Paraguay: State Accused of Violating Rights of Rural Poor

(IPS) – Civil society groups in Paraguay are hoping to persuade a United Nations expert committee to send international observers to investigate allegations of violations of the rights of peasant farmers and indigenous people in this country.

The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), which began its annual session in early November, will spend two days, starting on Tuesday, analysing alleged violations by the Paraguayan administration of President Nicanor Duarte of the rights of rural communities to access to land, housing, work, food and water.

The complaints were presented in an alternative report on Paraguay’s fulfilment of its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, submitted by a score of social organisations. The members of the Committee, based in Geneva, will weigh them against the official report from Asunción.

"We will show that the government has gone back on its commitment to guarantee economic and social rights, which it made when it signed the U.N. covenant," Idalina Gómez Hansen, of the ecumenical Committee of Churches for Emergency Aid (CIPAE), told IPS from Geneva in a telephone interview.

Lack of land reform, the displacement of campesinos (peasant farmers) from their land and the structural poverty of rural inhabitants are central issues in the 209-page report by the non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Added to these longstanding problems is "the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds," the report says.

The Paraguayan state has fallen behind with its periodic reports to the Committee on compliance with the International Covenant, which are required every five years. It presented its latest report in August 2006, ten years after its initial report in 1996, having signed the International Covenant in 1992.

The CESCR, established in 1985 by the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is made up of 18 independent experts and oversees compliance by states party to the International Covenant. It operates under the aegis of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In view of this situation, the NGOs drew up their own alternative report, which was delivered to the Committee in Geneva early this month at a public hearing convened on the initiative of the CESCR itself.

The main causes of the rights violations detailed in the document are the increasing concentration of land in ever fewer hands, and the expansion of monoculture crops, including soy, wheat and sunflowers.

Consequently it has been impossible to sustain the traditional campesino economy. Lacking land and employment, rural families have been forced to migrate to urban centres, the alternative report says.

Marcial Gómez and Mirna Mochet, of the National Campesino Federation, said at the public hearing that they hoped the alternative report might "serve as a way of exerting pressure on the government, which has not made any progress."

The activists said that not only land was needed, but also programmes for the recovery of family farms, as 80 percent of small farmers make an income of less than 500 dollars a year, and 42 percent make as little as 200 dollars a year.

Marielle Palau, of the NGO Base-IS, said that Paraguay’s main problems are lack of access to land, and ineffective state intervention to protect that right.

"The government favours big capital over rural and indigenous people, who have lost their land. The state constantly discriminates against these communities, especially in housing and employment policies," she said at the hearing.

For her part, Julie Bergamin, of the human rights group FIAN International, asked the Committee to pay special attention to the status of agrarian reform in Paraguay.

"The state has neither respected nor protected the people in rural areas. There have been many cases of violent evictions, destruction of housing and crops by the security forces, as well as murders that have gone unpunished, and cases of mass imprisonment," she said.

Juan Báez, of the Catholic social pastorate in Coronel Oviedo, a city 150 kilometres east of Asunción, complained that the indiscriminate use of toxic agrochemicals affects campesinos’ health, causing deaths, miscarriages and foetal malformations.

"The most acute problem is the rapidly increasing pollution of water sources, brought about by the unbridled growth of mechanised agriculture based on intensive use of agrochemicals," he said.

The plight of Paraguay’s 87,000 indigenous people, belonging to 20 ethnic groups, who face problems of land, poverty and labour discrimination, is addressed in a separate chapter of the report.

Most of the country’s indigenous people are suffering from food shortages, and live in a state of permanent emergency, the report says.

"Families without land of their own move to the cities, including the capital, where they eke out a meagre living by sifting through garbage or panhandling on the main avenues," the NGOs report.

The Paraguayan Foreign Ministry has sent an official delegation to Geneva, which will have to answer each of these allegations as well as the questions the CESCR experts may put to them during the two-day hearing.

The Committee is expected to issue a statement on the case in a minimum of 20 days’ time.

Tomás Palau, of Base-IS, told IPS that there are two possible outcomes. The first is that the Committee may make observations to the government with respect to any shortcomings found, and issue recommendations on how to improve the situation.

The second is that it may ask for an official invitation for international observers to visit the country.

Since its inception, the Committee has only twice asked to visit signatories of the International Covenant. One such request was to the Dominican Republic, which did not issue an invitation, and the other to Panama, which did. International observers visited Panama in April 1995.