Thousands of Paraguayan farmers raised their clubs, fists and placards into the air while marching through the streets of Asunción, the capital city, on Thursday, March 25. The farmers demanded that President Fernando Lugo follow through on his campaign promises for agrarian reform, including the distribution of land to poor farmers, and access to health care, education, better homes and roads for rural communities. After a year and a half in office, Lugo's failures to meet such demands have led various farmer organizations to directly oppose his administration.
"We can't speak of change if 80% of the fertile land in the country is in the hands of 1% of the population, while 85% of the campesinos [small farmers] have access to only 6% of all the land," National Campesino Federation (FNC) general secretary Odilón Espínola told Efe.
The situation in rural Paraguay is dire; 38% of the country's population lives under the poverty line, and most of this sector is based in rural areas. Paraguay has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world, and the rapidly expanding soy industry is making matters worse.
Participants in the March 25 mobilization also focused demands on the soy industry, which is directly linked to their displacement and marginalization. For years, large soy producers have been displacing small farmers through violence and intimidation. The toxic pesticides soy producers use have had terrible health effects on small farmers who live near the soy fields, while also poisoning their water sources, and killing crops and livestock.
Campesino leader Espínola told Europa Press that Lugo has continued the "same discourse [as previous presidents] and has not followed through on his promises to realize agrarian reform." Since the end of the dictatorship in 1989, Espínola said that "no government has responded to the needs of the campesinos."
Responding to the marchers, President Lugo told Telesur, "Unfortunately we haven't been able to execute [agrarian reform] at the speed that we hoped to, but it is moving forward at a slow speed, and we have prioritized these demands."
If the demands of the marchers are not met, campesino leader Marcial Gómez told Reuters that they would have to resort to their standard strategies of direct action. Without a response from Lugo, "We don't have any other choice but to resort to other means used in our historic struggle such as the occupation of lands and the blockading of highways if we want to obtain a small piece of land to work on."
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press) and the forthcoming book Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com