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Paraguayan soy farmers in a vice
Hernán Scandizzo
8/15/2006
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Argentina, Brazilian and Uruguayan businesses promote monoculture in Paraguay.

Poverty and social protest have become a crime for some in Paraguay, campesino organization members said at the first Forum of Resistance against Agrobusinesses in Buenos Aires this past June. Participants linked pressure for monoculture of lucrative soy crops to such supression.

Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest soy exporter. There are currently 2.1 million hectares (5 million acres) of soy crops, and according to estimates published in the Argentine daily Clarín soy crop surface area could reach 7 million hectares (17 million). Between 1989 and 2004, soy production quadrupled, and small producers were gradually sold — or were forced to hand over — their lands, many of which were owned by indigenous and campesino communities.

Campesino

groups highlighted the promotion of soy monoculture in Paraguay, as well as in Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil, that requires vast farmlands and high investment, cutting small-scale subsistence farmers out of the picture.

"Twenty-five percent of Paraguay’s population lives in extreme poverty, and 48 percent is poor, and the principal cause of this is massive soy farming," said Catalino Melgarejo, press secretary of the Agrarian Popular Movement, a nationwide campesino organization in Paraguay.

"This invader seed is developing modern business agriculture and creating a very grave social problem: the expulsion of campesinos from their lands. Soy cultivation expands 250,000 hectares per year, which is equivalent to the expulsion of 90,000 campesinos from their lands each year," he said.

Campesinos

faced with little choice

"This is criminalizing poverty," Melgarejo added. If a campesino needs land, he or she has no way to buy it and goes to occupy land, then he or she is already a criminal … they’re thought of as criminal groups."

According to campesino leaders, they are harassed by government security forces, especially by the Citizens’ Security and Defense Commissions and Civilian Guards, as the armed civilian groups promoted by the Interior Ministry are called.

"The government is against us," said Magui Balbuena, leader of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement and the National Coordinating Committee of Women Rural and Indigenous Workers. "It has developed intense smear campaigns against the [campesino] leaders and their organizations, and has created a pact between the business owners and the armed forces, police … against campesino organizations, unleashing permanent and constant repression, with a strategy designed by the government of [President] Nicanor Duarte Frutos."

Tomás Zayas, leader of an umbrella group of Paraguayan indigenous, campesino, and popular organizations says that sectors of the ruling Colorado party have conspired to say he leads a supposed subversive, armed group. "Those [Brazilian and Paraguayan] plantation owners continue to strengthen their mercenary armies, armed, hired civilians, many of them from Brazil, who operate with complete impunity," he said.

According to a May report by the Argentina-based Rural Reflexion Group, which is linked to Paraguayan campesino organizations, "in the last months these [armed] groups, estimated to include 13,000 members, have killed approximately 10 campesinos in the San Pedro [northeast of Asunción] alone."

Businesses receive special treatment

The report stated that break-ins, torture and detentions were reported in the area.

"Currently the military and the police are providing security for people who have money, the business owners. The government asks itself, ‘What are we going to do with the rest of the population?’ Then the interior minister answers, ‘Let’s create the Neighborhoods’ Security Commissions,’" stated Melgarejo.

"The Citizen Security Guard is more numerous than the police force, and they’re armed and creating anxiety in the communities," Balbuena said. "It’s a deadly threat because you’re confronting your neighbor, another campesino like you."

Zayas says that the Citizen Security Guards are an invention of the Interior Minister Rogelio Benítez with help from the Colombian embassy, as Paraguayan authorities have been advised that it would be imprudent to underestimate the power of the supposed Paraguayan "guerrillas", which they claim are aided by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerillas.

"The Colombian embassy has an ideological task, and [Paraguay’s] Attorney General recently traveled to Colombia for training on how to catch, detain and punish insurgents, which don’t even exist in Paraguay, except in their heads," said Zayas.

Zayas claims that Paraguay’s president planted the suspicion that FARC guerrillas were aiding campesinos in 2002, when he accused members of the opposition Partido Patria Libre political party of extortion and kidnapping with aid from the Colombian insurgents.

But Paraguay’s military seems to have a more active agenda than the supposed-insurgents. In early 2005, 18 military bases were created in the department of Alto Parana in San Pedro, Caaguazu and Caazapa, towns known for strong campesino mobilizations.

Paraguayan social organizations have blamed Brazilian business owners for the negative impacts of soy monoculture on these populations.

Despite the tense situation, Argentine and Uruguayan business owners have invested heavily in Paraguay thanks to the promise of high profits, and the low price of land in the country.

"Our country is practically occupied, invaded. Our lands were usurped — our best lands — by agroexporters that are dedicated to this business," Balbuena said.


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