It’s been three years since my investigation for my thesis on land reform in South America. My case study was on Bolivia and even more particularly on the eastern lowlands of the Andean country. This was a very hot issue there at the time and it continues to be, although the people seem to be growing bored of it. After having finished and defended my thesis I’d had my fill of the topic for a while as well, but I still believe it is a very relevant topic for the country and the continent as a whole.
Land reform has been slammed back on the table in June of this year in South America’s other land locked country, Paraguay, when seventeen people were killed in a clash between landless farmers and the police, who were trying to evict them. Although then President Fernando Lugo was elected by backing peasant claims for better land distribution back in 2008, this same issue cost him the presidency in the end. The Congress of Paraguay removed President Fernando Lugo from office on the 22nd of June after an impeachment process of two days. His removal was followed by violent demonstrations by his supporters. However, Lugo himself has accepted his impeachment and stated that although regrettable and unfortunate, the process had not been unconstitutional.
No laws may have been broken during his removal, but the force behind it may be more complex than was revealed up front, as a post on Wikileaks has revealed the impeachment of Lugo was mentioned in a US Embassy cable back in 2009. But if removing Lugo from power was thought to be the solution for the Agribusiness sector to regain power of the arable land of Paraguay, it does not seem to be working. With Lugo´s election in 2008 forces were unleashed that are not ready to crawl into their cages.
All over the country groups of landless farmers, calling themselves “carperos”, are occupying parcels of land demanding the expropriation of large farms owned by “Brasiguayos” – a term for Brazilian settlers and their descendants – and tensions are rising as the fight over land heats up. According to official sources, there are about 400,000 Brasiguayos, who colonized vast areas in the last half centuries, turning Paraguay into the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soybean. Although profitable, the vast majority of the country sees very little of its merits. Very much like in Bolivia, the process of redistributing land, and the wealth that comes with it, is slow and frustrating. The large farm owners have a lot of influence in the political arena and make it very difficult to pass any law that is in their disadvantage.
And now that the attention of the world news stations has been caught by the peace negotiations in Colombia with the infamous FARC, the land issue might turn out to be a breaking point once again. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), best known by many for their kidnapping, drug trafficking and crawling through the mud in tropical rainforests, are starting to feel their backs against the wall. Several of their high ranked men have been captured or killed and it seems they have been forced into damage control mode and have started brushing up on their image.
Once upon a time, when the revolutionary army of Colombia first started out back in the sixties, and there was some legitimacy to their fight, one of the FARC’s main grievances had been the unequal distribution of land.  On the very first day the representatives of both sides were to meet, one of the guerrilla representatives rushed to call the government’s land retitling proposition “a trap”, setting the tone for the evening. For an organization that has never had a go at making any concessions, these negotiations will probably be a trial-and-error experience. They will have to learn to change their rhetoric and understand when it is wise to speak and when one must hold its tongue (at least to the media).
This process is bound to be interesting and I am looking forward to see how it plays out. The complications of the land debate are familiar to me now but the Colombian case has so many more factors then the Bolivian and Paraguayan do, that it is difficult to predict the outcome. I might dedicate another blog to this matter when some more cards are on the table. It’s bound to be spectacular.