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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 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. Though they tore the soy plants out of their land, residents live sandwiched between seemingly limitless expanses of soy, and they, their animals, and their crops continue to suffer from exposure to toxic pesticides.

By dawn the next day, most of Roa’s neighbors were already up, getting to work before the sun made labor unbearable. Chickens milled about houses, the red dirt yards were still damp from the night’s dew, and radios tuned in to a community radio station mixing music with political commentary in Guaraní. A neighboring community activist invited us to his house to start the day with Paraguayans’ essential beverage, yerba maté served hot in the morning and specially prepared with coconut and rosemary. We sat in his kitchen as the sun streamed through the cracks between the boards in the wall, illuminating ribbons of smoke from the fire, while his children and pigs played on the dirt floor.

An ominous presence loomed over this bucolic scene. The neighboring Brazilian soy farmers had already shown up with their tractors, spraying pesticides on nearby crops. I could smell the chemicals in the air already. We walked toward the fields until the sweet, toxic odor grew stronger. We passed one tractor very closely as clouds of the pesticides drifted toward us. I began to feel a disorienting sensation of dizziness and nausea. My eyes, throat and lungs burned and my head ached, something the locals go through on a daily basis. The physical illness caused by the pesticides contributes to breaking down the campesino resistance.

I am reminded that this is a besieged community, not just because of the soy crops that circle these islands of humanity, or the pesticides that seep into every water source, crop, and conversation, but also because the Brazilian soy farmers live next to and drive through these impoverished communities with total impunity, and with the windows of their shiny new trucks rolled up tightly. Mounted somewhat precariously on the back of a few mopeds, we bounced along the dirt roads, which petered out into paths to another cluster of homes. 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. And if the locals were to accuse him, said Roa, or even yell at the Brazilian murderers, police would show up and haul them off to jail. “This is the hardest part,” she explained. “That we see them and can’t do anything.”

The moped rolled to a stop in front of Virginia Barrientos’ home, a few miles from Roa’s, directly bordering a soy field. 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 of 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.” Her thin children were gathered with her on the porch of the home. “There are a lot of problems with the water,” she continued. “When it rains, the pesticides affect our only water source.”

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