violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities. Since the overthrow of the Stroessner regime in 1989, more than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated, yet only one of those cases has been investigated and the killer convicted. Large soy producers have hired security teams and have collaborated with local police to ensure that the organization of small-scale Paraguayan farmers who have the courage to stand their ground and fight for their rights are brutally suppressed. After three years of escalating conflict in 2008, Tomás Zayas, head of the Association of Alto Paraná Farmers (ASAGRAPA), the National Center of Peasant, Indigenous and Popular Movement, and one of the most prominent campesino leaders, was arrested for “homicidal intent and criminal association.” Zayas’ detention came after a succession of peaceful protests to stop fumigating with the use of pesticides and herbicides on land that encompasses the campesino community of Leopoldo Perrier, after three-year-old Jesús Jiménez died from high levels of toxic pesticides in August of 2007.
Monsanto Plays Rough
Jiménez’s death is not an isolated incident according to studies conducted in 2008, which revealed that in the regional departments with the greatest soy production, 78% of families experienced members having health problems caused by the frequent crop spraying. Of those cases, 63% of resulting health problems were caused by contaminated water.
The Stroessner dictatorship created the foundation for privatization of campesino lands, liberalization of trade barriers, deregulation of environmental standards and land concentration. Now Monsanto, the world’s largest chemical corporation involved in the production of genetically modified (GM) soybeans, has developed mechanisms that, as Marie Trigona of Toward Freedom says, “make dictatorships an unnecessary luxury.” Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready System, its herbicide designed to oblige its exclusive use. Roundup then relies entirely on its herbicides for weed control, which tellingly has resulted in increases in Monsanto’s profits. The Roundup Ready System has proven to lead to serious health and land usage problems for local communities as a result of contaminated water sources, and the depletion of the soil’s nutrients, which has made it unsuitable for further cultivation.
U.S. Military Presence
The country’s biodiversity and an abundance of the world’s most precious resource, water, has made soy cultivation into an exploitive venture for U.S. agro-industry. The mention of “land reform” causes Washington to fear commercial setbacks to U.S.-owned business enterprises. It is no coincidence that, at the same time, U.S. military presence has been manifesting itself through civic action exercises and visits by U.S. National Guard training battalions to areas, where peasant organizations and genetically modified (GM) soy monoculture plantations are located and where agro-toxic fumigations take place. Three of the major agribusinesses operating in Paraguay—Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge and Cargill, and Monsanto—are U.S.-based transnational corporations. With U.S. economic interests in the country, U.S. military units are also periodically stationed there to protect such ventures. In her article “Police Repression and Presidential Promises: The Fight for Social Justice in Paraguay,” Lorena Rodriguez has posted data on the number of campesino deaths between 2002 and 2005 ascribable to U.S. presence and the nature of U.S. military forces present in the country, along with the locations of key campesino organizations. This analysis reveals disturbing data demonstrating the lengths that external geopolitical forces will go to protect their homeland’s economic interests, especially when it comes to U.S. transnational endeavors, including U.S. military efforts to safeguard Washington’s economic ventures in the country. San Pedro, home to four campesino organizations, had the highest number of U.S. military operations, as well as the most untoward deaths (18). In Alto Paraná, where ASGRAPA and six other organizations are located, three U.S. operations and 12 deaths in the three year period were witnessed. Despite the lack of attention drawn to these parallels, it is apparent that when U.S. economic ventures are involved, Washington will go considerably out of its way to protect them while disregarding the involvement of human lives involved.
According to Quintin Riquelme, author of Los Sin Tierra en Paraguay, Paraguayan and Brazilian landowners, including their speculators systematically have been buying up tiny land parcels from campesino families. This has simultaneously accelerated the process of land tenure concentration and increased the number of landless campesinos. Another important factor are the estimated 81,000 Brazilians living in Paraguay, predominately along the eastern border, many of whom are farmers who make up half of the major soy producers in Paraguay.
In 2003, campesinos in the Tekojoja settlement, home to the Tekojoja Popular Movement, first helped bring President Lugo into the public eye. He fought for their rights after nearly half of their 5,000 hectare community property was transformed into large private soy fields. Jorge Galeano, a Tekojoja community leader, was quoted as observing, “We calculated that 120 families had been expulsed because of the entrance of Brazilian farmers.” After this, soy producers began a violent campaign to force campesinos off their lands.
In fall 2008, conflict reached a boiling point in San Pedro, the poorest Paraguayan state, when peasants occupied farmlands owned by Brazilian landholders. At about the same time, in the midst of discussions between President Fernando and President Lula regarding Itaipú, the giant hydroelectric dam on the border of the two countries, Brazilian farmers asked President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to mediate the ongoing conflict with Paraguayan campesinos. On October 17, 2008, Brazil deployed 10,000 soldiers in a massive military operation known as Southern Border II. President Lugo assured the public that Brazil only wanted to negotiate peace between soybean farmers and campesinos, and the deployment of its military was only related to Itaipú dam. However, Brazil’s military maneuver, although on Brazilian soil, appears to have been more likely to have been a show of force intended to demonstrate its power in the region than a bucolic exercise.
Last year, President Lula agreed to triple its payments to Paraguay for energy from the Itaipú plant, finally ending a long dispute with Paraguay, but failing to resolve the conflict between campesinos and Brazilian farmers which has carried over to the present. On April 30, 2010 LatinNews stated that on April 29, José Acevedo, the mayor of Pedro Juan Caballero (a Paraguayan town that shares a border with Brazil) announced the deployment of 150 troops after his brother, Senator Roberto Acevedo, was wounded and survived an assassination attempt. Local authorities have expressed fear of an escalation of violence, while “Brasiguayos” (Brazilians living in Paraguay) have protested and claimed that they had been “expelled” from Paraguay. Both sides appear to be standing their ground, as the leaders of the two countries were scheduled to meet on May 3, 2010 to discuss the Itaipú power plant, as well as “discuss joint security measures… to prevent a further escalation of the conflict and to combat the criminal groups that operate in the area.”
The day after the presidential summit took place, Paraguay’s main newspaper sources printed headlines that concurred with the country’s public opinion, of having been taken advantage of by “imperialist” Brazil, “We don’t want handouts or generosity from Brazil; we only want what belongs to us”, was the basic declaration. ABC’s headline read, “Humillante manoseo a la dignidad de los paraguayos,” making Lugo responsible for violating their dignity and making the country out to be the beggar in the region. In fact, Brazil has failed to live up to past July 2009 promises of funding a new power line and bridge that would complement the Itaipú power plant, and instead is looking to Mercosur Structural Funds as an alternative. Discussion on the issues of security and conflict along the two countries’ border has not been reported; hence, ascertaining as to whether the ensuing land conflict was overlooked or completely disregarded is a continuing challenge.
Internal Congressional Conflict
President Lugo faces another battle with a congress that demonstrated, as LatinNews stated, “the inconsistency in the congressional opposition, and its mistrust of Lugo, behind whose every move it seems to see an ulterior motive to dissolve congress.” It can be understood that Lugo’s recent declaration for a “state of exception” for 30 days in five departments with the intentions of dismantling Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (EPP) as what the Paraguayan Human Rights Coordinating Group (CODEHUPY) believes, “to claim that an armed group of approximately ten individuals is producing an internal upheaval and justifies a state of emergency is to acknowledge the incapacity of the country’s security agencies.” Lugo’s use of the “state of exception” can be criticized, but one must understand how Congress has gone about their own maneuvers to question the policies of the president. Lugo’s request to declare a state of exception for 60 days in the departments of Concepción, San Pedro, Amambay, President Hayes and Alto Paraguay (areas heavily concentrated with soy production) was declined by Congress. Instead LatinNews reported that Congress “approved its own state of exception, which suspended a range of constitutional rights, outlaws public protests and permits the security forces to carry out arrests without warrants.” This correlates to the increasing soy conflict and reflects the business-government dichotomy caught up in the booming soy industry.
What Can Be Done?
President Lugo’s capacity for leadership is stagnated by current relations with Congress, and Brazil, resulting in hollow dialogue with regards to land distribution disputes. Political scientist, Marcelo Lacchi has written, “There is a fundamental error when Lugo is spoken of. He is compared to Correa, Chavez, Evo. But he should be compared to Carlos Mesa in Bolivia, Rafael Caldera in Venezuela, or in worst cases, with Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador.” Besides the transformed atmosphere of national pride that arrived with Lugo’s presidency, there is a sense of need for concrete change for the population – change that will be embodied in the rise of strong unions and visible social movements. In an interview concerning agrarian reform, Senator Pereira de Tekojoja has stated:
The first thing to do is [to…] identify public lands and recover them for the state. That is going to necessarily involve confrontation, because the landowners are not going to sit and do nothing. The truth is that there is still no room to raise the agriculture question, when the district attorney and judicial power remain intact. In addition, a large part of the government and opposition would block any attempt in Congress. In short, given the correlation of forces, I doubt that there is a state policy in this respect. That is why the social and popular movements have to actively organize and mobilize themselves for change.
Community organizers have become increasingly active and are making their voices heard, as was demonstrated in regards to the March 25, 2010 protest.
After Zayas was arrested in 2008, Dr. Martin Almada, an Alternative Nobel Winner for his work in education, human rights and solar energy, wrote a letter to then President Dr. Nicanor Duarte Fruto, addressing the recent incident and the campaign “Paren de Fumigar en Defensa de la Comunidad y de la Vida” (Stop the Spray in Defense of the Community and of Life). In his letter, Dr. Almada laid out three propositions and routes of action. Each of these centered on Article 4 of the Constitution that establishes “the right to life is inherent in the human person. Its protection is guaranteed in general, from conception,” as well as article 7 stipulating, “Everyone has the right to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment.” Under protections of the Constitution, campesino communities have been making appeals for legal protection in order to stop fumigations, mistreatment and unlawful arrests by the police in their communities and that vigilance has to be maintained and continue to have the support of the Paraguayan Human Rights Committee [Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay (CODEHUPY)].
Another alternative, although a controversial one, is how Argentina is placing taxes on soy exports in order to create a change in the way bio-technology and GM production separately effects food manufacturing, traditional small farmers, and the environment. In 2008, President Christina Fernadez de Kirchner placed a new tax on soy exports, raising levies up to 40%, in an effort to raise badly needed revenue, curb inflation and redistribute wealth. Angry Argentinean landholders participated in a nationwide strike; but despite the protest, President Kirchner’s move was pivotal because of the direct effect this levy would have on the soy industry.
Muffled End Game
On April 20, marking two years since his presidential triumph, President Lugo addressed a rally of 15,000 in an attempt to hold onto his popularity. Accusations of a possible coup have been thrown out, but Lugo struggles to take a stand alongside his people and follow through on his pledge of transparency and honesty. He has failed up to now to address the possibility of agrarian reform and where it may be on his agenda. In addition, the international community must hold Lugo responsible for his ineffective role in the protection of human rights in Paraguay. His apparent willingness to turn his back on the campesinos who initially supported him and propelled him to power, is nothing less than shameful and cannot be ignored. Paraguay needs to become less dependent on transnational investments and attention needs to be drawn to the concept of food sovereignty risks, and the need to be alert to such critical issues as the displacement of rural populations, degradation of soil and water systems, and the severe health threats that the population is routinely made to confront.