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Feb 1, 2012 | 12:47 GMT

6 mins read

In Paraguay, Land Dispute Underscores Regional Tensions

Landless workers in southeastern Paraguay, known as carperos, arrived in Asuncion on Jan. 30 bearing a petition with 10,000 signatures in protest of ongoing conflicts over land distribution in the Alto Parana and Itapua departments. The protest comes in the wake of a Jan. 21 carpero attack on Brazilian landowners. While such tension is not unusual in Paraguay, this month's developments point to a larger geopolitical issue — Brazil's expanding influence in Paraguay and in the region.

Representatives from the National League of Carperos arrived in Asuncion on Jan. 30 bearing a petition with 10,000 signatures requesting that Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo intervene in ongoing land disputes in Alto Parana department. The petition claimed that Brazilian "colonists" (known somewhat derisively as "brasiguayans," which means Paraguayans of Brazilian descent, or Brazilian immigrants) have "usurped" 167,000 hectares (412,665 acres) of public land in that area.

The claim is not a new one, but recently came to a head when, for several days starting Jan. 21, carperos attacked brasiguayan landowners in the southeastern departments of Alto Parana and Itapua. The incident escalated to violence as a result of the government's deployment of workers from INDERT, Paraguay's national agricultural reform agency, along with military personnel to assess the legal status of lands in the area. The violence has died down for the moment, but it is symptomatic of larger tensions. Violence will continue to surface as a source of tension between Paraguay and Brazil.

The Brasiguayan Borderland

Like most borderlands, the border between Brazil and Paraguay is porous, loosely defined and forms a populated zone that is demographically and culturally unique from the countries it bisects. The border between Brazil and Paraguay is a politically charged zone, and the current population dynamics can be traced back to the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870). In that war, Paraguay attempted to seize control over the Parana and Rio de la Plata riverine transport networks at the expense of the interests of Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina. By the time Paraguay lost the war, an estimated three quarters of its male population had perished.

Relations between Paraguay and Brazil were distant in the next decades, but the persistence of Paraguay's population issues gave the two common cause in the 1960s and 1970s, when Brasilia encouraged thousands of farmers to relocate to Paraguay. The passage of a 1967 law by the government of Paraguayan dictator Alfredo Stroessner that opened real estate purchasing to foreigners played a large part in the population shift, which was spurred further by the migration of Brazilians displaced by the construction of the Itaipu dam. For Brazil, this was an opportunity to employ Brazilian laborers and an economic opening for Brazilian investors. For Paraguay, the influx of Brazilian labor and capital facilitated the development of its agriculturally viable countryside.

Concentrated in the southeast, brasiguayans now account for roughly 5-7 percent of Paraguay's population but hold a disproportionate amount of the country's arable land. While exact measurements do not exist, brasiguayans are a clear center of political power in Paraguayan export agriculture, which forms the majority of Paraguayan exports. Soybeans are the country's biggest cash crop, followed by cotton and beef. Notably, not every brasiguayo is a wealthy landowner, but overall they are an economically privileged demographic. In addition to their economic advantages, both perceived and real, brasiguayans speak Portuguese and are socially insulated from the rest of Paraguay.

Many Paraguayans question the equity — and the legality — of brasiguayan land ownership, and at the forefront of this issue are Paraguayan landless poor. These tensions have frequently resulted in minor skirmishes. For example, in December 2009 carperos wounded a brasiguayo farmer who was fumigating his crops in Caaguazu department. In February 2010, an unidentified group stole money, vehicles and electronic goods from a brasiguayo property in Hernandarias district, Alto Parana department. In January 2011, a Brazilian farmer had his throat slit in an apparent robbery of his property in Naranjal district, Alto Parana department.

Shifting Political Winds

At the center of today's dispute are landholdings claimed by Tranquilo Favero, Paraguay's richest man and a brasiguayan. Favero owns property in 13 of the country's 17 departments and is the head of the group that claims to produce 90 percent of the country's soybeans. The carperos claim Favero is illegally farming public land. Paraguay's record keeping of land ownership is inconsistent at best, which is the driving force behind the decision to send INDERT workers to survey land in the area.

When he came to power in 2008, Lugo explicitly promised the carperos he would enact land reform. However, Lugo is a weak president, having come into power on a loose coalition of parties that have since fragmented. The issue of land reform is perhaps the most contentious of all Paraguayan issues, and one that pits Lugo against the richest man in Paraguay along with the powerful Colorado Party (which ruled Paraguay for more than 70 years). Furthermore, any disruption of ongoing agricultural activities would threaten the productivity of Paraguay's most important economic sector.

With an enormous array of domestic pressures allied against him, Lugo has made very little headway on his land reform campaign promises.

Regional Implications

Though this is a primarily domestic issue for Paraguay as it struggles to meet the needs of an exceedingly poor population, Brazil maintains both a strategic and a political interest in land scuffles in Paraguay. Though Brazil remains a largely internally focused power in South America, it keeps a careful eye on developments on its border. In an immediate political sense, there are Brazilian citizens living in Paraguay who are affected by these dynamics, and violence or threats of expropriation against Brazilians is a source of bilateral tension.

Brazilian rhetoric on this issue is relatively muted, but the government is pressuring Paraguay to both register Brazilian residents in Paraguay and provide clarity on the issue of land ownership. To date, this is a bilateral issue that is handled at the technocratic level and has not risen to the level of a major bilateral tension.

But the lack of Brazilian public statements on this issue does not detract from the strategic implications of Brazil's gradual insertion of influence into Paraguay. Paraguay and its neighbors Bolivia and Uruguay form a line of buffer states between the continent's two competing major powers, Brazil and Argentina. In the early 20th century, Argentina appeared poised to dominate the continent as a major global economic player while Brazil was just beginning to carve out its place in the continent. Since that time, their respective political evolutions have reversed the order of affairs, and Brazil is now the dominant economic power of Latin America.

Over the course of Brazil's rise, Brazil has begun to extend influence into neighboring countries, and in the past several decades it has begun to seriously challenge Argentine influence in all three countries. In Bolivia, Brazilian state-owned energy company Petroleos Brasileiros is the dominant investor in Bolivian natural gas production. In Uruguay, while Argentine investment remains important, Brazilian investment increased nearly 800 percent from 2001 to 2009. And in Paraguay, where historical tensions with Brazil are most prominent, Brazilian influence has been extremely strong both through economic ties to the Colorado Party as well as the shared interest in the Itaipu dam.

These are the relationships that, over time, will either facilitate or detract from Brazil's rise as a regional power. Although Brazil remains focused on domestic economic affairs and approaches foreign questions in the region with extreme delicacy, if Brazil continues to grow as a global economic player, influence in Paraguay and its fellow buffer states will be critical for the consolidation of Brazilian influence in South America.

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