Paraguay: The Squatters

Image by Carlos Bittar. Paraguay, 2007.

Image by Carlos Bittar. Paraguay, 2007.

Image by Carlos Bittar. Paraguay, 2007.

Driving along highway 6 in Paraguay's eastern Altro Parana department we encountered a community of landless squatters about 40 kilometers south of Santa Rita. There were 180 mostly women and children living in 57 shacks not 10 feet from the road. The nicer dwellings had floors raised off the dirt, rough sawn planks for walls, and a corrugated tin roof. The more modest ones were sticks tarped in black plastic.

"We were expelled by the people in blue helmets." Referring to the national police, the community's leader Raul Demonte explained how they once occupied the land up the hill until the police came and moved them off.

"In the olden time we lived here in the virgin woods by logging. Then came the Brazilians with their soy and their technology to exploit the soy," Demonte says. "This is a life no Paraguayan citizen deserves to live."

20 years ago all this was jungle, but now there is nothing but soy fields from horizon to horizon. In an effort to homestead eastern Paraguay the dictator Alfredo Stroessner sold massive quantities of land cheap and gave away even more land to political allies. A Brazilian owning 10 hectares in Brazil could sell it for $50,000 and buy 500 hectares in Paraguay and still have enough left over to clear the jungle, build a nice house, and purchase modern farm equipment. The Brazilian government even encouraged this by giving credits to Brazilians building plantations in Paraguay.

The squatters are camped on the public land between the road and the land for which they are petitioning the government. This particular plot was given to the son of Alfredo Stroessner who then sold it to a number of Brazilian and Italian landowners. The squatters claim to have the official title, though I was told the actual paper was at their lawyer's office (a European-funded NGO in Asuncion.

"The chemicals are the worst thing because there is no protection from it and the people in the government don't care to put restrictions on it. It kills everything, even the children."

I was then introduced to Rosalino Felson, a plump mother of five. She says her oldest daughter was made deaf by the agri-chemicals.

"She was very little and they kept spraying the chemicals here," Felson told me. "She became ill very quickly and high fever and throwing up."

How do you know it was the agri-chemicals? The doctor said so. Which doctor? The doctor who visits us. Do you know his name? No.

After some digging, I found a doctor who treated a number of landless campesinos around the Santa Rita area, Joel Filartiga. Filartiga, of some renowned, has much to say against soy.