Politics of Poverty

Gunshots fired from the tinted windows of a 4×4 vehicle – what would you do?

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People claiming rights to the Marinakue land in Paraguay face intimidation and threats.

Stephanie Burgos is a senior policy advisor at Oxfam America.

Community members in Amliang commune of Kampong Speu province in Cambodia sat with me last week, describing how a sugar baron forced them off the land where they had lived for generations. Back in my hotel room in Phnom Penh the following day as I reflected on their fortitude, my thoughts were abruptly interrupted by a colleague in Paraguay who had just received shocking news from people in similar circumstances.

Half way around the world, a displaced community in the region of Curuguaty faced a drive-by shooting aimed at affected families that have been actively demanding their land rights. Although initial reports indicated no fatalities or injuries, the community interpreted the incident aimed at them like this: The indiscriminate gunfire from a 4×4 vehicle with tinted windows was a clear message of intimidation. They were to desist from their efforts to justly claim the land known as Marinakue.

Like the community in Cambodia, just two years ago this community in Curuguaty was violently evicted at the behest of a Paraguayan soy baron, whose company had laid claim to an area of land that belongs to the State and that is supposed to be distributed to small-scale farmers. Seventeen people lost their lives in the resulting clash on June 15, 2012. Yet there has been no official, unbiased report of what occurred that day. Instead, several community members have been unjustly imprisoned, falsely accused of occupying private land and thereby causing the violence.

Photos courtesy of: www.quepasaenparaguay.info/

But it’s not private land. Last month, the government’s land institute confirmed that the land of Marinakue belongs to the State. Yet the company continues to use the courts to try to establish legal claim to the land through an irregular acquisition process, even though Paraguay’s Supreme Court has already ruled once against the company’s tactics. Meanwhile, the trial of community members was set to begin later this week and was just postponed to November 17th, without any assurance it will be fair.

In response, Oxfam, together with the Paraguayan alliance Articulación por Curuguaty and the affected families, has launched the campaign, “Youth With No Land = Land With No Future.” With support from thousands in Paraguay and globally, including the Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the campaign is demanding that Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes transfer the land of Marinakue to the families and youth of Curuguaty and ensure justice in this case.

Two years after the massacre, which precipitated the sudden impeachment of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, the affected families still keep a camp by the side of the road where they demand access to the land in dispute. They occupy this space to demand a thorough investigation into what actually occurred that fatal day, in order to bring justice to those falsely accused.

Less than a week before this new shooting, the community commemorated the second anniversary of the massacre at the site where it occurred to remember the victims. And the campaign organized a music festival in the capital, Asuncion, that was attended by over 5,000 people to draw attention to the community’s plight and gather signatures for the campaign.

The drive-by shooting seems to be in response to these organizing efforts, revealing that dark forces are still at play in Paraguay, even 25 years after the end of a forty-year dictatorship. As I reported last year, the struggle for land rights in Paraguay can literally be a matter of life and death.

Photos courtesy of: www.quepasaenparaguay.info/

I was struck by the parallels between the land rights problems experienced by communities in Paraguay and Cambodia. In the case of the community I visited in Cambodia, even though the law is clearly on the side of the community, it’s been four years since they were evicted, and they’ve tried every avenue to defend their rights to no avail. One woman explained that in her family of 10 there is only one who has a job and without land to grow food they struggle to feed the whole family. “We want our land back!” was their common refrain, as they explained that any compensation they might eventually receive would be inadequate to maintain their livelihoods over the long term and they do not trust that offers of alternative land would be of good quality for their needs.

In both cases, the affected families say they will not be intimidated and will continue working to claim their rights. Their valiant efforts in Paraguay and Cambodia deserve public expressions of support and solidarity.

I hope the new intimidation just reported in Paraguay does not escalate and put at further risk the lives of families and young people in Curuguaty. Please join the campaign “Youth With No Land = Land With No Future” to support their just claim for land rights and their demand for justice.

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