Land Evictions Leave Thousands Homeless in Paraguay

FROM THE EDITORS: Please find below an interview with Carlos Goncalvez, radio journalist at Cáritas about the current situation in Paraguay of evictions and criminalization of peasant and indigenous communities.

AWASQA: Carlos, what is the current situation in Paraguay with a president linked to agribusiness and laws that generate social conflicts

CARLOS GONCALVEZ: Maiteí (greeting in Guaraní), Greetings, here drinking a tereré, tereré is the traditional tea in our country. Tereré is the tea that accompanies us Paraguayans.

To your specific question, it is like this, let’s talk about how this government is chaired by Mr. Mario Abdó Beítez, son of Alfredo Stroessner’s private secretary. We must start there so you can have an idea of ​​who and what kind of person we are talking about as President of the Republic in my country. Naturally, a person linked to Stronism was the worst thing that could happen to Paraguay; the dictatorship left very negative consequences such as genocide, human rights violations, exiled people. 

This president we have now is the son of that dictatorship, a man who never knew of —because when lived in Miami as a child and an adolescent—the real needs of Paraguayans. During his government, extractivist projects have increased. We have soybean crops that generate social conflicts for peasant and indigenous communities through agribusiness. The Riera-Zavala Law is also a modification of an article on the penal code that increases prison sentences for people fighting for access to land so they can live with dignity. In that struggle, those resistances are made. 

As for this modification, the imprisonment sentence was raised to 10 years of jail, criminalizing this type of legitimate citizen resistance.

An investigation carried out by the Truth and Justice Commission, determined that under the government of General Alfredo Stroessner, during the dictatorship, around 8 million hectares were granted, destined for people not subject to the Agrarian Reform. That is, for the military, for their wives, lovers. They are ill-habited lands, which must be recovered by the Paraguayan state and destined naturally to peasants, peasant women who have no land. 

In Paraguay, we have around 300 thousand families that do not have access to land. We have 12 thousand landowners who have a monopoly of more than 30 million hectares in our country. The territorial extension of Paraguay is 40.6 million hectares, of which more than 30 million are in the hands of those 12 thousand people. Therefore, we have more than 300 thousand people who do not have access to a parcel of land, which causes severe social conflicts. This is not new in Paraguay since we have been going through this unfair and inequitable distribution of wealth since the dictatorship.

Today it has become more acute with the government of Mario Abdó Benítez because it is worth mentioning that he is at the hand of former president of the Republic, Horacio Cartes. 

Although they seem to confront each other during speeches, in practice, the former president manages all the state’s strings. In Congress, the House of Representatives, which consists of 80 parliamentarians, more than half, about 50, respond directly to the ex-president of the Republic with his seat of “Honor Colorado.” That gives us a guide to recognize that Abdó Benítez’s government is subject to this powerful businessman Horacio Cartes, against whom there are complaints of alleged acts of money laundering. Money, from investigations that have been carried out at an international level, which is closely linked to cigarette smuggling. He is a tobacco businessman who does not enjoy a good reputation. Nevertheless, he is the one who practically manages the state’s strings.

In these circumstances, the outlook is not at all encouraging in 2021. Land evictions have worsened this past month; we have almost a dozen forced evictions, which means more than 20 thousand people were forcibly displaced from their homes, and that situation is a constant. That’s how we are closing 2021.

Recently, the Paraguayan church, from the altars—we recently celebrated the Virgin of Caacupé’s Marian feast—from the altars, the bishops expressed their concern and released letters exhorting that this law, the so-called Zalava-Riera, should be repealed. Zavala is a rancher, Riera is a rancher too, both are congressmen. Zavala is supposedly an opposition member of parliament but responds to the system, and Henrique Riera is from Stroessner’s Colorado Party. To this we must add the health crisis due to COVID-19, which continues to have serious consequences and hasn’t allowed us to resume, until today, our economic activities. 

The social situation is quite worrying, and in these difficult moments, civil society, peasant and indigenous groups are trying to find unity in action. For example, on December 10, on the universal day of the Declaration of Human Rights, there were protests and massive marches in the streets of Asunción against these conditions of abuses against indigenous communities with evictions and violations of their rights. Now they are hoping to be able to project that unity into 2022, perhaps in the first year’s quarter, by carrying out other mobilizations along the same lines to see if that social unity we long for is achieved. That is the only way to counter these factual powers that hold the reins of the state.

AWASQA: 2.5% of the population owns 85% of the productive land, this level of inequity has to do with a colonialist vision of the country and the world. This law is being applied against indigenous communities and peoples who have rights to their ancestral lands and probably do not have property titles because they have had ownership and possession of the land for hundreds of years. Can you please talk more about this?

CARLOS: These landowners are placing private property first, over anything else. They do not take into account ancestral lands. Before Paraguay was established as a state, indigenous people already inhabited this territory. Therefore, naturally, they are the rightful owners of the large region called Paraguay. That is where the battle of what is termed ancestral lays. The 1992 Constitution recognized this situation, precisely, that the indigenous people were present, in existence, before the Paraguayan state. 

That historical look determines how these landowners—and we must add prosecutors and judges who order the evictions of indigenous communities—are accomplices of that extraordinary situation of injustice that our compatriots, indigenous people in Paraguay, are going through. 

There is also a superposition of title ownership. The Truth and Justice Commission’s final report highlighted that in Paraguay, when it comes to land ownership, there is an overlap of the 40.6 million hectares that correspond to Paraguayan territory. The land titles are for 50 million hectares. That is, there is an overlap of title ownership, and there begins the state’s responsibility to normalize and regularize those properties in Paraguay.

But in the face of this reality of poorly distributed wealth in Paraguay, we find the detriment of poor people, hungry people in need, people whose basic needs are not met, and where the state is absent. That generates these reactions from citizens, leading to inequality situations because there is no political will from the authorities to solve these problems. On the contrary, the government of Mario Abdó Benítez, instead of fostering a public policy that benefits and favors everyone equally, favors agribusiness, the market economy, the mafias surrounding this political environment. The upper echelons continues to benefit historically from all the state’s benefits.

The nation’s general spending budget carries, in a large percentage, what is called a “corporate homeland” [patria contratista]. Which means that cereal, pharmaceutical companies and the like win contracts that are already rigged in their favor. The government is complicit in this situation of inequity, which throughout its mandate has nothing to show in favor of those sectors that need the state and its institutions to be present in their communities, in their homes. We are, in that sense, helpless.

Recently I was on the border with Bolivia, around 700 km away from Asunción. There are indigenous communities living there and only 80 km of dirt roads. The Paraguayan state is unwilling to upkeep those 80 km of dirt roads, which could be all-access roads so that the communities that travel through can have access to health, education, housing, electricity. Under these conditions, it is impossible to reach your destination. This government is incapable of minimally attending to that stretch of highway, which gives us an idea of how interested they are in solving these things. It’s a sad, out of tune song, as we say here. 

AWASQA: What is the reaction of civil society in response to these evictions of thousands of people during the health crisis resulting from the pandemic, which is leaving entire populations on the streets and homeless?

CARLOS: The Paraguayan Coordination of Human Rights, CODEHUPY, in the context of the pandemic and seeing all these abuses of the peasant and indigenous communities who are being evicted, has filed appeals so that these evictions are not carried out while the pandemic is ongoing. But it was precisely when the Riera-Zavala Law came about, approved by congress in a brief time, and promulgated by the President of the Republic, while ignoring the demands of social sectors.

It would be worth mentioning the reaction of the Catholic Church regarding these abuses. At least a part of the Catholic Church, a part of the hierarchy, the Conference of Religious of Paraguay CONFERPAR, issued a powerful statement against the national government, urging that the interests of the rich be put aside and that the poor be defended. The Paraguayan Episcopal Conference, along the same lines, released a letter. Some bishops issued opinions on the matter. That reaction is interesting because the Paraguayan Catholic Church has come through the ages very hand in hand with the Horacio Carte government and the current government of Mario Abdó Benítez. Nowadays, these ties are breaking. 

It is interesting because the church is a great force, and there is much hope that they can perhaps turn the scale towards justice. This last moment of 2021 highlights this reaction of a part of the Catholic Church regarding our reality.

Another issue to highlight as a positive sign is the strength that social movements are currently projecting. This is very important in Paraguay, where we do not have significant experiences other than the Paraguayan March [in 1999], where people took to the streets to express themselves en masse against inequality and injustice. 

Today it seems we are once more heading there. We are going to see what 2022 has in store for us. We have significant challenges, for example, the advancement of the Itaipu treaty in the region bordering Brazil and related negotiations of hydroelectric power tariffs. Itaipu is a vital national water resource, vital for Paraguay, and if these resources were used well, the amount of money that this energy generates could be used for government social programs and plans. Along these lines, I find the actions of social mobilizations interesting, which have pointed towards that dialogue and towards that concrete political action, making themselves felt in the face of injustices.