Country For Sale
issue 177 - November 1987
If you are foreign, preferably fascist,
and have a piggy bank, huge tracts of Paraguay
can be yours dirt cheap - thanks to its dictator
General Stroessner. James Painter delves into the
murky world of dealing, dictating and
keeping the local poor landless.
The first time I visited the small landlocked country of Paraguay, most Paraguayans were amazed I should even come to their country. 'No outsider takes any interest in Paraguay,' they would explain, 'except when the latest hunt is on for some well-known Nazi like the Angel of Death, Joseph Mengele'. Unfortunately, they were wrong. There's plenty of foreign interest - not from the world's media, but from a bewildering array of nationalities that reads like a qualifying group for the final stages of the World Cup. They are all interested in one Paraguayan commodity which is in plentiful supply: land.
West German colonists and companies have bought up large tracts of it, on one occasion in a chunk the size of Greater London. US multinationals like Gulf & Western and Florida Peach Company own huge soya-growing estates. From over the Brazilian border have come timber companies and 300,000 small-scale farmers to join others from Japan, Taiwan, Italy, Chile and Argentina. And, inevitably, a subsidiary of Unilever, Paraguayan Agricultural Holdings Ltd, is also present with its thousands of head of cattle.
Ever since General Alfredo Stroessner took over in a military coup in 1954, the last of the great Latin American patriarchs has adopted an 'open door' policy of encouraging foreigners to invest or settle in what he calls his 'haven of peace and security'. Stroessner's unashamed anti-communism and emotional identification with Nazism has brought into Paraguay a number of extreme right-wing exiles - the latest being Jorge Vago, an Argentine journalist and one of the plotters in a 1985 coup attempt by the ultra-right against President Alfonsin.
The other side of the same coin is a steady influx of foreign investors and immigrants, attracted by Paraguay's huge areas of fertile land and almost total absence of taxes. Major right-wing West German newspapers like Die Welt or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carry weekly adverts recommending investing in Paraguayan land for 'your peace of mind and security' or 'to secure a second home'. Ten hectares of land are advertised to be as cheap as $1,600.
As one small investment company based on the south coast of England summed up in its publicity blurb: 'Until recently, one had to be reasonably wealthy to plan a life abroad. Now, however, anybody with £5,000 ($8,000) to invest is able to go to a beautiful climate, buy a huge plot of land, build a large house on it and become totally self-supporting with the minimum restrictions. In Paraguay, red tape and taxes are almost non-existent'
Of course, there's never any mention in the ads of the thousands of Paraguayan peasants without any land - 300,000 according to the last count in 1981, and another 40,000 with less than 10 hectares. Most of them cannot afford to buy any land. Since the census, the number of landless families has rocketed, especially in the semi-tropical former jungle areas of Eastern Paraguay.
Land prices started to rise during the 1970s and when a multinational mixture of speculators moved in to make their killing they shot up. Wealthy Paraguayans joined in too as Stroessner handed out large parcels of land to his generals and civilian supporters to ensure their loyalty to 'El Generalissimo'. A prime hectare of land in Alto Paraná rose in price more than 100-fold from 3,000 guaranis in 1973 (about $24) to 500,000 guaranis ($600 at the current exchange rate) in the mid-1980s. With the majority of Paraguayans in the eastern regions earning less than $300 a year there was little chance of them joining in the spending spree.
Massive road-building projects which accompanied the construction of the Itaipú dam - the world's largest - and a boom in new agricultural products such as soya also helped make Paraguayan land more desirable.
The 1981 agrarian census revealed the full extent of the problem: only three per cent of all available land in Paraguay is actually used, when the potential available could be as high as 20 per cent. Moreover, some 80 per cent of the country is owned by one per cent of landowners - the worst land distribution in Latin America - many of them foreigners who bought land not to work but as a financial investment.
The size of some of these estates is staggering, even by Latin American standards. One Anglo-Argentine company, Carlos Casado, still owns 1.5 million hectares, equivalent to the size of Northern Ireland. The Queen of England, who with her 135,000 hectares is one of the largest landowners in Britain, would be small fry in Paraguay.
There is no reason why there should be land hunger in Paraguay. Despite a high population growth rate, Paraguay is underpopulated. Only 3.5 million people live in an area more than three times the size of England. This has enabled General Stroessner to distribute up to one million hectares in settlement colonies in uncleared jungle, in order to stave off a peasant rebellion.
But he cannot hope to satisfy in this way a peasant land hunger which has grown due to a dramatic fall in other job opportunities. Most of the work on the massive Itaipú dam project was finished in 1984, while the economic crisis in Argentina has ruined prospects of finding work there. With no cash and no jobs, thousands of Paraguayans have turned to occupying unused land in a desperate attempt to grow the food they need. This has led to violent and sometimes fatal conflicts between peasants and army-backed or police-backed landowners.
Between 1981 and 1986 there were 31 documented cases of land occupations involving more than 8,000 families, most of them in the eastern regions where foreigners have bought up the land. There have been at least another ten in 1987.
Ramón Rol6n is one of the estimated 10,000 landless farmers in the frontier department of Alto Paraná. 'As Paraguayans, we know there's lots of idle land available for those who want to work it,' he explained after taking part in a land take-over in the district of Juan O'Leary that ended in tragedy in mid-1986. 'We don't have money to buy land, so the only thing we can do is come here and start farming so we can survive.'
Ramón belonged to a group of 30 families who squatted on an uncultivated part of a large 60,000-hectare estate belonging to a West German immigrant named Humberto Engelwart. They were first ordered to leave in July 1986 by a detachment of soldiers from the nearby military base, accompanied by two of Engelwart's sons. The peasants refused to move and instead huddled around a makeshift pole flying the Paraguayan flag. The troops opened fire, killing two squatters.
The second eviction came on 23 August. A joint force of 300 military and police personnel arrived with a judicial order, and detained 19 of the peasants, including Ramón. Some of them were first beaten up by the security forces in front of wives and children, then bound and taken to a temporary military camp on Engelwart's land. There they were tied to orange trees outside Engelwart' s ranch house and beaten with clubs and sticks several times a day for four days. According to one Paraguayan bishop, the landowner and his family stood by and applauded.
In another incident in Otaño, Itapúa, 300 families were forcibly thrown off uncultivated land belonging to another German, Enrich Maier. This led local church leaders to protest that their parish consisted of 'huge estates and virgin land, owned mostly by foreigners, especially Germans, who don't even live in Paraguay.' Another church source claimed the only way the Germans got to know their land was 'through the maps they were sent from Paraguay.'
Paraguay's rapidly dwindling Indian population is also at the sharp end of outsiders' greed for land. Indigenous groups like the Ava Chiripá and Pai Tavyreta, who were the original inhabitants of the area, are rapidly losing what little remains of their forested reserves to foreign, mostly Brazilian, logging companies. Vast areas of jungle, which used to resemble the backdrops to scenes from the film The Mission, are now disappearing at a rate of 180,000 hectares a year, according to conservative UN estimates.
Despite a law passed in 1982 forbidding the extraction of wood from Indian reserves, the Indians are frequently tricked or pressurized by representatives of the military-led National Indian Institute. They give permission for the wood to be taken away in exchange for promises of tractors, dispensaries or schools which seldom materialize.
The cultural and religious effect on the Indians can be devastating. In one frontier area with Brazil inhabited by the Ava Chiripá, the Indians can no longer find the wood to make the musical instruments necessary for their religious rites. Meanwhile the chainsaws of foreign logging companies are eating into the woods of Ybypyte, the most sacred site of the Pai Tavyreta people.
The general outlook is grim for the poor and landless in Paraguay. But there is one hopeful sign. In spite of the difficulties they face, peasants have formed their own organizations to demand land and oppose the violent evictions - with visible results.
In Alta Paraná, the Government has been forced to find 2,300 hectares for more than 400 families who occupied land owned, once again, by foreigners - this time a group of Chileans who were allegedly relatives of that country's dictator, General Pinochet. During a five-month siege by troops and police the squatter families received strong support from the recently-formed Paraguayan Peasant Movement.
Although ten squatters died through lack of medical care and others were tortured before the case was resolved, the fact that the peasants gained some land is a sign that Stroessner can no longer afford to ignore their demands. Unless he responds quickly, Paraguay might just become a suitable subject for a different type of foreign interest - as journalists rush to file their copy when Stroessner finally follows Somoza, Duvalier and Marcos into exile.
James Painter is a researcher and writer at the Latin America Bureau in London.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.