Paraguay: Campesino leader charged for confronting crop spraying
The criminalization of social movements in Paraguay has worsened with the recent order to detain political and social leader Tomás Zayas, a municipal councilor and three campesinos, charged for “Homicidal intent and criminal association.” These accusations are due to the conflict that has developed over the last three years over intense crop spraying with pesticides suffered by the Leopoldo Perrier community of San Cristóbal Municipality in the department of Alto Paraná, Paraguay.
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Tomas Zayas, the leader of the Association of Alto Paraná Farmers (ASAGRAPA),1 and the National Center of Peasant, Indigenous and Popular Organizations (CNOCIP),2 is moreover a senatorial candidate for the Workers’ Party3 in the April 20th elections.
ASAGRAPA is a campesino organization that works in one of the principle zones of production of genetically modified soy in Paraguay. The campesino communities in these zones live surrounded by immense soy fields and are highly exposed to the intense crop spraying with toxic pesticides, which are applied to the large-scale monoculture crops. ASAGRAPA is one of the principle organizations in the region that accompanies the struggle for the land, the re-vindication of integral agrarian reform and the rights of campesino communities. In this context, it started the “Stop the fumigation: In defense of Communities and Life” campaign in December of 2007.
In the campesino community of Leopoldo Perrier, the community became so contaminated with toxic pesticides in August of 2007 that a three-year-old child, Jesús Jiménez, died after intense crop spraying. The community and the parents of the child denounced the lack of diagnosis in the moment of death.4 As the diagnosis of ‘poison with pesticides’ was negated by the soy producers, the organizations were able to push a judicial order for the exhumation of the cadaver for its necropsy and the execution of a socio-environmental diagnostic of the community by three national institutions. The necropsy demonstrated that there were high levels of toxic pesticides in the body.
In February of this year, during the cycle of cultivation and crop spraying, the affected community resisted the crop spraying via peaceful protest. Due to this protest, the Public Prosecutor recently accused four people, three of whom were parents of young children and members of ASAGRAPA, and the leader, Tomas Zayas. The Public Prosecutor alleged that the accused composed a criminal association and that they carried out an attempted homicide by supposedly firing a gun into the air. The community indicated that Zayas was not present during the protest, nor were guns fired.
What happened to the child Jesús Jiménez is not an isolated incident; on reiterated occasions the grave problems that toxic pesticides cause in communities has been denounced. Local press reports indicate that in the Leopoldo Perrier community, the soy producers “do not respect the crop borders established by law, with relation to human settlements, educational institutions and water ways.”5 Other press reports point out that “classes are often cancelled on days of crop spraying on the field twenty meters away because the children faint from the smell. It also causes spontaneous abortions, the death of fish, pigs and other animals.”6
Denunciations of the impact of the monoculture soy fields on the community have been made on an international level. The Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of the United Nations indicated amongst other observations that “the expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities.”7 An investigation carried out the same year in the tour departments of greatest soy production revealed that in the studied communities 78% of families showed a health problem caused by the frequent crop spraying in the soy fields, 63% of which was due to contaminated water.8
In the Leopoldo Perrier community, after these reports were published, the community members have been recieveing constant threats, including from the municipal superintendent, who verbally intimidated the community in response to their organization. However, the events in this community are part of a process of greater importance. The pressure that the campesino organizations suffer due to State persecution is reflected in the Report of International Observation in Paraguay, which indicates how the Executive branch has concentrated the power “that with public forces in its hands, the alliance of the Public Prosecutor, and the Supreme Court as a guarantee of impunity, has created a campaign of massive repression of the campesino sector, in order to facilitate and guarantee the amplification of the border of genetically modified soy.”9
This strategy is based on four reasons for persecution:
- “Links with common delinquency.
- The criminalization of protests, prosecuting the conflicts and taking protesters to trial.
- Linking campesino leaders to the causes of kidnappings.
- Linking campesino leaders to a supposedly budding guerilla activity related principally with long-standing guerillas such as those in Colombia.”10
Since 1989, the year that the Stroessner dictatorship ended, more than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated, of which only one case was investigated and the assassin convicted. The rest remain in impunity. The criminalization of protest is very serious itself; in 2004 the campesino organizations registered 1,156 detentions.11
In this context, it is appropriate to mention that the events that have occurred in the last month, including the seizure of three candidates of the Patriotic Socialist Alliance Party12 for having visited land occupied by campesinos, the unclear circumstances of the assassination of a political leader of the Tekojoja Popular Movement, the publication of articles in various medias about two supposed guerilla centers in alliance with campesino organizations, that incidentally were proposing candidates for this year’s elections.
The government and groups of power have used the Public Prosecutor and all the tools at their disposal, in an attempt to do away with political rights and social organizations. As the election nears, greater acts of violence and criminalization are generated against critical sectors and the opposition.
Claudia Russer, of the Association of Producers of Soy, Grains and Oils (APS)13 declared in an interview in 2007 that “leaders like Tomás Zayas favor confrontations against working people. Supposedly they are against the use of agricultural chemicals, but it appears that what they want is to initiate a civil war (sic).14
Zayas’ response in the media was direct: “The war that [Claudia Russer] mentions was started by them a long time ago, but it is a chemical war against our people and the people have the right to defend themselves.”15
Written by Marco Castillo, Regina Kretschmer, Javiera Rulli, Gaby Schwartzmann. Translated by April Howard. 27 March 2008.
- 1. Asociación de Agricultores de Alto Paraná
- 2. Central nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, Indígenas y Populares.
- 3. Partido de los Trabajadores
- 4. La Nación, 18 Oct. 2007, p.40.La Nación, 18 Oct. 2007, p.40.
- 5. ABC Color, 1 Nov. 2007, p.19.
- 6. La Nación, op.cit.
- 7. Observaciones finales del CDESC, Consejo Económico y Social, E/C.12/PRY/CO/322_10-2007, p.3.
- 8. Palau et.al. 2007.
- 9. Misión internacional de observación al Paraguay, Informe 2006, p. 6; SERPAJ Paraguay.
- 10. Rulli, J. 2007. 35
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. Partido Alianza Patriótica Socialista
- 13. Asociación de Productores de Soja, Cereales y Oleaginosas
- 14. ABC Color, 31 Oct, 2007, p.14.
- 15. ABC Color, 1 Nov, 2007, p.19.
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