(IPS) – The government of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo is facing its first big challenge: providing solutions for the age-old dispute over land ownership between peasant farmers, large landholders and Brazilian settlers.
Land reform, one of Lugo’s main campaign pledges, has become a hot issue requiring an urgent response from the government since the death of campesino (peasant) leader Bienvenido Melgarejo in a violent eviction of landless peasants from a farm in the northeastern department (province) of Alto Paraná on Oct. 3.
Campesinos have been mobilising and threatening to occupy lands throughout the eastern region of the country, demanding concrete measures.
"Paraguay has the highest concentration of land ownership in the Americas," sociologist Ramón Fogel told IPS. He pointed out that although Lugo promised to combat inequality in rural areas, he has to deal with a parliament that has so far not shown much interest in the matter.
Lugo, a former bishop, took office on Aug. 15 without the benefit of a majority in Congress. The largest group of lawmakers belongs to the Colorado Party, which is now in opposition after exercising absolute power for most of the 20th century, including 35 years of dictatorship under the late General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989).
The second largest group in parliament is the Authentic Radical Liberal Party (PLRA), the biggest party in the governing Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC). However, the PLRA is a staunch defender of private property, in contrast to Lugo’s position that the occupation of unproductive plots of land is justified as a last resort in the struggle of landless campesinos.
According to Belarmino Balbuena, the leader of the Paraguayan Campesino Movement (MCP), the current crisis in the countryside is due to a lack of political will. "The state is absent in the rural areas, owing to the economic model that has been implemented in this country," he told IPS.
Meanwhile the Asociación Rural, which represents large landowners, sent a warning to the government demanding "a definitive end" to the conflict. The head of the association, Juan Núñez, maintained that the armed forces should intervene to protect the soybean crop during planting season.
But the crisis has gone beyond the country’s borders. Brazilian farmers who have settled in Paraguayan territory have asked the government of Brazil to mediate in the tension, which in some cases has escalated into confrontations with local groups of campesinos.
The Lugo administration’s response was that it will seek the best solution, within a framework of respect for the rule of law. Through negotiations, a first agreement was arrived at between the campesino Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Sovereignty and Agrarian Reform, and a group of Brazilian landowners.
The Brazilian farmers agreed to sell 22,000 hectares to the Paraguayan state, which will pay for the land using part of the revenues from the Paraguayan-Brazilian Itaipú hydroelectric dam that are set aside for social spending.
Balbuena stressed that resistance against the Brazilian soybean farmers is growing because the spraying of their crops hurts campesino communities and their crops and livestock. "This dispute is not about occupations of land, but about the problems associated with the use of toxic agrochemicals," he said.
The boom in soybean monoculture in eastern Paraguay in the last few years is at the root of the present conflicts.
In seven years, the area under soybean crops in Paraguay doubled, reaching 2.4 million hectares by 2007, equivalent to 25 percent of all cultivated land in the country. And all of it is genetically modified (GM) soy, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Paraguay is now seventh in the global ranking for the area under transgenic crops, and has no legislation on the use of GM seeds. It is also the world’s fourth largest exporter of soybeans.
There are 81,000 Brazilians living in this country, not counting their Paraguayan-born descendants. Most of them live along the Brazilian border.
"Between 1992 and 2002, the number of people describing themselves as Brazilian nationals fell. However, there are many more Portuguese-speakers," Fabricio Vázquez, a researcher at the National University’s Faculty of Agrarian Sciences, told IPS.
Vázquez said that Brazilian immigrants should be regarded as a social group undergoing a process of integration.
"Rural immigrants (Brazilians, Canadians, Russians, and so on) settled a long time ago in border areas that were neglected by the Paraguayan state. The issue is not whether they are many or few, but that they are a group of producers who have a large socioeconomic impact," he said.
As an urgent measure to address the rural crisis, the National Institute for Land and Rural Development (INDERT) announced that it would repossess plots of land it had awarded to people who are not qualified as beneficiaries of the land reform law, and to recover state lands whose present owners came by them illegally.
In an interview with IPS, Alberto Alderete, the head of INDERT, said that these plans are aimed at recovering state lands so that they can be distributed to campesino families.
He said an integrated development plan for new campesino settlements is essential, to ensure that the beneficiaries put down new roots, and farm in a diversified and sustainable way.
The Paraguayan state has no official record of the number of landless campesinos, but studies indicate that there are about 120,000 families without land, and a similar number of families with less than five hectares.
Nor is there an official register of land that has been allocated illegally.
But a report on illegal land ownership by the Paraguayan Truth and Justice Commission, which was set up to investigate human rights violations committed during the Stroessner dictatorship and the 15 years of transition to democracy, indicates that serious irregularities marred the allocation of a total of 7,851,295 hectares.
The study examined 200,705 awards of land between 1954 and 2003, and confirmed that the beneficiaries were relatives of Stroessner himself, or politicians and army officers directly associated with his government.
According to a study by social researcher Quintín Riquelme, numbers of very large estates as well as of tiny smallholdings increased in Paraguay during the period known as the transition to democracy.
This highlights a trend that has been exacerbated in recent years because of the aggressive expansion of soybean cultivation and cattle ranching, driven by the rise of prices on the international market.
The study shows that Paraguayan and Brazilian landowners and speculators have been buying up land from campesino families, which has accelerated the process of concentration of land tenure and has increased the number of campesinos left without land to farm. This in turn has fuelled a growing rural exodus, to urban areas as well as to countries like Argentina, Spain and the United States.
Between the 1992 and 2002 censuses, the proportion of the population living in rural areas shrank from 49 to 43 percent.