Conflict in Alto Paraná
Eight million hectares, half the surface area of Uruguay: That is the combined area that the government of Fernando Lugo is hoping to investigate, to determine if the lands are "ill-gotten," whose title deeds could be forged or faked or simply seized from the times of the Stroessner dictatorship. The landowners who have inundated Paraguay with transgenic soy are resisting the review, in an alliance with a parliament where Lugo is clearly in the minority. The conflict could lead to an institutional breakdown – to the sound of [army] boots.
Magui Balbuena, of the National Council of Organizations of Rural and Indigenous Workers, offers her account to Brecha Magazine of a conflict that has as its epicenter the Paraguayan department of Alto Paraná, on the border with Brazil.
What is the situation in Alto Paraná, and what are the conflicting interests?
The struggle of the landless in this area has been going on for a long time. Recently Lugo's government has sought to legislate on the border lands that are being destroyed by multinationals, mainly Brazilian. Then the government sent the military to the border to place boundary markers and inspect title deeds. There are many doubts about how, in a very short time – about 10 years – those border lands passed into the hands of foreigners; and they are the best lands! Those expanses are dedicated to the cultivation of transgenic soy, a monoculture for export. They have destroyed mountains, they have dried up streams and drained swamps, they have poisoned rivers with indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals. This is a very serious situation that is taking place across the country, but mainly in the border area, where a kind of patriotic spirit is rising because what the people see in those areas no longer looks like Paraguay. The campesinos feel they are the owners of the land and they react. When the soldiers went to place the boundary markers and check the title deeds of those fields, the "carperos" reacted.
What is the "carpero" movement?
It is people from different departments who are in the conflict area and are questioning a Brazilian landowner named Tranquilino Favero. He has land in three or four departments, some of the best land near the border. He has endless farms and soy fields that in all exceed one million hectares. The National Institute of Rural Development and Land (INDERT) has started to investigate and verify the origin of the title deeds of this businessman, many of which are fake or forged. But there is also a real mafia inside INDERT that for years has sold and resold land belonging to the state. This is what created the crisis in Ñacunday, in the department of Alto Paraná. There they are questioning a piece of land of 162,000 hectares on the border, currently controlled by Favero, that the landless campesinos claim was distributed between them by the state.
How did the different parties react?
It has been a delicate situation since the army arrived in the middle of January to place the boundary markers. The big soy farmers united around Favero to defend him. That is the case with the Agricultural Coordinator of Paraguay, the Coordinator of Soy Producers and the cooperatives. The fact that the army is there has prevented the landowners from acting against the campesinos who claim the land. There is even an order from the Interior Ministry so that the police do not suppress them. But the landowners resisted the setting of markers. Why do they refuse the examination of the documents by the state? The district attorney and the entire congress are on the side of the soy farmers, and they have covered up this problem of the "ill-gotten" lands.
The only way that the land will continue to be under the sovereignty of our country is to offer land to the thousands and thousands of campesinos who claim it.
Have there been direct confrontations by the landowners?
The pressure is very great, the press is on the side of the soy farmers, and there is real risk that they will act as they know how: with violence against the landless campesinos. The landlords have already organized armed groups and have threatened to act on their own. We are currently in a tug-of-war, and a political problem is emerging because the soy farmers have threatened that if the government continues it could put the 2013 elections at risk. They have even had meetings of military retirees. Their allies are very strong here in Paraguay. Remember that according to some estimates, the "ill-gotten" lands occupy an area of eight million hectares and are in the hands of officials, members of the military, companies, and collaborators of [former] dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
Are we talking then of a risk of institutional breakdown?
That's right. The problem in Paraguay is agriculture, of the land. There is a profound contradiction between the 400,000 landless families and Brazilian settlers ("brasiguayos") who already occupy not only border lands but also lands deep into the Chaco. It is a wooded area, natural. It is a true lung of the earth that must concern everyone. There is no control over it and it is being preyed upon, destroyed by the cultivation of transgenic soy. The right-wing of the parliament supports these invaders and it is very difficult to do something to recover sovereignty. It's an outrage, a true plundering of our land. Under this model, which has existed for decades, the women and children suffer the consequences the most: illnesses, malformations, abortions, and the extreme impoverishment of our communities and families.
We really believe that there are actors whose goal is destabilization, even resorting to bloodshed to heighten the conflict.
Over half a million Brazilians have lived in Paraguay for the past several decades. They include all kinds, but those who are central to the conflict are the landlords who have settled in the border areas in the east of the country, particularly in Alto Paraná. The majority of the landlords own enormous expanses of land that they for years have dedicated to the super-profitable cultivation of soy. And they defend their lands with arms. The dictator Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) found the landlords to be great allies, and let them act as they pleased on territories that were extended with no restrictions. Of the 1.5 million hectares planted with soy in the east of the country, 1.2 million of them are planted by Brazilians. The "brasiguayos" and others who arrived more recently acquired the land for a bargain price: land that in Brazil is worth $7,000 to $8,000 per hectare, in Paraguay they paid from $1,000 to at most $4,000 for the most fertile land, above all for those lands that until recent times were dedicated to ranching. In fact, in the east of the country, they do not enforce the 2005 law that prohibits the purchase or usufruct of lands situated less than 50 kilometers from the border by citizens of neighboring countries. Even less attention is paid to environmental regulations.
The hi-tech production of soy (the Brazilians "modernized" the Paraguayan agricultural sector) to a large extent drove small producers out of those areas. Claudia Ricca, of the NGO Friends of the Earth, which works in the area, told the BBC: "There is no benefit whatsoever for the area: the people are expelled from their jobs and territory, the roads are completely destroyed by the soy farmers' trucks, the businessmen don't live here, they don't pay taxes, and none of what is earned stays in the communities."
Tranquilino Favero, a septuagenarian who disembarked in Paraguay in the early 1960s, symbolizes the "brasiguayos" like few others. He crossed the border tempting fate, soon after the dictatorship was established, and today he is one of the biggest businessmen in the country. He is called the "king of soy" and is in charge of an empire that has its own army of hit men. His connections in the army are notorious, and on multiple occasions Favero has called to "resist the advance of communism," which he sees symbolized by Fernando Lugo because of the president's historic links to campesinos and landless movements. Dozens of campesinos have been killed in the east of Paraguay by "unknowns," probably paid off by the landlords in the area.