Land reform protests heat up in Paraguay

ÓACUNDAY, Paraguay — Landless farm workers pushing for reform in Paraguay are regaining momentum three months after the movement lost one of its biggest champions with the ouster of president Fernando Lugo. Farm-worker groups have mobilized to demand the expropriation of four large farms owned by “Brasiguayos” — a term for Brazilian settlers and their descendants — and tensions are rising as the fight over land heats up. Federic Ayala, a protest leader, said the dispute could turn violent.

“If they provoke us, ‘iputa trinka,'” he said, using an expression in the Guarani language that means, “There will be war.” “Nobody will be able to stop it,” he said. “A lot of farm workers will die, but so will they.” Ayala spoke to AFP at an encampment of some 2,000 of the protesters on the banks of the Nacunday river. The itinerant farm workers are known as “carperos,” or tent people, for the encampments they set up in occupying the large tracts of land in Paraguay’s remote rural hinterlands. “These were the lands of Anastasio Somoza,” Ayala said, referring to the Nicaraguan dictator who moved to Paraguay after his ouster in the 1979 Sandinista revolution. Somoza was assassinated in Paraguay in 1980.

“Over there are the lands of Pinochet,” he said, alluding to the late Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet as he pointed in the direction of a 4,000-hectare (10,000-acre) farm currently being farmed by Brasiguayos. According to official sources, there are about 400,000 Brasiguayos, who arrived in the last half-century and staged an agricultural revolution in eastern Paraguay. The region now produces between 13 and 15 million tonnes of grain per year, and Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soybeans. Tensions are also simmering in other areas of Paraguay. Last week, some 200 masked and armed farm workers — calling themselves members of the “National League of Carperos” — occupied the rich lands of a Brazilian national, Ulisses Teixeira, in San Pedro department, 300 kilometers (185 miles) north of the capital, Asuncion.

Their leader, Jose Bordon, called for the government of President Federico Franco to expropriate 22,000 hectares, warning “blood will flow” otherwise. Another conflict is threatening to erupt on “Barbero’s lands,” also in San Pedro, named after an Italian who donated more than 17,000 hectares to the government. In Canindeyu department, on the border with Brazil, some 250 farm workers have occupied land owned by Ache Guayaki Indians. The indigenous group, armed with bows and arrows, are themselves threatening to attack if the government doesn’t chase out the protesters.

“Patience is running out: there could be deaths, like those in Curuguaty,” Ayala told AFP, referring to a June 15 clash sparked when police tried to dislodge protesters from a farm owned by local businessman Blas Riquelme. The attempt turned into a bloodbath: 11 farm workers and six police officers were killed. Just days later, the Senate ousted president Lugo, handing power to Franco, his center-left vice-president. The man accused of setting off the shootout, peasant leader Raul Villalba, was arrested last week, officials said. Here in the carperos camp — some 500 tents pitched among massive soybean fields — conditions are grim.

“We live in the mud,” said Anabella Romero Gonzalez, one of the women leaders of the camp, showing her sandals. “Each times it rains, it is a disaster.” A sign in the camp reads: “Mario Ferreiro, President of Paraguay.” That’s the candidate with Lugo’s backing for the 2013 vote, in which the former president himself intends to run for Senate. “With Lugo, we were going to get land, but the lawmakers were opposed and drove out the president,” protest leader Ayala said in Guarani. Clairton Feith, son of Brazilians and a current municipal councilor of a Brasiguayo community, sees the ex-president’s legacy differently.

“With Lugo, we lived a nightmare,” he said. “Our parents colonized these lands 40 years ago and at the time it was an impenetrable jungle.” Franco’s government is moving to clamp down on the unrest that led to his predecessor’s ouster. Facing new threats of violence, the police “will respond firmly but cautiously,” said Interior Minister Carmelo Caballero. And President Franco sought to reassure the land-owners in a recent visit to the prosperous Santa Rita community, saying: “From now on, you can sleep peacefully. Go and tell your compatriots in Brazil that in Paraguay there is democracy and liberty and it is safe to invest.”

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