“We no longer have anything to lose”
They live in constant fear of being driven out of their homes. Despite winning back parts of the land taken away from them, the future is still uncertain for the inhabitants of Guahory, Paraguay. And the fear of reprisals is great.
Paraguay, in the heart of South America, has almost exactly the same area as Sweden. There, inequality in terms of the division of land and economic resources is extreme. Less than two percent of landowners own 80 percent of the cultivable land.
We travel across the red soil, driving past kilometre after kilometre of genetically modified soya. The colour of the plants is almost unreal, an artificial green that is reminiscent of neon. Mata todo (“kills everything”) is the name of the pesticide used to ensure that the farmers are able to harvest three times a year. In this area, people say that you can bury a stone and a cassava will grow. The soil is very much in demand – it’s the most fertile in the country.
Excavators destroyed the houses
We’re on our way to Guahory, an area in eastern Paraguay occupied by landless farmers since the fall of the dictatorship in 1989. Over 70 families live in the occupied area, and it’s a great many kilometres to the nearest village. When we arrive, we’re met by Carlos from Diakonia’s partner organization, Federación Nacional Campesina (FNC). He’s there to support residents at a crisis meeting.
Two days ago, private armed guards paid by the landowners arrived with excavators and demolished the houses that the squatters had just started to build. The national ombudsman for human rights has said that he will come and mediate, but so far he hasn’t turned up. The residents prepare to receive him and discuss the demands they want to issue.
Live in constant fear
Guahory is just next to a lake. It’s incredibly beautiful and quiet. But the calmness and the silence contrasts sharply with the violence that the residents bear witness to.
“Life here is hard. We can never relax or let our guard down, because we don’t know when they’ll be back to attack us again. We live in constant fear. This means we can’t offer our children a secure upbringing,” says Elida Gimenez.
Elida is 28 and has been living in Guahory with her three children for the past five years. Before that, she lived with her parents in another occupied area close by.
“We’re landless, we have nowhere else to go,” she says, as we walk along the path towards her house.
Elida now lives in the part of Guahory that the squatters have managed to take back through several years of struggle and resistance and thanks to legal support from organizations including FNC.
“I now have my own house, but we don’t know how long it will last. The pressure from the landowners is heavy. They don’t want to release the land despite us being entitled to it. It makes no difference to them if people here die. What’s important for them is that we don’t have the right of self-determination,” she says.
The land conflict in Paraguay is complex and has roots going as far back as the 1800s. A land reform was envisaged to be introduced at the start of the 1900s. Via the land reform, poor families that lived in the countryside long before the existence of land rights were to be assigned land so that they could become self-sufficient.
But the widespread corruption meant that the reform never became a reality. During the dictatorship, which lasted for 35 years, the dictator Stroessner parcelled out large sections of the land to influential people as “payment” for their loyalty to the regime. At the same time, foreign investors were permitted to buy up an enormous number of hectares illegally.
The Truth and Justice Commission instituted after the dictatorship had ended showed that the regime had illegally appropriated almost eight million hectares of land. The landless were thus forced to occupy the land that, by law, should belong to them.
“Solidarity enables us to survive”
It’s now about a year since Elida moved into the house, but not everyone has been as fortunate.
“Fifty families are still living without a roof over their heads. Solidarity enables us to survive. Those who have a piece of land that they can farm help those who don’t.”
Elida says that over the five years she’s lived in Guahory, the military and the police have come to the village with weapons on several occasions to drive them off the land. Once, 1,500 police came, accompanied by a helicopter. They shot at the families with rubber bullets. Sometimes, Elida has been forced to live in a tent with her children after being evicted.
“The evictions are extremely violent. It hurts to know that we don’t have the same rights as other citizens – as the landowners. We just want to live in peace in our own country,” concludes Elida.
“Land reform is a myth”
Today, there are no clear figures about the number of landless farmers in Paraguay. Some sources say it’s about 150,000, others 300,000.
“Land reform in Paraguay is a myth – those who’ve benefited are the political elite and foreign investors,” says Eligio Britez, who’s lived in Guahory for nearly his entire life.
He moved here with his parents when he was five years old. He’s now 35. Eligio says that the conflict has intensified over the years he’s lived here.
“We’ve always been incredibly marginalised. I’m the person I am due to the policy pursued in relation to the landless in this country,” he says.
He hasn’t been able to go to school. The squatters have no access to education, roads, electricity or healthcare.
“We second-generation squatters won’t let yet another generation experience what we’ve been through.”
“We can only win”
He talks about reprisals against the landless who have been fighting for their rights. Thousands have been imprisoned, and since the dictatorship fell in 1989, 120 people have disappeared or been murdered. The government doesn’t take the situation seriously because they themselves benefit from it, according to Eligio.
“We no longer have anything to lose – we can only win. We’re tired of this, but we’re not going to leave Guahory. Many people migrate to the cities, but they often face even more difficulties there.”
It starts to get dark. Only Carlos and Eligio remain at the assembly spot where the meeting was held a few hours ago. A large white car suddenly turns up in the midst of the silence. It’s the national ombudsman for human rights, who has finally come. He gets out of the car. I can’t hear what they’re saying but can hear from their tone of voice that the parties aren’t in agreement.
I’m thinking about what Eligio said, that the politicians first have to understand that this is about more than a piece of land. What’s required is fundamental social change.
“Do you know what Guahory means?” asks Eligio before we go our separate ways. “It means the faraway place. It’s called that because it’s the village that is situated furthest east in this municipality. But it also means dawn, and that’s quite fitting,” he says. “It’s so beautiful here – the countryside is always green and fresh, just like at dawn.”