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PARAGUAY
Forced off the land
Mike Ceaser
2/1/2002
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Campesinos protest inequitable land distribution.

Each fall, the heat breaks, the crops come in and the campesino protests begin. In Paraguay, marches and land invasions are almost as regular as the seasons.

The source of dissatisfaction in the countryside is simple: lack of land. Paraguay has never carried out a land reform, and many of its leaders have purchased loyalty by distributing the best land to their supporters. Today, 30 percent of the rural population has no land at all, and 60 percent holds only 6.6 percent, according to United Nations statistics.

Along with the lack of land, Paraguay’s campesinos endure social problems such as high rates of infant mortality, illiteracy and malnutrition, as well as endemic poverty. According to government statistics, 45 percent of Paraguay’s population is rural, and 40 percent of rural residents live in extreme poverty.

Protesting campesinos who marched to Asunción, the capital, last May set up camp on the plaza outside government buildings. Police dislodged them on Nov. 19, but some demonstrators then took up residence in the alcoves of the cathedral, which adjoins the plaza.

Dominga Cabrera, a campesino leader from the department of Cordillera, who participated in the protest, said campesinos have little access to farmland.

"A few rich and powerful people hold nearly all the land," she said. "We poor people have nothing. During the period of the dictatorship they just put up fences. They didn’t need land titles."

Digno Britez Pérez, a lawyer with the Committee of Churches, who specializes in campesino issues, called the campesinos’ situation "anguished" and said it is worsening. "Before, they could eat three times a day, but now they eat only once a day," he said. "They’re moving toward extreme poverty."

The Committee of Churches supports education in sustainable farming techniques for campesinos and is lobbying for a law that would provide for limited land reform.

Although Paraguayan campesinos feel abandoned and betrayed by the government, officials insist that they are making efforts. The Technical Unit for Implementation of Projects (UTEP), part of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry’s rural development program, was created after protests last March.

UTEP Coordinator Geraldo López said that his agency, with a US$30-million fund provided by Congress but managed by the United Nations, has invested millions of dollars in land purchases, projects such as potable water systems and rural electrification, and smaller development efforts managed by campesinos.

The UTEP has also purchased 160,000 hectares of land and distributed them to land-poor families, he said, adding that UTEP projects have benefited about 45,000 campesino families.

But López said the solution does not lie in just giving away land.

"With land alone, nothing gets done," he said. "In order to develop, they need technical training and loans — integrated agricultural reform."

While the Committee of Churches supports limited land reform, Britez Pérez agrees that unless campesinos have training, land is of little benefit. Meanwhile, some campesino groups have staged land takeovers that sometimes have ended in fatal confrontations with authorities.

One of the longest land battles ended last April, when campesinos who had squatted for years on indigenous lands finally moved after the government gave them their own land. The campesinos claimed that large landowners leave good farmland idle while small farmers lack enough land to support their families.

The Paraguayan Rural Association, which represents large landowners, has condemned the land takeovers and called for the government to punish both those who carry them out and the leaders of organizations that promote them.

Representatives of the Catholic Church, however, have supported the principle behind the campesinos’ cause.

The Rev. José Miguel Ortega, provincial superior of the Jesuits in Paraguay, said unused land should belong to those who want to work it.

"Higher than the title to property or the fence is the law of God, and land that is unused and not worked belongs by right to those who want to work it," he said.

Discontent among ampesinos has also been heightened by the arrival of groups of foreigners, particularly Mennonites, who own large tracts of land in the Chaco region. Another controversial case was the purchase by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church of about 400,000 hectares of Chaco land for an undisclosed purpose (LP, Oct. 30, 2000).

The deep-rooted poverty and landlessness in the countryside have caused some campesinos to move onto land unsuitable for farming, accelerating Paraguay’s deforestation and erosion. Landlessness has also propelled mass migration from the countryside to cities, where new arrivals have lined riversides and railroad tracks with houses built of boards, plastic sheeting and cardboard.

Three years ago, Marcial Muñoz, 28, left his home in San Pedro, in central Paraguay, and moved to Asunción. He now resides in a squatter neighborhood wedged between downtown and the Paraguay River.

While Muñoz’s parents have 40 hectares of land, on which they grow cotton for market and food crops for sustenance, he said that because of declining cotton prices and a lack of government assistance, there is not enough land to support his parents’ 11 children.

"We work a lot, but we get nothing out of it," he said. "Life in the countryside is very hard."

Muñoz now works as a messenger for a Catholic parish, earning enough to support himself, his partner and their daughter, as well as send money home to his parents. Although he has found life easier in the city, it is still precarious.

"If you have steady work, then life is better," he said. "But if not, things are different. And nowadays, there is no work."

 


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