ROME – Paraguay’s bishops have called on the South American nation’s civil authorities to respect the rights of indigenous peoples, carry out an agrarian reform, and promote the common good in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We address you to express our deep concern at the forced evictions and threats of expulsion of indigenous and peasant communities in various areas of the country,” they wrote in a pastoral letter. “The recent episodes cause us indignation and we urge the national authorities to protect the rights of the native peoples in our country and the right to land of our compatriots.”
In a text dated Nov. 29, the bishops also called for an agrarian reform, the promotion of family farming and initiatives to ensure the protection of the ecology in a healthy, sustainable and solidarity-based economy.
Though the country’s economy has grown in recent years, supported by the export of soybeans and cattle, small-scale farmers are losing their jobs due to the actions of big agricultural companies: Almost 90 percent of the land belongs to five percent of landowners. Large-scale agriculture is steadily monopolizing the market in Paraguay, to the detriment of the country’s population: Only six percent of the agricultural land is available for domestic food production, while 94 percent is used for export crops. This means that citizens are facing hunger and malnutrition.
According to the Food Security Index, before the pandemic began, around 10 percent of children under the age of 5 suffered from stunting, nearly 27 percent of pregnant women were underweight, while 30 percent were overweight.
“It is time to put an end to misery, extreme poverty and practices that harm social cohesion, the common good and health in our common home,” the bishops said.
The bishops also urge legislators to repeal a recent modification to the Penal Code that sanctions with up to ten years in prison to those who invade private lands, a measure approved at the request of the big farming companies that in the past two decades began exploiting lands previously owned by indigenous populations.
“Before criminalizing, [legislators] must demand and ensure access to resources and opportunities in accordance with the dignity of all citizens,” the bishops wrote.
The controversial legislation was approved last September by President Mario Abdo, and small farmers and indigenous populations have already announced a mobilization to the capital, Asuncion, for March of next year, when Congress begins working again after the summer break.
The Paraguayan bishops also exhorted the powers of the State to “be sensitized to the many needs we are going through in the pandemic conditions, and to take the opportune decisions to take care of all Paraguayans.”
Over 16,400 people have died of COVID-19 since March of 2020, and less than 40 percent of the population has received two doses of the vaccine.
In the letter, the prelates also stress “the urgency of strengthening, defending and promoting the common good as the foundation of social peace.”
The bishops also consider that it is necessary to raise their voice to remember “that the law binds the legislator as well as all those who are under its jurisdiction,” and any act that harms “the sense and application of the precepts of the National Constitution and the validity of the body of law discredits the faith deposited in the laws and their authorities.”
Therefore, they express their demand that the authorities respect the rights of indigenous peoples, in order to “ensure equality and non-discrimination, autonomy, access to justice with respect to indigenous customary law, protection of their territories and natural resources for their livelihood.”
On Sunday, as the Novena in honor of the Virgin of Caacupé, the country’s patroness, the homily of the main Mass celebrated in the shrine included several criticisms against those in power.
Father Miguel Fritz, dean of the shrine, denounced the inequality and injustices in the access and distribution of land in this Latin American country, saying that “it is not surprising that the drama of evictions worsens because the hunger for land by the agribusinessmen is insatiable.”
“It is sad and shameful that year after year we have to denounce the cruel eviction of indigenous communities, it is a shocking reality,” said Fritz, recalling the expressions of Pope Francis who said that “private property is not an absolute right as is human dignity.”
Close to 40 percent of the indigenous population lives in rural areas, though they’re increasingly moving towards the urban regions after being forced to sell their lands.
“We need justice for all of us who form this great family of Paraguay because we all have the same dignity and we should have the same rights, also those who today suffer evictions,” said Fritz. “God is not pleased with those who use violence, those who criminalize those who fight for their legitimate rights, those who practice corruption and those who denigrate those who are different.”