“Essentially three things are happening: a genocide, an ecocide and an ethnocide” proclaims Ernesto Benítez, a leading rural workers’ rights activist in Paraguay, and Director of the Agricultural Producers’ Coordination Office of San Pedro Norte

The Curuguaty Massacre, a “confrontation” between 324 police officers, armed with Galil rifles, shields, tear gas canisters, horses and a helicopter, and 60 farmworkers – half of whom were women, children and elderly people – in Marina Kue, Curuguaty, took place on the 15th June 2012. The President, Fernando Lugo, was impeached and removed from office just one week after the whirlwind trial that followed.

Ernesto Benítez bears the scars of someone who has never capitulated to the powerful plantation owners. On the 7th September 1995, he was one of the 21 people who suffered gunshot wounds during a National Police-led attack on farmworkers who were holding demonstrations in Santa Rosa del Aguaray. It was during this attack that Pedro Gímenez, only 20 years old, was murdered. “The police shot me with a rifle and I almost died. They had to remove part of my lung”, Benítez relates. In 2003, during a protest where 16 people suffered gunshot wounds, and Eulalio Blanco was murdered, Benítez was taken to the Santa Rosa del Aguaray police station, where soldiers and police officers tortured him. In his estimation, so long as there is no agrarian reform and the power of the big soya producers and multinationals remains intact, “there will be no justice in Paraguay”. For Benítez, this is the great sticking point of the legal battle surrounding the Curuguaty massacre: “if my companions are let out and we can prove that this is public land, then the 10 million hectares of illegally occupied land which have ended up in the hands of the big landowners will have to be accounted for. Another fundamental point is that it was on the back of the Curuguaty massacre that the coup d’état, and the multinationals’ rise to political power, took place.” Below is the interview in full.

The last census in Paraguay, in 2008, revealed that 85.5% of land in the country is owned by 2.5% of its landowners. What has changed in recent years?

I believe that inequality has been rising at an accelerated rate. Now, with this new government, which we consider to be presiding over an era of irreversible ‘transnationalisation’, things have got worse. This is because the government concerns itself exclusively with the interests of a mere 200 local landowning families and is a slave to international capital. That’s why it systematically attacks the indigenous and rural populations, with State institutions openly protecting the interests of the multinationals. And so, as a consequence of the poverty and violence, inequality has been getting deeper.

In Paraguay, soya producers pay practically no taxes. How can this be?

Rural workers’ organisations, finding their voice with the help of parliamentarians from the Frente Guazu (a left-wing electoral alliance in Paraguay) and other representatives from centrist and progressive parties, have been trying hard, lately, to push on with a parliamentary study. Following this, we want to work towards passing a law that would make soy producers pay between 12 and 15% in tax? The parliamentary study has happened, it passed the two chambers and reached the President, who vetoed it. And so the old law, which doesn’t even stipulate 3% in tax payment, stands.

Which is next to nothing.

Indeed, it’s nothing. The only ones paying taxes of 10% (in VAT) are the population at large. It’s poor people who are paying to keep the State up-and-running in this country.

We are being hit by the rising price, not just of the minimum grocery shop, but of food in general. There’s a sea of soya, vast herds of cattle, and almost nothing else. Everything is geared towards producing for export. Is there any room left for small-scale producers?

Looking at it closely, this is a brutal moment in history. There is a dispute going on between the dominant hegemonic force, the owners of agricultural commerce (or ‘agribusiness’), and the indigenous and rural populations who are trying to survive and are fighting back. These are not simply two economic models, but rather two visions, two different ways of seeing and inhabiting the world.

Tell us briefly about this conflict.

The hegemonic model, technically known as agribusiness, we define as the one-dimensional perspective. Land is seen as a means of production: the water, the tree, the seed, the plants, the animals, human beings, everything is merchandise. It is one-dimensional: it sees everything as money. Our perspective on the other hand is multi-dimensional, because land is not just land, it is territory and a space for living in.

In the fullest sense…

The land is first and foremost an ecological space, where human beings live in harmony with the rest of nature, mutually interconnected. The trees are fundamental, because they make life possible. Human beings are the most helpless and most needy of creatures; we need trees in order to breathe. Fresh water is essential because the body and the brain are full of water. So the land is a space where we are connected with nature, and it is a social space where human beings help each other mutually and learn about solidarity. Our territory is a cultural space. As indigenous people (most particularly the guarani) are known for saying: without territory there is no culture, because that’s where people are born, work, talk, sing, play, pray, die… It is the foundation upon which are built solidarity, humanism and a respect for the natural world. It is a political space, where our learning and our behavior towards other people determine our social standing. It is also a technological space because, depending on how we see the world, we develop useful skills which guarantee our survival, and tools which don’t harm the natural world too much. It is also an economic space, because it is a space where we work to produce food essential for our survival. Indeed, it is a philosophical space where an entire worldview, an entire way of seeing and inhabiting the world, is developed. Therefore, far from being a purely economic space, as ‘agribusiness’ would have it – basically seeing it as a means of producing grain, of merchandise, of meat for central countries –, for us, the indigenous and rural populations, it is a space for living in. In other words, this is about more than a mere conflict between two economic models. These are two different ways of understanding the world. Such a conflict of world-views triggers a lot of violence.

Agribusiness expanded enormously, with damaging repercussions for the population.

Of our country’s 40 million hectares, almost 38 million already belong to agribusiness. Just over 2 million belong to 33% of the population of Paraguay – that’s 2.5 million indigenous people and country-dwellers. In order to consolidate their agribusiness model, they need to expel all these people who still cling to their land. That’s why they resort to violence.

Marina-Kue CuruguatySo you are saying that this cycle is resulting in genocide?

Essentially three things are happening: a genocide, an ecocide and an ethnocide. The authorities try, by all means available, to cover up the genocide, hush it up, so that the population won’t see it or understand what’s happening. Despite this, the fact is that over the last 20 years, many poor country folk have been killed by police, soldiers and hired guards. However, bullets aren’t the only murder-weapon. Toxic pesticides kill far more people: adults, elderly people and children, who are also at risk of developing all manner of deformities, forcing families to flee from the countryside.

And what about the devastating environmental impact? 

An ecocide is also underway: in the last four years they have cut down 4 million hectares of woodland. Today in Paraguay, 1,500 hectares of woodland are cut down every day. The death of woods, rivers, brooks, and lakes that are swiftly drying out, causes a huge depletion of natural resources.

Which saddens you the most?

The one that hurts the most is the ethnocide, the cultural death of an entire race. For us, for the people of Paraguay, the land is the fundamental building block of a nation. When we lose the land, we are no longer what we once were, we lose our roots. Being in touch with the land is essential for our survival as a culture and for our sense of nationhood. And all of these elements are developed in the countryside. In the last two decades, around 1.5 million Paraguayans have had to migrate to the city or leave the country. For us, this is a lot of violence, and it is also deeply hurtful for the indigenous and rural populations who struggle, slaving away, making sacrifices.

The aggression is shocking, because it happens on all levels…

Our enemies are very brutal, very cruel, because they have the whole apparatus of the State on their side. The multinationals are cruelly marching on our territory, with tremendous force, destroying everything in their path.

Is that why the flag of agrarian reform was flying high during the second general strike against the Cartes government, which took place recently?

Historically, agrarian reform has been an important cause for our country, country and city dwellers alike, to rally around. It is an essential tool for ensuring the survival of a good proportion of the rural population, and the provision of food to the cities. Nowadays, as a result of the extreme impoverishment of the rural and indigenous populations, many of the products consumed in the country need to be imported. With the multinationals taking over the means of production, the things that get eaten in the countryside, and principally in the cities – like tomatoes, peppers and strawberries – are extremely harmful because they are full of toxic chemicals. All essential fruits and vegetables, consumed daily here, are subjected to between 12 and 15 fumigations within a 6-month period. It’s terrible. That’s why, if we talk about building a democratic country, a country concerned about the welfare of its citizens, healthy food supplies, we need to move away from this unjust agrarian structure, which benefits a handful of local and foreign landowners but disadvantages almost seven million Paraguayans.

Perhaps agrarian reform is an important element around which social movements can unify?

It provides a vitally important link between the indigenous population, the rural population and the organized urban sectors. There’ll be no change in this country until we have agrarian reform, because agribusiness still holds vast sway over our entire economic model. The production of cattle, grain; the banks and financiers who set up in the cities; above all the running of agricultural production, the silos, the transport, the ports: it’s all related to the economic activity that takes place in the countryside. So it is essential for the urban sectors, the workers, and the students to bear in mind the need to reclaim these rights. When a general strike is arranged calling for a move away from this unjust agricultural model, itgoes to show that there’s an awareness of the problem out there.

What is your verdict on the way the big media conglomerates handled the Curuguaty massacre?

There are two things to bear in mind when trying to understand why they are so aggressive and cruel. The first is that they want to punish our comrades, lock them up for 25, 30 years. If they don’t get that, if our comrades walk free, we can prove that this land is not private property, but state property. Illegally occupied land, in fact, which was public state-owned property some 20 to 30 years ago. Land that belonged to the people, and that during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-1989) the army, the police and hired guards took by brute force.

How much land are we talking about?

8 million are proven (to be so), but some institutions say 10 million, 25% of national territory was violently taken from its rightful owners. This mostly happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was utterly illegal, especially given how clear the law is: the true protagonists of agrarian reform are the rural and indigenous populations, they are the ones who ought to be given land by the State.

Instead, they ended up in the hands of Stroessner’s cronies?

Exactly so. The illegally occupied territories are at the heart of the Curuguaty conflict. They used to belong to a foreign landowner, but the Paraguayan state recovered the lands that belonged to Marinha, and that’s why it is called ‘Marina Kue’. But little by little the Riquelme family (Blas Riquelme was a senator for the Partido Colorado under Stroessner), aided by some state institutions, went about appropriating the lands for themselves.  Indeed, Marina Kue is public land that’s been claimed by a private landowner, it is being occupied illegally. So the first question we must ask ourselves is: if our comrades walk free and we can prove that it’s public land, then the 10 million hectares of public land which have fallen into the hands of the big landowners will have to be accounted for. That’s one thing. The other important thing to bear in mind is that it was on the back of the Curuguaty massacre that the coup d’état, and the multinationals’ rise to political power, took place. They already had economic power with their plantations, their herds, the drugs traffickers. For a long time they have been controlling the whole education system, introducing neoliberal concepts, taking over universities. Today they’ve already got 80 private universities. That’s how they have taken over the ideological framework and finally, with the Curuguaty massacre, they cleared the way for Cartes to become the President of the Republic, and for the multinationals’ rise to political power. That’s how they bring the process full circle. That’s what’s at stake as we fight for our comrades’ freedom. If they walk free, then the primary reason for Cartes’s triumph – that is, the triumph of the multinationals in our country – can be undone.

*This article, originally published by Carta Maior on 8 January 2016, has been edited for publication by LAB. It was translated by Andrzej Stuart-Thompson. You can read the original here.

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