Pulling up the roots: the struggle for land in Paraguay

Paraguay, located in the heart of South America, is one of the most economically unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank. While the country is very reliant on agriculture, a lot of its inequality can be traced to the question of land distribution, which has become a root cause of internal conflict. However, inequality and conflict is nothing new for Paraguay. Since independence, Paraguay has gone through several bloody wars, the longest military dictatorship on the continent and a fragile democratization process. Today, the country’s political climate is strongly affected by a complex rural situation, where mass expansion of corporate monocultures is thriving and violent persecution of small farmers is systemic. 

The Paraguayan Context

Exploitation and interference by foreign and regional actors have characterized much of Paraguay’s history. After Paraguay gained independence from Spain in 1811, a period of economic prosperity followed. However, this progress was short-lived as the country got involved in regional conflicts.

The War of the Triple Alliance (1864-1870) against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay ended in mass slaughter, where the landlocked Paraguay lost two thirds of its population and around 40 % of its land. In the Chaco War (1932-1935), Paraguay fought Bolivia, but the war is often said to have been guided behind the scenes by the rival foreign oil companies Standard Oil and Shell Oil. A short civil war also followed a decade later. 

Between 1954 and 1989, Paraguay was ruled by the military dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner and his right-wing Colorado Party. Under Stroessner, there was widespread and ruthless persecution of political opposition and his party had close ties to wealthy landowners and held US support. 

He gave large parts of the country’s land to political allies and personal friends, creating a small, landowning elite. Stroessner was eventually overthrown in a 1989 coup by his colleague Andres Rodriguez. Elections were later held, but the 1990’s were characterized by a fragile democratic transition with a number of failed coup attempts. Several of Stroessner’s allies remained in government.

Alfredo Stroessner, military dictator of Paraguay from 1954 to 1989. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Paraguay’s current president Mario Abdo Benítez is the son of Stroessner’s former secretary. Since Stroessner’s takeover in 1954, the only exception to Colorado rule has been between 2008 and 2012, when the centre-left government of Fernando Lugo was in power. 

Lugo was impeached in 2012, a year before the end of his term, in what has been described as a parliamentary coup, and the Colorado Party returned to power. Democratization has not fundamentally changed the structure of Paraguayan society. The Colorado Party remains strong due to its close ties to the judicial system, wealthy landowners and the press. 

The Rural Situation

As a result of the Stroessner era, unequal land distribution is the biggest source of social conflict in Paraguay today. Large-scale GMO soy monocultures and corporate cattle farms have expanded dramatically in recent decades. Soy covers 80 % of the country’s agricultural land, and much of it is exported to Europe as animal feed. 95 percent of this soy consists of Monsanto’s so-called “Round-up Ready Soybean”. This soybean is genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, a strong herbicide that has been criticized for its impacts on health and the environment, often called “mata todo” (“kills everything”) in Paraguay. 

A common sight in rural Paraguay: a large-scale GMO soy field reaching beyond the horizon, this one in the eastern border region Alto Paraná. Many of the agribusiness corporations that grow the soy are from the US and Brazil and receive tax exemptions for this export-driven activity. Photo: Julian Dannefjord.

Corporate driven expansion of monocultures has caused rapid deforestation as well as contributed to land concentration. By 2008, 80 % of Paraguay’s land was concentrated to 1,6 % of the population. Meanwhile, there are 300,000 landless campesinos (small farmers), many of whom have been forced to leave the countryside to seek work in the cities. Many settle in slums built on wetlands on the outskirts of Asunción, the so-called Bañados, roughly translated “the flooded” due to regular flooding of these areas when water levels rise. 

The expansion of industrial agriculture is often cited as a main reason for Paraguay’s economic growth in recent years, but since its profits go to a small minority of landowners with tax exemptions, the country’s human development is the lowest in South America and the poverty level is 40 %.

A neighbourhood in Bañados Sur, the outskirts of Asunción. This is an area built on the riverbank and many of its residents are former campesinos. Social movements in Paraguay often include informal urban areas when discussing land rights, touching upon the need for social inclusion also within cities. Photo: Julian Dannefjord

Persecution of Campesinos

Land occupations are common in Paraguay and are often countered by the state with violent evictions and persecution of campesinos. Since Stroessner’s fall, at least 130 campesinos have been murdered. Indigenous groups are also threatened. Recently, eucalyptus monocultures have expanded into indigenous territories, leading to violence against resisting indigenous activists.

Two specific cases of indictment against campesinos in Paraguay have received international attention. These are Caso Curuguaty and Los seis campesinos. Caso Curuguaty was a massacre in 2012 during an occupation of 2,000 hectares of land called Marina Kue in Curuguaty, in the Canindeyú department in eastern Paraguay. The landless families that occupied the land were violently evicted, leading to confrontation and the deaths of 11 campesinos and 6 police officers. Police burned evidence after the massacre and the deaths of the campesinos were never investigated. 

Charges were pressed against several campesinos and 11 of them were imprisoned in Asunción’s infamous Tacumbú prison. This event was used by the parliament to impeach non-Colorado president Fernando Lugo in 2012, claiming he supported the occupation. In 2018, the Supreme Court claimed the Caso Curuguaty campesinos innocent and victims of a judicial error, which led to their release.

A tent on a square in front of the Supreme Court of Justice in Asunción in 2016, calling for the liberty of the political prisoners of Caso Curuguaty. In 2018, the prisoners had been released. Photo: Julian Dannefjord

The case of Los seis campesinos is about six campesino leaders from different parts of the country, accused of committing the murder of Cecilia Cubas in 2005, the daughter of former Colorado president Raúl Cubas Grau. The six have been imprisoned since 2006, serving 35-year sentences in Tacumbú prison. 

Five out of six were members of the Marxist organization Partido Patria Libre. They were convicted after a trial without evidence, only based on one government-paid witness, who gave contradictory statements. It has been counted that the Paraguayan Penal Code was violated 42 times during the trial. This has caused harsh criticism from human rights organizations in Paraguay, classifying it as a purely political trial. The six leaders remain in prison today.

Partido Patria Libre practically ceased to exist after being targeted by authorities. It is claimed that former members founded the rural guerilla group EPP, Ejército del Pueblo Paraguayo (Paraguayan People’s Army) in 2008, which is waging an insurgency against the government from the country’s north eastern departments

The low-intensity conflict flared up in September this year, when two 11-year old Argentinian girls, relatives of EPP fighters, were killed by the government’s anti-EPP force during an operation. Campesinos are also often accused of affiliation with the EPP during land conflicts – a familiar strategy for the government to legitimize repression. 

These cases are very representative of how Paraguay’s political, economic, and judicial sectors work together. They are all active in the conflict of land distribution. It is evident that this issue of inequality needs to be properly addressed. But it poses a tough question: when structures are this complex and deep-rooted, how does one begin to pull them up by their roots? 

Julian Dannefjord

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