A Coup Over Land: The Resource War Behind Paraguay’s Crisis
Continued from previous page
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 Europe. The profits have united political and corporate entities from Brazil, the US, and Paraguay, and increased the importance of Paraguay’s cooperation with international businesses.
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 a hundred 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 two thousand 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 Paraguay every year. Beginning in the 1990s, as farmers saw their animals dying, crops withering, families sickening, and wells contaminated, most packed up and moved to the city.
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 ten to twenty 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 of 2009 heated up like a sauna as polka played on the radio. Hawkers came on the bus selling sunglasses, radios, and pirated DVDs. Particularly dedicated salesmen gave impassioned speeches about the superior characteristics of their product, pushing samples onto the unwilling and bored passengers. One sales pitch promised that garlic pills could cure insomnia and cancer.
We passed countless fields of soy and Cargill silos, but also vegetable stands from small farmers and simple roadside restaurants where people could escape into the shade with a cold beer. The dirt road from Caaguazú toward Tekojoja was a rutted expanse of churning red sand; it took us three hours to travel 50 kilometers. The bus fought its way over the deep potholes, the engine reaching a fevered pitch, and every one of its metal bones rattling along with those of its passengers.
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’s shirt portrayed plants breaking through a bar code. Inside her house, the walls were covered with anti-soy and anti-GMO posters. She pulled up plastic chairs for us in front of the garden with bright stars as a backdrop, and began talking. Roa spent 2000–2002 in Asunción studying to be a nurse, and had worked as one in a nearby town. At the time of our visit, in April of 2009, she was dedicated exclusively to activism in her community. As Paraguayan folk music played on the radio, and moths bounced around the lights, Roa told us the story of her community and its fight against GMO soy.