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A Coup Over Land: The Resource War Behind Paraguay’s Crisis

What lies behind today’s headlines, political fights and struggles for justice in Paraguay is a conflict over access to land.

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The community of Tekojoja is home of the Popular Agrarian Movement (MAP) of Paraguay. It is a place that has faced enormous repression from the soy farmers and their thugs, and led a legendary resistance against them, producing many campesino leaders.

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, the 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 the 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 seventy 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 at 4 a.m. 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. The wife of Leoncio Torres, the other victim, was left a widow with eight children. A memorial stands in the center of the community in memory of the fallen campesinos.

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 forty-eight homes. The plight of Tekojoja sheds light on the situation many farming communities are finding themselves in across Paraguay. 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. A lot of people who end up gathering garbage in the city are from the countryside. They don’t know how to manage their money, so for example, they’ll spend all their money on a used, broken-down car first, and then end up in the city broke, without any jobs or place to stay.

 
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