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
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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
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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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