by Benjamin Dangl
July 18, 2012
from AlterNet Website
Each bullet hole on the downtown Asunción, Paraguay light posts tells a story.
Some of them are from civil wars decades ago,
some from successful and unsuccessful coups, others from police crackdowns.
The size of the hole, the angle of the ricochet, all tell of an escape, a
death, another dictator in the palace by the river.
Here, a look at the history of Paraguay's
resource war for land, the events leading up to the coup, and the story of
one farming community’s resistance places land at the heart of nation’s
It was a victory against the injustice and
nightmare of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989), and a
new addition to the region’s left-leaning governments. The election of Lugo,
a former bishop and adherent to liberation theology, was due in large part
to grassroots support from the campesino (small farmer) sector and Lugo's
promise of long-overdue land reform.
Such challenges have impeded Lugo’s progress and
created a political and media environment dominated by near-constant attacks
and criticism toward Lugo.
He was therefore isolated from above at the
political level, and lacked a strong political base below due to his stance
toward social movements and the slow pace of land reform. None the less,
many leftist and campesino sectors still saw Lugo as a relative ally and
source of hope in the face of the right wing alternative.
This land is owned by former Colorado Senator Blas N. Riquelme, one of the richest people and largest landowners in the country. In 1969, the Stroessner administration illegally gave Riquelme 50,000 hectares of land that was supposed to be destined to poor farmers as a part of land reform.
Since the return to democracy in 1989, campesinos have been struggling to gain access to this land.
The April occupation of land was one such
attempt. On June 15, security forces arrived in Curuguaty to evict the
landless settlement. The subsequent confrontation during the eviction (the
specific details of which are still
shrouded in confusion) led to the death
of 17 people, including 11 campesinos and 6 police officers. Eighty people
In response to critics,
Lugo replaced his
Interior Minister with Colorado Party member Candia Amarilla, a former State
Prosecutor known for his criminalization of leftist social and campesino
groups, and who was trained in Colombia to export Plan Colombia-style
policies to Paraguay. Lugo also made the Police Commissioner Moran Arnaldo
Sanabria (who was in charge of the Curuguaty operation) the National
Director of Police.
He was accused of encouraging landless farmers'
occupations, poor performance as president, and failing to bring about
social harmony in the country. Lugo stepped down and Vice President and
Liberal Party leader Federico Franco took his place. New elections are now
scheduled to take place in April of 2013.
Unsurprisingly, the Organization of American States decided to not suspend Paraguay’s membership in the group because, according to OAS secretary general Jose Miguel Insulza, doing so would create further problems in the country and isolate it regionally.
This is the second such coup in the region in
recent years; in June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was
While Lugo failed to meet many of his campaign promises to the campesino sector, he did in fact work to block many of the right’s policies that would worsen the crisis in the countryside. For example, Lugo and his cabinet resisted the use of Monsanto’s transgenic cotton seeds in Paraguay, a move that likely contributed to his ouster.
Yet even before Lugo was elected, political alliances and victories were shaped by the question of land.
Multinational agro-industrial corporations are
fully entrenched in Paraguayan politics, and their fundamental enemies in
this resource war have always been the Paraguayan campesino.
Paraguay is the fourth largest producer of soy
in the world, and
soy makes up 40 percent of Paraguayan exports and 10
percent of the country’s GDP.
An estimated twenty million liters of
agrochemicals are sprayed across Paraguay each year, poisoning the people,
water, farmland and livestock that come in its path.
International financial institutions and development banks have promoted and bankrolled the agro-export business of monoculture crops - much of Paraguayan soy goes to feed animals in Europe.
The profits have united political and corporate
entities from Brazil, the US, and Paraguay, and increased the importance of
Paraguay’s cooperation with international businesses.
While more than a hundred campesino leaders have been assassinated in this time, only one of the cases was investigated with results leading to the conviction of the killer. In the same period, more than two thousand other campesinos have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance to the soy industry.
The vast majority of Paraguayan farmers have
been poisoned off their land either intentionally or as a side effect of the
hazardous pesticides dumped by soy cultivation in Paraguay every year.
Beginning in the 1990s, as farmers saw their animals dying, crops withering,
families sickening, and wells contaminated, most packed up and moved to the
A report produced by the Committee of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of the United Nations stated that,
The expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities who occupy the vast land holdings of the wealthy.
Most rural Paraguayans cultivate diverse
subsistence crops on small plots of ten to twenty hectares, but do not have
titles to their land nor do they typically receive assistance from the
state. The Paraguayan government has historically represented the soy
growers in this conflict by using the police and judicial system to punish
Hawkers came on the bus selling sunglasses,
radios, and pirated DVDs. Particularly dedicated salesmen gave impassioned
speeches about the superior characteristics of their product, pushing
samples onto the unwilling and bored passengers. One sales pitch promised
that garlic pills could cure insomnia and cancer.
The bus fought its way over the deep potholes,
the engine reaching a fevered pitch, and every one of its metal bones
rattling along with those of its passengers.
A land and farmer rights activist, Roa’s shirt portrayed plants breaking through a bar code. Inside her house, the walls were covered with anti-soy and anti-GMO posters. She pulled up plastic chairs for us in front of the garden with bright stars as a backdrop, and began talking.
Roa spent 2000–2002 in Asunción studying to be a
nurse, and had worked as one in a nearby town. At the time of our visit, in
April of 2009, she was dedicated exclusively to activism in her community.
As Paraguayan folk music played on the radio, and moths bounced around the
lights, Roa told us the story of her community and its fight against GMO
In the 1990s, Brazilian soy farmers - with armed thugs, lawyers,
and political connections to protect them - gradually expanded onto the
community’s land, forcing a series of violent evictions of the farming
families. In 2003, the MAP began to recover the lands taken from them by
Brazilians, but corrupt judges and the mercenaries hired by soy producers
kept pushing the farmers off their land.
A statement from the MAP described this brutal act:
The campesinos’ houses and crops were destroyed and they had no assurances that the Brazilians would not orchestrate another eviction. Still, as most had no place to go, the community members decided to persevere, staying on the land and fighting for legal recognition as the owners.
But again at 4 a.m. on June 24, 2005, the Brazilians and police attacked the community.
In this standoff between the thugs, police, and unarmed campesinos, two farmers, who the Brazilians mistakenly identified as MAP leaders and brothers Jorge and Antonio Galeano, were killed by gunfire.
One of the victims was Angel Cristaldo Rotela, a
23 year old who was about to be married, and had just finished building his
own home the day before the police burned it to the ground. The wife of
Leoncio Torres, the other victim, was left a widow with eight children. A
memorial stands in the center of the community in memory of the fallen
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that the land should go to the local farmers, and as part of the reparations for the violence the community suffered, President Nicanor Frutos commissioned the building of forty-eight homes.
The plight of Tekojoja sheds light on the
situation many farming communities are finding themselves in across
Paraguay. While the residents of Tekojoja remain on their land, many others
are forced to flee to slums in the city as soy producers push them off their
The victory of Tekojoja was due to the tenacity of the farmers who refused to leave their land for the false promise of rich city life.
But their fight is far from over. Though they
tore the soy plants out of their land, residents live sandwiched between
seemingly limitless expanses of soy, and they, their animals, and their
crops continue to suffer from exposure to toxic pesticides.
A neighboring community activist invited us to
his house to start the day with Paraguayans’ essential beverage, yerba mate
served hot in the morning and specially prepared with coconut and rosemary.
We sat in his kitchen as the sun streamed through the cracks between the
boards in the wall, illuminating ribbons of smoke from the fire, while his
children and pigs played on the dirt floor.
We walked toward the fields until the sweet,
toxic odor grew stronger. We passed one tractor very closely as clouds of
the pesticides drifted toward us. I began to feel a disorienting sensation
of dizziness and nausea. My eyes, throat and lungs burned and my head ached,
something the locals go through on a daily basis. The physical illness
caused by the pesticides contributes to breaking down the campesino
Mounted somewhat precariously on the back of a few mopeds, we bounced along the dirt roads, which petered out into paths to another cluster of homes. On our way there, we passed one Brazilian who glared at us until we were out of sight.
Roa knew him:
The fact that he was still free added insult to injury.
And if the locals were to accuse him, said Roa, or even yell at the Brazilian murderers, police would show up and haul them off to jail.
The moped rolled to a stop in front of Virginia Barrientos’ home, a few miles from Roa’s, directly bordering a soy field.
The land Barrientos lived on for the past four years is a peninsula jutting into the sea of soy. She occupied her land, which used to be covered with soy, in February of 2005 and won legal ownership to it.
But life since gaining the land has been far from easy; pesticides have terrorized her family since they moved there.
Her thin children were gathered with her on the porch of the home.
Barrientos said the pesticides affected her plants and animals as well, making some of the crops that do actually grow taste too bitter to eat.
Her pigs’ newborn babies died, and the chickens were ill. Part of the problem, she pointed out, is that the Brazilian soy farmers intentionally choose to fumigate during strong winds which blow the poison onto her land.
We passed dead corn stalks on the way to her well, which she insisted on showing us.
It was located at the end of a long field of
soy, so that the runoff from the field dripped into the well, concentrating
the pesticides in her only water source. The family lives in a poisoned
misery, while the soy producer responsible for it lives in comparative
luxury away from his fields.
Barrientos stood in front of her house while breastfeeding her baby as chickens pecked at peanuts in the yard.
Her children stared at us with wide eyes.
While Lugo’s inability and unwillingness to sufficiently address such hardships was a betrayal of this grassroots sector, the recent coup against Lugo was also a coup against hope, a coup against Barrientos and her children, Roas and her neighbors, and the hundreds of thousands of farmers struggling the countryside.
Behind this coup lies the vast land, some of it poisoned, some still fertile, and much of it tear and blood-soaked.
Until the demand of land justice is realized, there will be no peace in Paraguay, regardless of who sleeps in the presidential palace.