Squatters face a crossroads


Argentina: For years their presence has gone unnoticed, but economic forces could lead to the eviction of hundreds of farmers.

January 03, 2003|By Reed Lindsay | Reed Lindsay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

POZO AZUL, Argentina - Ruben Cunha grew up a squatter. When he was 9 years old, his father staked out a chunk of thickly forested land at Pozo Azul in one of the enormous private estates, or latifundios, in the verdant northeastern province of Misiones.

Cunha helped his father and brothers cut down trees and clear out the underbrush, planting corn, cassava, sugar cane, peanuts, rice, bananas, melons and later tobacco. He worked the fields, milked the family cow, and tended the chickens and pigs.

"I always knew the land had an owner," said Cunha, a solidly built 21-year-old with curly black hair. "[But] for a family like ours, going to the city would mean starving to death."

For decades, landless peasants and wage laborers have been squatting in the vast latifundios of Misiones, a lush finger of earth wedged between Paraguay and Brazil. Absent or indifferent landowners, many of them logging companies that had culled the choice trees from the province's thick subtropical forest, looked the other way.

But in recent years, a government-promoted boom in the pine plantation industry has made every acre of the province's fertile soil prime real estate. Policy-makers have implemented an array of tax breaks and subsidies that has made the wood- and paper-products industry, which depends on the cultivation of pine trees, the linchpin of the province's economy.

The squatters, however, have no intention of leaving.

Jobs as lumberjacks or as sawmill hands have grown scarce in recent years, and in the province's growing urban shantytowns, economic prospects are as meager as in the rest of crisis-stricken Argentina. For the first time, the squatters have begun organizing and protesting, demanding title to the land they are occupying and a breaking up of the giant latifundios.

The call for agrarian reform is a novelty in Argentina. With its vast and underpopulated interior, this nation of 37 million people has long avoided the land struggles that have raged across Latin America.

At a time when media reports of children dying from malnutrition are haunting once-proud Argentina, the squatters in Misiones are insisting on equitable land distribution as a guarantee that their families will have food to eat.

In the process, they are challenging the century-old latifundio system and running up against newly organized landowners, led by a handful of companies that dominate the export-oriented forest industry.

"They say that in Argentina we produce enough to feed 300 million people," Bishop Joaquin Pina, a vociferous defender of the squatters, said at a recent forum on land. "So how is it possible that we have such a high poverty rate? Evidently, the real problem in Argentina is the distribution of wealth."

Nowhere is this new struggle for land more heated than at Pozo Azul, or Blue Well, a scattering of simple wood-plank structures along two highways that cut through a 74,000-acre latifundio in the heart of the province. Since the late 1970s, about 1,200 families have settled beside the highways, where they have cleared out the forest, planted crops and built houses.

When rumors swept through Pozo Azul that the latifundio, owned by Colonizadora Misionera, a logging company, would be sold to a pine plantation company, the squatters organized in fear of eviction.

Joined by the Pastoral Social, a social aid arm of the Roman Catholic Church, about 500 squatters blocked the intersection of the two highways in September until the government defused the protest three days later.

Francisco Garcia, the company's president, says the squatters have scared potential investors. He also complains that their slash-and-burn techniques have caused irreparable environmental damage to the land, which is within a "green corridor" of forest protected by provincial law.

But Garcia reserves his harshest criticism for the Catholic Church, which he blames for inciting the protests and land occupations.

"The Pastoral Social is pushing them with the idea that the land is divine, that God gave it to them and that it needs to be shared," Garcia said. "This theory just doesn't apply in today's world."

The number of squatters has swelled in recent years. Gustavo Weirich, who heads an office in the provincial government dedicated to resolving the land disputes, said from 36,000 to 48,000 squatters occupy 370,000 acres - about 5 percent of the province.

Weirich said the government plans on resolving the disputes case by case, based on a law that allows for the government to mediate land transfers from landowners to squatters who have occupied private property for more than eight years.

But the squatters and landowners are skeptical after years of government inaction. And even if authorities are able to settle the land in dispute, they have no long-term strategy to address the root causes of the land occupations: huge inequalities in the distribution of land and a growing population of landless, and jobless, poor people.

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