In Paraguay, where 1 percent of the population owns 77 percent of all arable land, corrupt agrarian reform and the booming soybean industry is leading the country towards an industrial agricultural export model that leaves no room for small food producers. While many Paraguayan campesino [small farmer] families have moved into urban peripheries, tenacious farmers have fought not only for their right to land, but also to redefine and recreate the agricultural model based on cooperative, organic and people-friendly alternatives. As newly elected President Fernando Lugo moves to make good on campaign promises, the proposals of Paraguayan farming movements themselves already point the way to sustainable change.
Land Reform in Paraguay: A Prostituted Fight
Across Latin America, incomplete or corrupt agrarian reforms have left farmers fighting for their right to grow food for themselves. Agrarian reform has been attempted in Paraguay since independence, but most would agree with the statement of a recent columnist that Paraguay’s fight for land has been "completely prostituted."
After Independence in 1811, maverick dictator Dr. de Francia seized control of all property of the Roman Catholic Church and created largely successful communal farms on the nationalized lands. However, Dr. de Francia and his successors’ isolationist trade policies angered the British, who instigated the War of the Triple Alliance, in which Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay fought Paraguay and completely decimated the country. The Paraguayan government was crippled with war debt, and new leaders liquidated its land holdings, which at that time were 95% of the country. Political cronies and wealthy foreigners became Paraguay’s new ‘landed gentry.’ An incomplete and corrupt agrarian reform conducted by the Colorado dictator Alfredo Stroessner left most campesinos landless, occupying unused land for subsistence farming.
Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, was born in 1951 and grew up in a family opposed to the Stroessner dictatorship and his three brothers were exiled. As a young man he taught in a remote rural school "so remote that he was able to escape the usual rule that teachers had to be members of the Colorado Party." After he became a priest in 1977, he worked as a missionary in Ecuador, then studied at the Vatican and returned to Paraguay in 1982 and became the Bishop of the San Pedro province. His support for landless families’ occupations of large estates put him in conflict with the Catholic hierarchy.
In 2006 he led a march of nearly 50,000 Paraguayans in Asuncion against then-president Nicanor Duarte’s plan to change the constitution to allow a second run for president. Lugo was catapulted into the national political scene and social movements requested that he run for president. On August 15, Lugo assumed the presidency of Paraguay and all the challenges that it is currently facing. His election marked the end of the official rule of the Colorado Party, but leaves its legacy of corruption, clientilism and violent repression. Indeed, the sector of Paraguayan society that has the most to gain or lose from Lugo’s presidency is the dwindling and often criminalized campesino population. Nowhere is the need for change more urgent than in the Paraguayan countryside.
The Agricultural Export Industry: A Poisonous Green Desert
In eastern Paraguay, farmers once grew diverse crops and raised a variety of livestock intermingled with the necessary shade and fruit-bearing trees of the biologically diverse Interior Atlantic Forest. However, today only 5-8% of that forest remains. The land now most closely resembles the rolling hills of a green desert. Brazilian industrial farmers selling to companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge have literally invaded eastern Paraguay, buying up land bit by bit, and strong-arming farmers to grow monoculture crops for export, such as soy, corn, and cotton. For those who are familiar with the term "banana republic," it is not at all an exaggeration to say that Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Argentina have become "soy republics."
Soy production has increased exponentially in recent years due to rising demand worldwide for animal feed, as well as the ecologically defrauded, but still booming, agrofuel industry. In Paraguay especially, the expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities. Indebted farmers have been bullied into growing soy in exchange for loans. Farmers who live next to the soy fields are driven away by the chemicals, which kill their crops, animals and cause illnesses. Since the first soy boom, the industry has evicted almost 100,000 small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities.
Mechanized production meant that even those who stayed to work in the soy fields soon lost their jobs to tractors and combines. Entire communities have fled to the cities to be street vendors and live in the exploding semi-urban slums around large cities. Farmers who refused to leave their land have been targeted. More than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated, and more than 2,000 others have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance.
Saying No To Soy: Triumph and Equal Terms
From the beginning of the soy boom, Paraguayan farmers have fought back. In spite of the arrests and assassinations, remaining campesino communities have become increasingly organized and radicalized. In January 2008, one hundred campesino residents of the Ybypé community in the province of San Pedro were able to physically block the crop spraying of a new soy field in their community. Communities are making appeals for legal protection, which have been backed by the Paraguayan Human Rights Committee [Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay (CODEHUPY)], which focus public attention on soy growers’ lack of observance of means of protection, such as the installation of live barriers like tall bushes or other plants to block the drift of soy field pesticides the into community lands. Farmers’ attempts have not always been so successful. In 2004, residents of the Ypecuá community were beaten and killed for attempting to block spraying.
Various campesino organizations have joined forces to fight the violence and criminalization experienced by their members. The Front for Sovereignty and Life is made up of the National Workers’ Center, the Authentic Unitarian Center of Workers, the Permanent Popular Plenary, the Coordinating Table of Campesino Organizations, the National Campesino Organization, and the National Coordinator for Life and Sovereignty. Some groups have taken the next step and are working not only to stop the fumigations and criminalization, but to create alternative models of agriculture.
The main community that brought Lugo into the presidential limelight is the Tekojoja settlement, located 70 km from the city of Caaguazu. The community is part of the many campesino movements, and its campesino organization, the Popular Agrarian Movement (MAP) has also promoted the Tekojoja Popular Movement of which was Lugo is head. The Tekojoja Movement also saw gains in congress in the recent elections.
Tekojoja, meaning "equal terms" in Guaraní, is one of the peasant settlements recovered during the land reform, a land settlement of 500 hectares where 56 peasant families live. In 2003, residents began to organize against soy producers invading the community. Nearly half of 5,000 hectare community lands had become soy fields. According to community leader Jorge Galeano, it was "a terrible period for us, every day we witnessed how 7 to 8 families were leaving their land. We calculated that 120 families had been expulsed because of the entrance of the Brazilian producers." Residents complained, but INDERT, the land reform institution, made contracts granting the lands to Brazilian soy producers.
In 2003, campesinos forcefully reoccupied their lands, but they were served an eviction order in 2004, which resulted in the burning of 46 houses and the destruction of 20 hectares of crops. According to community members, "after the tractors had destroyed our crops, they came with their big machines and started immediately to sow soy while smoke was still coming out from the ashes of our houses. Next day we came back with oxen and replanted all the fields over the prepared land. When the police came, we faced them with our tools and machetes, we were around 70 people and were ready to confront them. In the end they left." In 2005, soy producers evicted 400 and killed 2 community members, and since that time, the community has repeatedly denounced illegal and inappropriate use of agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.
Another determined agricultural community is part of the Association of Alto Paraná Farmers (ASAGRAPA), a campesino organization that works the eastern province of Alto Paraná, one of the principle zones of production of genetically modified soy in Paraguay. It is a regional chapter of the CNOCIP, the National Center of Indigenous and Popular Organizations, but in many ways it leads the organization. Tomas Zayas, the leader of the (ASAGRAPA) and the (CNOCIP) has been a senatorial and presidential candidate for the Workers’ Party. While the goals of CNOCIP and ASAGRAPA have changed over time, their main focus now is the danger of the growing green desert of soy. In this context, it started the "Stop the Fumigation: In defense of Communities and Life" campaign in December of 2007.
While many campesino organizations in Paraguay share the vision of ‘agroecology,’ Zayas believes that the movement needs a "philosophical and theoretical framework so that it can become a project not only of resistance, but of the construction of a new society that prioritizes human life." ASAGRAPA promotes small scale organic farming of a diversity of crops for self-supply, and community ownership of land to protect farmers from isolation and land speculation and fumigation. The organization also challenges hierarchies and gender roles within itself and rural live. Nidia Fernandez, secretary general of ASAGRAPA, sees her work in the organization as an opportunity to change gender relations in rural communities as well as fighting for sustainable agriculture.
In 1989, Zayas helped found the community where the Ramírez family now lives, a community with vision. El Triunfo [The Triumph] is a community formed by farmers involved in ASAGRAPA, and is designed to prove that small-scale, non-chemical agriculture is possible. When I visited El Triunfo in February of 2007, the shady agricultural town seemed like an oasis in the soy desert. Each family has two parcels: one in the residential center for their house and small gardens, and another for larger fields of crops. Over the years, the community has built a health clinic, school, and soccer field. The community started as a squat, and has been attacked several times by what the farmers call the local "soy mafia."
The land is communally owned and the charter does not allow farmers to sell their land. If they decide to leave, the community assumes possession and can give the land to a new member. Members see the formation of a democratically-led collective (Minga, in Guaraní) with indivisible and non-transferable ownership of land as the only way to ensure that members do not sell their land to soy growers, subjecting the community to fumigations and pressure to grow soy. While all farmers may choose what to grow on their land and may sell some of their produce, they must use their land to plant diverse crops for their own consumption without pesticides.
ASAGRAPA reaches out to communities in Alto Paraná that need to defend their land physically or legally, or want to learn more about its organic "agro-ecological" model. "It has been difficult to convince people," said Zayas. "They are told that you can’t grow anything without chemicals, that you need to grow soy to make money, and then we show them that soy and agro-toxins are killing us, and people are unsure. They don’t want to take risks. But every year it becomes more obvious that soy only benefits the big businesses." When communities decide that they do want to stop growing soy, they face more challenges. The pesticides used to grow soy are so toxic that after a few seasons of growing soy, microorganisms in the soil die, the soil compacts, and vital nutrients are lost. ASAGRAPA shows farmers how to use plants with deep, strong roots to reclaim and aerate the destroyed fields. In 2007 ASAGRAPA used a grant from the European Union to help farmers plant fruit orchards on their land.
In March of 2008, the Worker’s Party published a Proposal for Agrarian Reform, which draws on a model of agrarian ownership as created in El Triunfo. It calls for the "confiscation of large estates, without compensation, and delivery of the land to campesinos." The Worker’s Party writes that it has pulled out of the fight to give land to poor campesinos, but that they will "work within the fight with two axes that point in the direction of even more integral change." They see the occupation of land by cooperatives as the only viable way for campesinos to gain property. Their declaration reads "The conquest of land will only come through the force of our organization, mobilization and fight, never through the good will of bourgeois governments." They call for an end to the use of pesticides and the nationalization of all large agro-export businesses. "Right now," they write, "the campesino is a stranger in his own land because the countryside is bought up by foreign businesses. The monocultivation of soy is directly commercialized by the multinationals, which have also appropriated the business of agricultural products and seeds." The proposal also calls for the creation of a national production program of food security, and sovereignty over natural resources, that promotes sustainable agriculture geared toward ending hunger and creating campesino farming communities.
State Prospects for Agricultural Change
The campesino struggle has gained strength and press over the past few years, and in the build up to the election, presidential candidates postured themselves either against soy expansion or in favor of it. A large part of Lugo’s base is made up of farmers who have been hurt by the industrial soy companies, and Lugo promised them comprehensive land reform.
In the first month of his presidency, Lugo has started to make good on several campaign promises. Lugo recently went to Brazil to demand a renegotiation of the countries’ contract over the Itaipu Dam, and, with Brazilian president Lula da Silva, ordered officials to address Paraguay’s concerns soon. By the end of August, Lugo had replaced the leaders of the country’s army, navy, military and police, and promised that the military’s main work in the future would be to perform humanitarian acts to benefit the poor. Less reported on was the new Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Candido Vera Bejarano, who said that technical support and agrarian reform would be the ministry’s new goals. However, taking on the giants of Brazil and the military might prove to be the easier of his Herculean tasks. Land reform will be the ultimate test of the ‘Bishop of the Poor’s’ political strength and his commitment to Paraguayans.
On September 8, Agriculture minister Vera Bejarano announced two parts of the reform program, which he hopes to present to Congress in the form of a bill by the end of the year. One strategy to prevent conflicts between industrial soy growers and peasent farmers will be soy-growing bans on state lands dedicated to small scale farming.
Another proposal, sure to cause conflict, is taxing soy exports. Bejarano said that the government will try to negotiate a tax with producers, in hopes of avoiding clashes like those seen in Argentina this past spring. Argentina was the first country in the Southern Cone to tax soybean experts, and Brazil and Uruguay still do not. Soy producers say that they will protest taxes on exports.
As Lugo recently told Democracy Now!, "We’ve had an initial meeting with landless and peasant farmers, state institutions, technical experts and landowners. . . As long as [we use] . . . the tool of dialogue, and work out consensuses, then it’s possible for us, ourselves, to design an integrated land reform that would benefit the majority of landless peasant farmers. . ."
Implementing the Agro-Ecological Vision: Challenges and Models
In 2008, one thing has become clear: by any name, endogenous development or food sovereignty, leaders across the world would do well to focus on feeding their citizens. Food prices have risen globally in what the United Nations World Food Program has called a "silent tsunami." In late April of this year, the presidents of Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela and Cuba’s vice-president met at a summit in Caracas, where they agreed on a $100 million plan to offset the shock of rising prices on their countries’ poor. Summit host Hugo Chavez called the food crisis "the biggest demonstration of the historic failure of the capitalist model." The agricultural-export model is not going to insulate Latin American countries from rising food costs, but state-supported agrarian reform emphasizing food production for domestic consumption might.
So, in a country without the kind of natural resources Venezuela and Bolivia are using to fund social programs, how will the state respond to campesino demands for agrarian and agricultural reform? While campesino organizations in Paraguay certainly have concrete proposals for how to transform destructive industrial-export agriculture into an "agro-ecological" model to serve the Paraguayan people, it remains to be seen how Lugo will integrate Paraguayan’s proposals into a central government program like that of Venezuela, or those proposed in Bolivia.
Admittedly, agrarian reform is one of the most contentious topics a new leader can take on and the most likely to cause uproar amongst powerful landowners. Officials from Bolivia’s National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) have been beaten and threatened at gunpoint this year while trying to inspect estates in the province of Santa Cruz. In Paraguay, land reform will be an even more contentious issue than taking fallow fields from the landed gentry. In this case, soy land is in use, and owned by Brazilian farmers and multinational corporations. Since no agro-industries are currently owned by the state, nationalizing agro-industry in Paraguay would require even more governmental courage than Venezuela’s renegotiation of oil contracts. On top of that, even if land is reclaimed, soil health would need to be salvaged in order to grow non-Roundup Ready crops.
In Paraguay, social movements and farmer’s organizations, are ready to share their proposal and the models of their communities with the state, but are also likely to maintain autonomy from government bureaucracy, as pre-existing cooperatives in Venezuela have done. It is probable that social groups that helped bring Lugo to office will have to exert similar pressure on their new president. Indeed, in Venezuela, and more recently Bolivia, social protest has helped governments strong-arm laws through conflicted congresses.
On the night of Lugo’s election, the often empty streets of Asuncion were filled with celebrations as Paraguay elected its first non-Colorado Party president in more than 60 years. Reporter Michael Fox, in Asuncion the night of the election, described complete euphoria in the streets. A Paraguayan acquaintance told him "For the first time in our lives, we have hope, we have possibilities… We are a new nation!"
Lugo’s base will need to both pressure and protect their president, perhaps to the extent that Venezuelans protected Chavez from a coup attempt in 2002. And yet, the joy that flooded the streets of Asuncion on April 20th indicates that Paraguayans are more than ready for change. If they are also willing to fight to create and preserve their "new nation," it is possible that if the people lead, the leaders will follow.
April Howard is a instructor of Latin American Studies at SUNY-Plattsburgh University, and an editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email April.M.Howard(at)gmail(dot)com
1. Nickson, Andrew. "Paraguay: Fernando Lugo vs the Colorado machine." Open Democracy (02-28-2008).
2. Dangl, Benjamin and April Howard. "The Multinational Beanfield War." In These Times (04-12,-2007).
3. Sondreger, Reto. "Paraguay: Campesino Families Block Fumigation of Soy Fields" Upside Down World (01-10-2008).
4. Sondreger, Reto. "Paraguay: Campesino Families Block Fumigation of Soy Fields" Upside Down World (01-10-2008).
5. Frente por la Soberanía y la Vida – contiene el Central Nacional de trabajadores (CNT), Central Unitaria de Trabajadores Autentica (CUT-A), Plenaria Popular Permanente (PPP) Mesa Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC), Organización Nacional Campesina (ONAC), Coordinadora Nacional por la Vida y la Soberanía (CNVS)
6. View the Tekojoja website.
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11. Personal interview, February, 2007
12. Research in Paraguay, February 2007
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15. "Paraguay’s new president replaces military command." Associated Press. (08-21-2008).
16. "Priorizarán apoyo técnico y reforma agraria en el MAG." ABC Color.
17. Cristaldo, Mariel. "INTERVIEW-Paraguay may limit soy farming in land reform." Reuters (09-12-2008).
18. Craze, Matthew. "Paraguay’s Lugo Plans to Ban Some Soybean Farming, Raise Taxes." Bloomberg.com (09-09-08).
19. "Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo on US Relations in Latin America, the Iraq War, Liberation Theology and Being the ‘Bishop of the Poor.’" Democracy Now! (09-23-08).
20. "LatAm leaders in food price pact." BBC (04-24-08).
21. "Q&A: Land Reform Agents Try to Free Indians from Servitude in Bolivia" IPS (04-24-08).
22. Fox, Michael. "Paraguay Celebrates Lugo’s Historic Victory." Upside Down World (04-20-08).