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Paraguay: Woman at the Center of Resistance


Silence and candles. Sitting at a table, in a kitchen that opens onto a spacious patio decorated with plants and trees, women of all ages and very young men are placing herbs in little packets that are sealed with the heat of the flame. Murmurs, laughter and candles; an atmosphere of mysticism and spirituality for a collective task that celebrates life. The headquarters of CONAMURI [2] is a gentle place that combines work with intimacy, like the campesino life that in some way it reproduces.

Members of the group are preparing for the food and agricultural products fair Jakaru Porã Haguã (“So we can eat well,” in Guaraní), which small producers from several Paraguayan departments organize in the center of Asunción. Work stops for a moment, interrupted by stories, opinions, glances, and silences. The circle gives off an energy that invites one to join in. “Women own eight percent of land but produce 80 percent of the food, and they are the ones who suffer the most from hunger,” reads a poster hung on the wall.

In the back of Maria’s house is a large space where she used to raise pigs. Pig-raising is a main activity in Los Bañados, the capital’s flood zone, where three generations have been recovering land by fighting against a river that regularly overflows. Maria offers us some water and we start arranging chairs to be filled by women from the barrio, among them Carmen, the founder of CODECO [3], and Patricio, the only male in the group.

They begin to talk about the news in Los Bañados, in particular the construction of the dreaded Franja Costera [coastal strip] project that threatens to “urbanize” a barrio of 150,000 inhabitants. Thanks to the to the neighborhood’s hard work in land recovery, the area is now prized by real estate speculators. The last flood two months ago was the excuse used by the authorities to renew threats to evict thousands from their homes. Maria points to the street where she lives, which would be the boundary set by the government for families to be evicted and houses to be destroyed.

These two organizations—one rural with campesinas and indigenous women and the other urban with members of Asunción’s working class—are very different. But they have several things in common: A vocation for community resistance to the advance of capital over their lives (soy and agrotoxins or real estate speculation, in these cases), most of the members are women, and they are open to working with young men.

Analysis without concessions

“With the community fair we are trying to establish a connection between the city and the countryside,” says a voice from the circle. “Through our meals and our organic food we link the urban back to the rural, a connection that the advance of agro-business is destroying.”

More than 40% of Paraguay’s population is rural, despite the seemingly unstoppable expansion of soy production. Since the fall of the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship in 1989, a considerable number of campesinos have been displaced from their land. In the 1980s, 60% of the population still lived in the countryside.

Successive governments, including that of the progressive Fernando Lugo (2008-2012), have set aside 70% of the agricultural budget to subsidize large agricultural exporters. Family farms receive only 5% of public funds; of that number only 15% have access to credit. [4]. Fifteen campesino and social organizations launched a campaign against Monsanto on World Food Day during the encounter Heñoi Jey Paraguay (Seeds of a new Paraguay). Since June 2012, when Lugo was removed from office, seven new genetically modified crops have been approved.

The major campesino organizations are now weak; their ability to call for action is minimal. “The hegemony of the old campesino movement is over,” says Perla from a corner, opening a floodgate of comments. “We won’t let ourselves get weak because we are linked to new things developing the city, like the fairs, and because we incorporate young people,” adds Maria. Carina agrees, “Our leaders aren’t fighting for positions or money. They are sincere.”

Maria responds, “We women won’t sell out, we won’t make pacts, we aren’t going to negotiate. We won’t sell out.” And to make sure there are no doubts, she tops it off by saying, “Our organization has the least number of projects with the State.” Once again, Carina emphasizes the point, “Having knowledge and clarity is what gives you power.” This is an indirect criticism of leaders who no one will name—perhaps out of sadness, or perhaps because they are still members of the organization.

Ña Cefe (doña Ceferina), founder of CONAMURI, calmly reflects: “Negotiation turns into a vice and they end up with a full suitcase.” Slowly the panorama becomes clear: Many campesino and union leaders held trusted positions in the Lugo government and abandoned their base. These women did not. The fact that they did not sell out gives legitimacy to their movement and puts them at the center of the resistance to the economic model championed by President Horacio Cartes of the Colorado Party.

“The left in Paraguay has a very short track record,” Alicia responds. “There is a lot of entanglement, a lot of authoritarianism. The left has many of the vices of capital, vices of the right.[5]. The young leader of CONAMURI gives an example: Parties such as Frente Guasú, to which most of the left belongs, no longer represent social movements. “The only thing they thought about there was power and who was going to be a candidate for office.[6]”.

According to her analysis, the drought affected thousands of campesinos who had to emigrate. Alicia says that entire communities disappeared, to the point that “there was nothing to eat in the countryside.” Lugo never met with them, nor did the Frente Guasú. On May 6, [2012], a month before the parliamentary coup, the movements denounced the Front in a communique, saying that it acted worse than the right. Lugo and the left were isolated from the movements. “And that’s how the coup happened”[7].

The women of CONAMURI have their own analysis of the social and political reality, which includes a rigorous self-criticism of campesino organizations. Among the 23 organizations and social movements interviewed in the book Golpe a la democracia [Blow to Democracy], the women’s analysis stands out because it is not limited to pointing at the right-wing coup and big landowners, but also deals with problems and distortions in popular movements.

Resisting real estate speculation

Leaning back in her chair, Maria doesn’t hide her indignation. Construction on the coastal strip megaproject is going forward at an unstoppable pace. Parque del bicentenario and Avenida Costanera [Bicentennial Park and Coastal Avenue] have already been built, although few people seem to understand the connection between the construction and the increase in flooding in recent decades. Her house falls within the boundary of the zone that would probably be uprooted to “urbanize” Los Bañados.

Since the 1950s the marshlands between official city limits and the Paraguay River have been populated by campesinos that were displaced from the countryside with the expansion of cattle ranching. One hundred fifty thousand people live in these wetlands of Asunción—between 15 and 20 percent of the capital’s inhabitants. Sixty percent of them are less than 20 years old; 85 percent occupy public lands; only 15 percent have deeds to their property. [8]

Everything in the barrios of Los Bañados—streets, chapels, lighting, water, health clinics, social centers, and schools—was constructed with mutual aid. To make the barrios livable, “we had to have a lot of food fairs, raffles, organize many chicken or spaghetti dinners, and take up many collections”[9]. These 17,000 families appear nowhere on official maps, which instead highlight the projects being constructed.

Since 2007, as the financial model heated up, with monocrop cultivation in the countryside and real-estate speculation in the cities, an old project has been floating about. These neighbors still do not know the full extent of the project, but increasingly are becoming aware of it as construction advances. Franja Costera proposes to “recuperate” 1,000 hectares from El Bañado Norte and 1,000 from El Bañado Sur, where there is a proposal to create an industrial park and build a new port.

The plan for Bañado Norte is to fill half for “private investment,” including  82 hectares for a golf course and resort, 20 for an information and communications technology park, 22 for a convention center, and 113 hectares for a residential area. In addition, 500 hectares have been set aside for an ecological reserve—a decision made without public knowledge—because migratory birds from Canada stop there. The reserve surrounds the exclusive Club Mbiguá.

The Parque del Bicentenario was inaugurated during the Lugo administration, and in 2012 Avenida Costanera was opened, four lanes on a gigantic landfill on the side of the river, several meters above the poorest homes in the city. The neighbors were upset. When the municipality gave away 22 hectares to the water utility, it claimed that only seven families lived there, ignoring the fact that, in reality, 420 families had lived in the zone for more than 20 years [10].

This is all about luxury ventures such as the Centro de Eventos Talleyrand Costanera [11] or the Complejo Barrail [12], office towers and apartments, banks, supermarkets, and businesses of all sorts with the added attraction of a view of the bay. In sum, urban land speculation has taken Los Bañados by assault, putting at risk the future of its inhabitants.

“Where are we going to go if we’ve been here all our lives?” María explodes. Carmen, Ada, and Patricio show the same conviction. CODECO was born 12 years ago, linked to the work of a local ecclesiastical community under the direction of the Jesuit education network Fe y Alegría. Carmen came out of that movement, as did many of the residents who worked to improve the neighborhood and now are fighting to keep from being evicted. “The big advance in coastal construction occurred during the Lugo administration; because it was a friendly government, people let down their guard,” says one of the neighbors.

CODECO comprises 11 barrios, each with its own neighborhood committee, and the recyclers’ association, which includes 50 members who now use three-wheel bikes to do their work. Altogether there are between 6,000 and 7,000 families, and as Ada insists, the women are the ones who maintain both the organization and the families themselves.” Of the 30 people who form the nucleus of the coordinating committee, 26 are women who meet every week, in addition to holding meetings in the barrios and working on administrative issues.

“There is a relation between keeping a family together and maintaining the struggle and the organization,” Ada reflects. The women go out to pick garbage for recycling, with the entire family, and they’re the ones who take care of the domestic animals, get food for the pigs, and sell recycled cardboard. “The men are more separate from community life; they prefer to work outside on cars or in construction, while the women take charge of the children who work with their parents after school.”

Betting on a new political culture             

“When we started to work with men it was very complicated,” says Perla. “That’s why we only work with youth.” The decision responds to “the hope we have that these processes create new kinds of gender relationships, and that young people are the ones who will build those new relationships [13]. Perla maintains that “with youth, the methodology comes more from life experiences, such as encampments, the exchange of ideas, practices.” It is in everyday life where what is learned either does or does not bear fruit.

The members of CONAMURI defend “a working class and campesino feminism” that’s a major component of their own courses, in particular the Cursos para las Pytyvõhára (courses for facilitators or educators). Their workbooks teach that gender is a historic construct “that includes women, men, and different sexual options, which is why we speak of genders, in the plural”[14].

Their struggle is not against men, but against patriarchy, and they define themselves as “anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy, and socialist.” They propose new relationships between men and women, democratizing domestic labor, sharing power and decision-making and “advancing in our individual, economic, and political autonomy to be able to make our own decisions.”

Self-instruction, self-care and self-esteem all feed pride in the organization on the part of women who belong to CONAMURI. This has allowed them to overcome “the campaigns of other organizations against CONAMURI”, as one of the women says while she works in the organization’s kitchen, placing places leaves in packets.

Perla goes even further: “Since we began to include young men, they are being discriminated against. People say that they go to CONAMURI because they are not leadership material.”

A couple of young men nod their heads in agreement. “In the big organizations they didn’t let us young people participate, and we see that CONAMURI isn’t run by just by two or three, but by everybody together,” says one of them. Ña Cefe recalls that these same “old macho guys” giving orders also made fun of them in 1998 when they left to form CONAMURI. “What are these bitter old women going to do?,” they said.

She recalls that the mistreatment they suffered forced them to leave the MCP[15]. “We are not against the men, we want to walk arm in arm. With Lugo, all the campesino leaders were trying to get positions. They fought among themselves for jobs and they lost their base,” insists Ña Cefe.

“The leadership was also in crisis for having for having glossed over the reality of the progressive government. Now the campesino movement is no longer hegemonic, while the leadership lost control of the base and its capacity for analysis,” Perla explains.

Among the Paraguayan movements an air of confusion predominates, a crisis of uncertainty in the face of a scenario dominated by the overwhelming advance of the right, with its privatization projects favoring large rural landowners and big real-estate speculators even more.

There is also a sense of exhaustion, and that they can no longer continue on the same limited path. CODECO is betting on the youth. In 2012 they took a radio communication course when the barrio parish offered them community radio. Thirty boys and girls participated, and 10 stayed on to start a radio program with the support of a woman from the organization.

“Usually they are the sons and daughters of people from CODECO, some participate with their mothers in meetings and activities. They are friends with each other and, because they all work, they have no problems in assuming responsibilities,” explains Ada. Although the organizations are very different, the experience of CONAMURI is similar. The massive influx of young women from base communities, and of men, often the sons of militants, is creating a profound change in the political culture.

In just a few years, they have undertaken “an exercise in the distribution of power,” through a process of debates and education that they themselves organized, based on the history of Paraguay, its campesinos struggles and its dictatorship. Within their own families they work intensely with their sons and daughters, but also with their partners, although at times that causes relationships to end. Years ago Magui Balbuena, founder of  CONAMURI, explained to me that she was leaving the central place that she had held in the organization. Her daughter Martha added that they were beginning to incorporate males.

There is something about organizations where women and young people predominate that makes them different. There is a reason that half the Zapatistas are less than 20 years old and many of them are women. They are the part of society that has been less damaged by hegemonic political culture. In Los Bañados they deal with conflict in other ways, by “incorporating the other.”

The experience of CONAMURI “is great” says a woman who works with women’s groups. “They make their own rules and follow them in an educated way, not aggressively, but responsibly and with commitment. Although it may hurt, they tell us things to our face.”

Trust, truth and community spirit ensure that conflicts don’t separate them. “They don’t keep their criticism within, because if you do, later it explodes and everything falls apart.” Change doesn’t happen according to the time of the clock, but by the time it takes each individual.

At some point, they will have to find a name for this new culture that is beginning to open up little by little, in places where individualism and machismo are under control. For now it is enough to recognize that there are some non-institutional movements with strong ties to base communities and a fairly horizontal organizational structure, that are renewing the political culture. An essential step to renewing the resistance.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha in Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and advisor to various grassroots organizations. He writes a monthly column for the Americas Program (www.cipamericas.org). 

Translated by Barbara Belejack


NOTES:

[1] This article was made possible thanks to conversations with women from several organizations: Perla Álvarez, Alicia Amarilla, Ceferina Guerrero and Ana Resquín, Carina and María from CONAMURI; Carmen Castillo and María García of CODECO; Ada and Marta of Serpaj, and many others whose names I could not recall and to whom I offer an apology. Several young men also participated.

[2]  Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones de Mujeres Trabajadoras Rurales e Indígenas.

[3] Coordinadora de Defensa Comunitaria.

[4] En http://www.pojoaju.org.py/2/feria-de-alimentos-agroecologicos-jakaru-pora-hagua-este-viernes-sobre-calle-palma/

[5] Elizabeth Duré, Guillermo Ortega, Marielle Palau and Luis Rojas Villagra, “Golpe de la democracia”, BASE-IS, Asunción, 2012, p. 110.

[6] Idem, p. 114.

[7] Idem, p. 115.

[8] “Boletín Especial de Información y Análisis”, No. 7, Serpaj, September 2013.

[9] Idem, p. 3.

[10] Idem, p. 4.

[11] See http://talleyrand.com.py/

[12] See http://www.ultimahora.com/grupo-barrail-construye-edificio-oficinas-vista-la-bahia-n274731.html

[13] Interview with Perla Álvarez in Ñe’ë Roky (Bulletin of CONAMURI), No. 10, November 2011.

[14] “Géneros, patriarcado, feminismo”, Curso de Formación de Pytyvõhára, CONAMURI, Asunción, February 2012.

[15] Movimiento Campesino Paraguayo, founded in 1980, a product of las Ligas Agrarias and, at one point the sole, unifying campesinos organization.

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