PARAGUAY: Land Conflicts Threaten to Boil Over

  • by Natalia Ruiz Díaz (asunciÓn)
  • Inter Press Service

The latest high-profile dispute over land in Paraguay had threatened to lead to violence. But the 350 families of 'carperos' — as they have been dubbed for living in 'carpas' or tents — reached an agreement with the government to relocate to the park.

However, the WWF expressed concern over the relocation of the families to a protected area.

Warning about possible environmental damages caused by the move, the organisation urged the government to protect the park.

The families laying claim to the land near the park say it belongs to the state and was never sold but was merely grabbed by landowners.

'The 'carperos' should be treated like the wives of ‘malandros’ (criminals); they only respond to beatings,' businessman Tranquilo Favero, the biggest soy producer in Paraguay, told the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo.

The Brazilian-born Favero was referring to the Liga Nacional de Carperos, the association of landless 'campesinos' or peasants who had occupied land that the landowner claims as his own, in the eastern Paraguayan province of Alto Paraná.

His diatribe poured fuel on the fire in the conflict, which flared up in November, giving rise to fears of direct confrontations between poor campesinos and large soy producers in that area who are known as 'brasiguayos' because they are either Brazilian-born or descendants of Brazilians.

Experts say the roots of the problem go back to the granting of huge swathes of land to members of the military and friends of those in power, especially during the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989), which aggravated the already extreme social inequality in this landlocked South American country of 6.3 million people.

'There is no other solution to the land problem than the legalisation of land ownership, especially in the cases of large extensions of land,' Ramón Fogel, a sociologist, told IPS. 'The government has been unable to live up to its promise of land reform, because it has been blocked by the legislature and judiciary, which generally go against poor Paraguayans.'

Land reform was one of the key campaign promises of centre-left President Fernando Lugo, a former Catholic bishop elected as the leader of a broad alliance of political parties and social movements, whose five-year term began in August 2008.

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 a mere five percent of all farmland.

Fogel said one of the main reasons for the growing pressure by campesinos is the fact that there are doubts about the land ownership of at least 30 percent of Paraguay’s territory of 406,000 square km.

The problem with land titles and the unequal distribution of land is especially associated with the dictatorship of Stroessner, who belonged to the Colorado Party, and the 14 years of Colorado Party governments that followed his overthrow — the period described as Paraguay’s transition to democracy.

The dictatorship awarded military, business and Colorado Party cronies thousands of hectares of land belonging to the government and to poor campesinos, many of whom lacked title deeds to the small farms that had been in their families for generations. Numerous peasant and indigenous communities were violently displaced.

The conflict over land is one of the biggest pending challenges inherited from the dictatorship, says the report by the Truth and Justice Commission (CVJ) created by law in 2003 to investigate the human rights abuses committed since 1954.

Of the eight million hectares distributed between 1954 and 2003 — the period covered by the CVJ - 64 percent was illegally acquired.

'The delay in addressing the demands of poor campesinos and the increasing penetration of Brazilians in Paraguayan territory, displacing indigenous people from the land they have been granted, are other aspects that are aggravating the conflict,' the report adds.

Luis Aguayo, secretary general of the Mesa Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC), an umbrella group of campesino organisations, agrees that the conflict in Ñacunday shows that 'the regularisation of land ownership can not be put off any longer.

'A land register has to be built up, but the soy producers are opposed to it because they have land that is irregularly owned. The border protection law (prohibiting foreigners from owning land near the border) should also be enforced,' he said.

In November, the justice system began to carry out land surveys under instructions from the National Institute of Rural and Land Development (INDERT), at the request of the carperos.

On Feb. 23, after several rounds of negotiations, the government threatened to evict the carperos. But they then reached an agreement for the families to relocate to the national park.

The Paraguayan economy posted record growth of 14.5 percent in 2010, driven by the boom in farm exports. But the World Bank projects growth of just four percent this year.

According to recent statistics from the Paraguayan chamber of exporters of grains and oilseeds (CAPECO), soy covers more than 2.6 million hectares, or 60 percent of Paraguay’s farmland.

The president of the Paraguayan association of producers of soy, oilseeds and grains (APS), Francisco Regis Mereles, told IPS that the land disputes would have a major impact on soy producers. 'The future looks complicated for the productive sector,' he complained.

The businessman said that in order to solve the problem of land tenure, control over the real estate sector should be given to the municipal authorities, and a hi-tech system for identifying rural property and its owners should be implemented by the municipal governments.

The agribusiness sector accuses the government of being an accomplice to Victoriano López, one of the leaders of the carperos, who says the land the families were occupying in Ñacunday belongs to the state and he has the documents to prove it.

'That’s why we are demanding that the land be transferred to us, because we have documents collected over the space of years in our work as a community commission,' López told IPS.

He said that in the Alto Paraná region alone there are more than 543,000 hectares of land that the state never sold, but which was grabbed by large landowners.

© Inter Press Service (2012) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service