(IPS) – Rural and social activists ended three days of protests Friday in the Paraguayan capital after their leaders met with President Fernando Lugo and reached a preliminary agreement for addressing their demands.
The agreement, which was reached after the campesino (peasant) leaders met at length with the country’s new centre-left president, includes the creation of a National Council on Agrarian Reform and the development of a social assistance programme for rural communities.
The Council will be coordinated by the National Institute on Rural Development and Land (INDERT) and made up of representatives of the ministries of agriculture, education and health, campesino organisations and civil society groups.
After the meeting, the rural protesters left the capital and the traffic blockades that had been set up around the country, especially in the northern department (province) of San Pedro, were dismantled.
According to the organisers, some 15,000 people had taken part in the protests in Asunción since Wednesday, and 45,000 were participating nationwide.
The three-day protest declared by the Social and Popular Front, which groups some 50 social and labour organisations, began Wednesday with violent clashes with the police in front of the attorney general’s office in Asunción.
Among their main demands were the impeachment of the members of the Supreme Court and the removal of the attorney general, all of whom were named by the government of former president Nicanor Duarte of the right-wing Colorado Party, which ruled the country for nearly the entire 20th century (including the 1954-1989 dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner).
They were also calling for the release of protesters arrested over the past few weeks, and plots of land for landless farmers.
The demonstration by the Social and Popular Front was joined by other organisations, like the homeless people and slumdwellers’ movement, which is demanding decent housing and the removal of the minister of social action, Pablino Cáceres, and the public transport workers union, which is calling for compliance with the country’s labour laws and the dismissal of a high-level transportation official in the capital.
Lugo promised to step up efforts to provide a solution to the needs of people without adequate housing, and they left Asunción Thursday evening
The centre-left president, who took office in August, said in a news briefing Thursday that his government guarantees the right to peaceful protest, but would take the necessary measures against any group that seeks to destabilise the country’s institutions.
In response to the protesters’ complaints about a supposed delay in implementing a comprehensive land reform programme, the president said agrarian reform efforts had in fact already got underway.
"The demands voiced by the organisations that make up the Social and Popular Front are, in general, legitimate and form part of the hopes of these sectors, to which state bodies should do their best to respond," said the president, a former Catholic bishop who worked on behalf of the landless rural poor in San Pedro for nearly a decade before his shift into politics.
Belarmino Balbuena, a leader of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement and the Social and Popular Front, told IPS that the mobilisation was the result of the need for a social assistance plan for rural areas.
He also said Paraguay’s judiciary must be overhauled, because the current Supreme Court magistrates only rule in favour of wealthy landowners and soybean agribusiness interests.
Balbuena pointed out that the campesinos under arrest include two town councilors from districts in San Pedro, who recently took part in demonstrations by landless peasants against violations of the country’s environmental protection laws by large soybean producers.
The Paraguayan Catholic bishops’ conference has also spoken out on the crisis in rural areas. In their 183rd ordinary assembly, the bishops urged Lugo to expedite the purchase by the state of a 17,000-hectare rural district in San Pedro known as Barbero, where thousands of small farmers have been living and working the land for decades, without legal title to their farms, which keeps them from being able to take out loans.
The Rural Network of Paraguay, an umbrella group of non-governmental organisations, notes that the rural exodus has been aggravated over the last few years, due to the growing concentration of land ownership and the aggressive expansion of the agro-export model.
This land-locked South American country has the most unequal distribution of land in Latin America. One percent of the population of nearly seven million own 77 percent of the arable land, while 40 percent work just one percent of the land.
In Paraguay, 351 wealthy landholders own 9.7 million hectares, with the largest estates averaging over 27,000 hectares.
With respect to the problem of slums, a study by the national census and statistics office estimates that the shortage of decent housing amounts to 636,000 units, equivalent to over half of all existing proper dwellings in the country.
According to the study, around 91,000 families are living in shacks, slum housing or other inadequate structures, 289,000 are living in homes that are made of adequate materials but lack sanitation, and 256,000 are living in overcrowded conditions.