Paraguay-Agribusiness vs. Peasants

September 25, 2007

Shortly after midnight, on March 8, a group of twelve to eighteen peasants from Colonia Nueva Esperanza in the Caaguazu region captured a public bus and ordered the driver to take them to the capital, Asunci6n. The group, lightly armed and led by Victoriano Centurion, of the Agrarian Leagues, was quickly intercepted by a government patrol. Shots were exchanged and two agents wounded. The peasants, after im- provising speeches on the need to fight land expropriations, aban- doned the bus and found refuge in the mountains. 38 Several hours later, government forces isolated Colonia Nueva Esperanza. Thirty-seven peasant members of the peasant settle- ment were immediately arrested. Three nights later, nineteen peasants were killed by the Army. By the end of the week, the wave of repression had resulted in twen- ty one peasants' deaths, more than 200 arrests and the military oc- cupation of the whole eastern part of the country, primarily Caaguazu and Alto Parana, regions on the Brazilian frontier. Five thousand soldiers had been mobilized to capture the NACLA Reportupdate * update . update. update group of peasants who, lacking any other recourse, decided to go to the city to denounce the grave injustice committed against them. The land that they had cultivated for more than a decade, land which had been granted by the government, had recently been re-"granted" to a group of Generals and friends of the dic- tatorship. These entrepreneurs had organized a commercial venture to sell sand for the construction of Itaipu dam, the largest hydroelectric work in the world. The peasants were being expelled from their land to make way for these enterprises. The main target of the repres- sion was the Agrarian Leagues in the Caaguazu and Alto Parana regions. Organized in the early six- ties, and promoted initially by the Catholic Church, the Leagues organized the peasantry into cooperatives for the production and distribution of agricultural goods. Experiments in popular education and forms of democratic community manage- ment were begun. The Leagues grew rapidly and with them the peasants' capacity for political ac- tion. The government managed to virtually liquidate the Leagues. Communities were destroyed, houses and crops burned, leaders imprisoned or murdered and pro- gressive priests linked to the Leagues expelled from the coun- try. By 1978 there were signs of recovery. The number of Leagues had increased. Peasant leaders had established contacts and entered into agreements with pro- gressive urban trade unionists. And, finally, a National Peasant Roundtable, composed of the MaylJune 1980 leaders of Leagues and other in- dependent agrarian organizations throughout the country, was effec- tively coordinating the work among the peasantry in several regions. The more militant and powerful peasant organizations were found in the Caaguazu and Alto Parana regions. Origins of Militancy Twenty years ago the Paraguayan government, in- terested in avoiding peasant rebellions and in compliance with some of the programs of the Alliance for Progress, began a col- onization program which, accord- ing to their claims, distributed four million hectares of land (one hec- tare equals 2.4 acres). The largest land reserves owned by the government were in the Caaguazu and Alto Parana regions. The pro- gram was a failure. Almost two thirds of the lands distributed were granted to members of the govern- ment and the armed forces to set up stock farms. To the agricultural colonists, low quality lands were distributed, far from communica- tion channels and lacking the necessary technical and financial support. This has been recently documented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Nevertheless, these regions became major areas of peasant resettlement. Not only were large colonies established, peasants expropriated in other parts of the country would also migrate to these regions, clear part of the immense forest areas and settle. Another aspect of the govern- ment strategy toward the peasan- try contributed to the resurgence of the organizations. During the mid-sixties, the government dispersed potential or effective rebel peasant nuclei, sending them to less populated regions where public lands were distributed. The peasant organiza- tions were immediately weakened by this policy of desegregation but, in the long run, their message and experiences spread through these Eastern regions. The Outsiders The expansion of peasant pro- duction in these regions was rapid- ly checked by the combined im- pact of the influx of Brazilian farmers, the growth in the forest industry, controlled primarily by Brazilian corporations, and the penetration of transnational cor- porations engaged in the produc- tion of export crops. Up to a short while ago, the dominant tone of rural expansion in the Eastern regions of Paraguay had been set up by the Brazilian farmers who could not survive alongside the large agricultural corporations in their own country but had enough capital to acquire medium-sized parcels of land in Paraguay. Organized on a strictly capitalist basis, the Brazilian farmers produced export crops such as soybeans, mint and, to a lesser extent, cotton. Their growth had several conse- quences. Peasants without legal titles to their land were rapidly ex- propriated. Those with titles found it impossible to compete with the farmers, and the dramatic in- crease in land values not only precluded the expansion of sub- sistence production but also heightened the pressure on poor tenant farmers to abandon their land. Finally, with the shrinkage in peasant production, the volume of agricultural goods for the internal 39uadaIte *ud~I * - ---- ~ ~ tpw_ - - market has declined, fueling the steep inflationary spiral which af- fects Paraguayan society. Even peasants with legal titles to Jheir lands suffer the conse- quences of land speculation. In Caaguazu, campesinos who have bought land with IBR (Instituto Bienestar Rural) credits are at a point of being evicted by the new influential "proprietors" to whom the government agency-the same one responsible for the Agrarian Reform-resold the property. Some decades ago the peasants bought the land at $1.50 per hectare. It is now valued at $400. (see Latinamerica Press, 10 April, 1980) In the last two years, large foreign firms, especially transna- tionals, have been the vanguard of capitalist penetration into these rural areas. The case of the Paranambu colony is typical. For twenty years, around 400 peasants and their families have lived there. Their presence goes back to a period when neither the Brazilians nor the transnationals coveted this land-nothing but virgin forest when the peasants ar- rived. In 1973, Gulf and Western bought 52,000 hectares, including the property of these squatters. Giving them the alternative of leav- ing the area, the transnational now offered to sell each family a parcel of only four hectares at the going market price. For the peasants living off their subsistence production, such a sum was unobtainable. Gulf and Western proceeded to expel the peasants from the land. The Paraguayan government's attitude has been very clear in this instance. Not only did it sell the land to the North American transnational through the IBR, it 40 also granted all possible exemp- tions from taxes and other obliga- tions to convince the corporation to invest in the country. The Gulf and Western project presented of- ficially last year and declared a "necessity" by the government, provides for the cultivation of 60,000 hectares of wheat and soy- beans at a cost of some $40 million. In accordance with the maximum profit provision in Paraguay's investment law, the firm will be able to repatriate all profits. Nearing the Limits During the past decades the Alto Parana and Caaguazu regions have been one of the poles of economic growth in Paraguay. Between 1971 and 1978 the rate of economic growth of these regions was 2.4 times higher than the national rate, particularly significant in view of the fact that Paraguay had the highest rate of economic growth among all Latin American countries in the last five years. The investments in these regions have been concentrated on construction (Itaipu dam), timber industry and agriculture. The growth of the latter two has been based on the expropriation of the peasants and their incorpora- tion as wage laborers to the new economic ventures. The proletarianization of the mass of poor Paraguayan peasants and, consequently, the end of the latifundia-minifundia system characteristic of the Paraguayan economy for a cen- tury, is advancing rapidly in the regions mentioned. It is also an in- creasingly visible tendency in the other agricultural regions of the country. Different from previous situa- tions, there are no more land reserves which could be used for the resettlement of the peasantry. The other valve, emigration, is almost impossible because of the limits imposed by neighboring countries. Between 500,000 and 1,000,000 emigrants continue to live outside of Paraguay, mainly in Argentina, and almost all of them come from rural areas. On the other hand, the presence of 200,000 Brazilians in eastern Paraguay reverses this process, creating an additional source of pressure on the Paraguayan rural masses. The Stroessner dictatorship recognizes the volatile nature of the situation of the peasantry in Alto Parana and Caaguazu. The stability of his regime and the prof- itability of the new economic ven- tures depend, in part, on the political subjugation of the peasan- try. General Stroessner's aging, obsolete and corrupt regime, after 26 years in power, is confronting an organized peasant class which holds in its hands the production of those items which practically sus- tain the country's economy. In this light, the disproportionately repressive reaction to the in- cidents in the Nueva Esperanza NACLA Report i d t o mr . 4tis=_update * update * update * update colony last March becomes understandable as the irrational reaction of a system of power which is slowly but surely losing control of the growing revolu- tionary social forces.

Tags: Paraguay, agribusiness, agrarian leagues, repression, Peasants

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