A Coup Over Land
Each bullet hole on the downtown
The Coup and the Land
Hope surrounded the electoral victory of Fernando Lugo in 2008, a victory which ended the right-wing Colorado Party’s 61-year dominance of Paraguayan politics. It was a victory against the injustice and nightmare of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989) and a new addition to the region’s left-leaning governments. The election of
At the same time,
The issue that finally tipped the scales toward the June 22 Parliamentary coup against
While certainly the bloodiest confrontation of this kind since the dictatorship, it was just one of dozens of such conflicts that had taken place in recent years in a nation with enormous inequality in land distribution. The right’s response to such conflicts typically involved siding with the landowners and business leaders, and criminalizing campesino activists. With the tragedy of Curuguaty, the right saw yet another opportunity to move against
The right blamed
In this way,
The process began on June 21 and within 24 hours the Senate gathered and officially initiated the trial, granting
This parliamentary coup was condemned as undemocratic and illegal by many Latin American leaders who refused to recognize Franco as the legitimate president. In response to the coup, Latin American trade and political blocs, such as UNASUR and MERCOSUR have suspended
The backdrop to this political fight is a struggle over how to control, use, and distribute
For decades small farmers in
Managing the gargantuan agro-industry are transnational seed, agricultural, and agro-chemical companies including Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), and Bunge. International financial institutions and development banks have promoted and bankrolled the agro-export business of monoculture crops—much of Paraguayan soy goes to feed animals in
Since the 1980s, national military and paramilitary groups connected to large agribusinesses and landowners have evicted almost 100,000 small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities in favor of soy fields. While more than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated in this time, only one of the cases was investigated with results leading to the conviction of the killer. In the same period, more than 2,000 other campesinos have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance to the soy industry. The vast majority of Paraguayan farmers have been poisoned off their land either intentionally or as a side effect of the hazardous pesticides dumped by soy cultivation in
The havoc wreaked by agro-industries has created some of the most grave human rights violations since Stroessner’s reign. A report produced by the Committee of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights of the United Nations stated that, “the expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems, and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities.”
The expansion of the soy industry has occurred in tandem with violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities who occupy the vast land holdings of the wealthy. Most rural Paraguayans cultivate diverse subsistence crops on small plots of 10 to 20 hectares, but do not have titles to their land nor do they typically receive assistance from the state. The Paraguayan government has historically represented the soy growers in this conflict by using the police and judicial system to punish campesino leaders.
The small farming community of Tekojoja has been on the front line of this struggle for years. Its history and struggle is representative of countless other farming communities in the Paraguayan countryside.
The first of several buses we would take from Asunción toward Tekojoja in April 2009 heated up like a sauna. The dirt road from Caaguazú toward Tekojoja was a rutted expanse of churning red sand; it took us three hours to travel 50 kilometers. That same night, we arrived in Tekojoja and went to Gilda Roa’s house, a government-made structure without running water (though the government built the buildings, it never completed the plumbing). A land and farmer rights activist, Roa told us the story of her community and its fight against GMO soy.
The community of Tekojoja is the home of the Popular Agrarian Movement (MAP) of
Tekojoja stands on land given to campesinos as part of a Public Land Reform Program. In the 1990s, Brazilian soy farmers—with armed thugs, lawyers, and political connections to protect them—gradually expanded onto the community’s land, forcing a series of violent evictions of the farming families. In 2003, MAP began to recover the lands taken from them by Brazilians, but corrupt judges and the mercenaries hired by soy producers kept pushing the farmers off their land.
On December 2, 2004, Brazilian land owners accompanied by police burned down numerous houses and farmland in Tekojoja as part of an eviction process. A statement from MAP described this brutal act: “[A]fter the tractors destroyed our crops, they came with their big machines and started immediately to sow soy while smoke was still rising from the ashes of our houses. The next day, we came back with oxen and replanted all the fields over the prepared land. When the police came, we faced them with our tools and machetes. There were around 70 of us and we were ready to confront them. In the end they left.”
The campesinos’ houses and crops were destroyed and they had no assurances that the Brazilians would not orchestrate another eviction. Still, as most had no place to go, the community members decided to persevere, staying on the land and fighting for legal recognition as the owners. Roa explained, “We planted seeds with fear as we didn’t know if our crops would be destroyed. And we began to reconstruct the houses.” But again on June 24, 2005, the Brazilians and police attacked the community. “They arrested children, blind people, old men, and pregnant women, everyone, throwing them all in a truck.” Roa said. “They threw gas and oil on the houses, burning them all down as the arrests went on.”
In this standoff between the thugs, police, and unarmed campesinos, two farmers—who the Brazilians mistakenly identified as MAP leaders—and brothers Jorge and Antonio Galeano, were killed by gunfire. One of the victims was Angel Cristaldo Rotela, a 23-year-old who was about to be married and had just finished building his own home the day before the police burned it to the ground. Another victim, Leocio Torres, left a widow with eight children. After the murders, campesinos and activists from around the country rallied in support of Tekojoja, supplying the besieged community members with tarps and food. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled that the land should go to the local farmers and, as part of the reparations for the violence the community suffered, President Nicanor Frutos commissioned the building of 48 homes. While the residents of Tekojoja remain on their land, many others are forced to flee to slums in the city as soy producers push them off their land.
Roa explained this cycle of displacement: “When the small farmers are desperate and the pesticides are hurting them, there is no money, and so they sell their land for a little money, which is more than they’ve ever had, thinking that life in the city will be better, easy—but it’s not so easy.”
The victory of Tekojoja was due to the tenacity of the farmers who refused to leave their land for the false promise of rich city life. But their fight is far from over. Residents live sandwiched between seemingly limitless expanses of soy, and they, their animals, and their crops continue to suffer from exposure to toxic pesticides.
On our way there, we passed one Brazilian who glared at us until we were out of sight. Roa knew him: he had participated in the razing and burning of their homes. The fact that he was still free added insult to injury. “This is the hardest part,” Roa explained. “That we see them and can’t do anything.”
The land Barrientos lived on for the past four years is a peninsula jutting into the sea of soy. She occupied her land, which used to be covered with soy, in February 2005 and won legal ownership to it. But life since gaining the land has been far from easy; pesticides have terrorized her family since they moved there. “Just before we harvest our food the Brazilians will spray very powerful pesticides,” Barrientos explained. “This spraying causes the headaches, nausea, diarrhea we all suffer…. There are a lot of problems with the water…. When it rains, the pesticides affect our only water source.”
Barrientos said the pesticides affected her plants and animals as well, making some of the crops that do actually grow taste too bitter to eat. Her pigs’ newborn babies died, and the chickens were ill. Part of the problem, she pointed out, is that the Brazilian soy farmers intentionally choose to fumigate during strong winds which blow the poison onto her land. We passed dead corn stalks on the way to her well, which she insisted on showing us. It was located at the end of a long field of soy, so that the runoff from the field dripped into the well, concentrating the pesticides in her only water source. The family lives in a poisoned misery, while the soy producer responsible for it lives in comparative luxury away from his fields.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press), from which this article includes excerpts, and The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive website covering world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, covering activism and politics in