(IPS) – Agribusiness and landowners’ associations in Paraguay began two days of demonstrations around the country Monday, demanding a stop to invasions of large estates by landless farmers.
The measure drew fire from social organisations, especially small farmers’ associations.
The landowners parked tractors and other agricultural machinery along the sides of roads early Monday morning, mainly in the farming departments (provinces) of San Pedro in central Paraguay and Itapúa and Alto Paraná in the southeast.
The call for the demonstration was issued several weeks ago by the Coordinadora Agrícola del Paraguay (CAP), which was joined by two other rural associations, the Unión de Gremios de la Producción (UGP) and the Asociación Rural de Paraguay (ARP), as well as the Federación de la Producción, la Industria y el Comercio (FEPRINCO), a trade and industrial association.
The organisers hope to line at least 1,000 km of roads with their machinery at some 60 spots in the country’s most productive agricultural areas, although the so-called "tractorazo" will not include roadblocks.
The leaders of the associations organising the protest are demanding a stop to land occupations by groups of small farmers, who have especially targeted large-scale producers of transgenic soybeans.
"Violence is not the route for solving the country’s problems," said UGP president Héctor Cristaldo, speaking along the highway that runs between the towns of Hernandarias and Salto del Guairá, in Alto Paraná. "What is needed is a huge national demonstration that brings together all the sectors," he added.
Alto Paraná in the southeast has the largest number of Brazilian soybean producers, who are opposed by small farmers because of the indiscriminate use of toxic agrochemicals, which have caused death and illness among children and adults, water pollution, destruction of ecosystems and loss of traditional food resources in rural communities, according to the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Geneva.
Cristaldo said the demonstration was not against the administration of Fernando Lugo, but was aimed at drawing the attention of the three branches of the state to the situation of violence and insecurity in the country.
"Fights and clashes will only bring mourning to Paraguay," he said.
The Convocatoria Ciudadana citizen movement and FEPRINCO will hold their own demonstrations in the capital Tuesday.
The Frente Social y Popular (FSP), which groups a variety of social organisations, especially peasant farmers’ movements, rejected the landowners’ mobilisation as "authoritarian."
"This demonstration is cloaking itself in slogans designed to lie to Paraguayan society, like ‘work for everyone’, which is ironic given that the soybean growers exploit their workers," FSP leader Marcos Ibáñez told IPS.
The highly mechanised soybean industry generates few jobs, and workers on the plantations and cattle ranches are subjected to near-slavery conditions, he said.
Several environmental organisations urged people to hold a peaceful parallel demonstration to protest landowners’ failure to respect environmental standards, and the wholesale destruction of forests by ranchers to create pasture land.
The crisis in the countryside is one of the most pressing problems facing the government of former Catholic bishop Lugo, who took office on Aug. 15.
According to a report published this month by the Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay (CODEHUPY) human rights group, this landlocked South American country exported more than 4.3 million tons of soybeans in 2007 and 370 million dollars worth of beef — figures that stand in sharp contrast to another statistic: the country’s 600,000 malnourished children.
As causes of the widespread malnutrition, CODEHUPY’s Human Rights in Paraguay 2008 report cites the poor distribution of wealth and the lack of an effective land reform policy.
The production of soybeans, the main farm export, grew 26 percent in the 2007-2008 period with respect to the previous harvest.
Despite the boom, the government of Lugo’s predecessor, Nicanor Duarte (2003-2008), failed to implement a tax on unprocessed soybeans, and the agribusiness sector is staunchly opposed to paying taxes, which would contribute to redistributing wealth.
Paraguay is the Latin American country with the greatest concentration of land ownership. According to the last national agricultural census, a full 77 percent of the country’s fertile land is controlled by just one percent of all landowners. Meanwhile, small farmers, who represent 40 percent of the population, own just five percent of all farmland.
"Campesino (small farmer) families cannot possibly compete on the market with the small quantities that they produce," said Diego Segovia of the Base Investigaciones Sociales, the non-governmental research group that produced the article on the agricultural sector contained in the CODEHUPY report.
"This system is driving an accelerated rural exodus while generating poverty and hunger, sending small farmers and food producers to the slums surrounding the cities," said Segovia.
Lugo, who became well-known in Paraguay for his work on behalf of the landless rural poor in the province of San Pedro, said in his campaign that changes to the country’s economic and social structures were needed, through comprehensive land reform, the growth of employment and the reduction of poverty.