By Jen Ross
ASUNCION - Federico Duarte and his eight young children used to wake up to the chirp of birds in the forested farmland of Alto Paraná in eastern Paraguay. While living in an inner-city park in the capital Asunción, at the beginning of this year, the sound of birds was drowned out by the traffic rushing past their tattered tents.
‘I had no choice. We were evicted,’ Federico explained. His was among a dozen families from the country’s impoverished southeast who packed up their desperation and hauled it to Asunción, setting up camp in Plaza Uruguaya with 200 others. In this downtown park, a single handwritten sign hung crookedly from a bright orange vinyl tent proclaiming: ‘Justice for the Displaced.’
Federico’s family had previously lived in the Naranjal zone of Alto Paraná – a humble but happy existence built on subsistence farming... until Brazilian soybean farmers bought up those lands. Neighbouring Brazil is the world’s top producer of soya. But cheaper Paraguayan land has been drawing producers across the border. Paraguay is now the world’s fourth largest soybean exporter, producing almost four million tons in the 2004-05 season.
‘Paraguay is living a soybean revolution. The indigenous people are being removed from the forest where they live and the forest is being chopped down,’ says Alberto Roque, from the NGO Friends of the Earth. ‘This country has experienced the most devastating deforestation in South America. More than 40 per cent of their forests were eliminated in less than 15 years.’
Struggling for some land of their own, thousands of campesinos like Federico began occupying land in rural areas. When hundreds illegally occupied farmlands in November last year, President Nicanor Duarte called out the military to evict them. A general strike in December sparked mass mobilizations across the country, and again the army intervened.
By camping out in the heart of Asunción, just six blocks from the Legislature, Federico and the campesinos in Plaza Uruguaya hedged their bets, hoping their visibility would prevent the use of force. Although some families left in desperation over the conditions, the four-month ‘live-in’ of those who remained got results. In February this year a deal was reached, allowing them to return to Naranjal. The Brazilian landowner agreed to sell them their former lands at bargain prices. The Government agreed to subsidize the difference and is now helping to divvy up the plots.
The National Institute for Lands and Rural Development has bought, or is safeguarding, more than 24,000 hectares and has handed over land to some 6,000 campesinos. There are another 20,000 waiting on the Government’s registry.
As for Federico and his family – they have returned to their beloved Naranjal, amid the birds. Before leaving, his pride at having bought part of those lands was obvious... even if it took an extended urban camping trip to get them back.