The fight against corruption, agrarian reform, a halt to
the invasion of transgenic soya and, of course, the eradication
of poverty: the challenges awaiting the newly elected president
of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, are not for the fainthearted.
With an area almost the size of France (400,000 square kilometres),
Paraguay has primarily an agricultural economy, with nearly
half of its 6.3 million inhabitants living in rural areas.
Mercilessly exploited for generations, the peasants found
succour only from the church and more recently from charitable
organizations such as the Swiss Red Cross.
In the region of San Pedro in central Paraguay, a bishop
rapidly made a name for himself as a champion of the poor.
He was Fernando Lugo. At the end of 2005, with the presidential
elections approaching, the coalition of opposition parties
asked the bishop to be their candidate. It seemed like a losing
gamble from the start. In 60 years no one had defeated the
candidate of the ruling Colorado Party, a veritable electoral
juggernaut. Lugo accepted the challenge, and after being let
go by the church, won a comfortable victory on 20 April 2008.
The right to health
With the hopes of the poor resting on his shoulders, Lugo
can count on the support of numerous charitable associations
and international organizations in accomplishing his mission.
In a country where 46 per cent of the population live below
the poverty line and almost 60 per cent do not have access
to a public health system, the Swiss Red Cross is helping
local peasant organizations to set up health centres for the
One of these is Tesai Reka Paraguay, an umbrella group of
30 peasant organizations working to promote universal health
care. Health centres, some of which train nurses and midwives,
are being built in the remotest corners of the country.
Maria is a midwife in her fifties. She has turned a room
in her house into a mini labour ward with the aid of the Swiss
Red Cross. The furniture is rudimentary. Two white metal beds
and a wooden table laid out with the basic tools of her trade:
forceps, a syringe, sterile compresses, and that’s about
it. “I have been helping women give birth for 25 years,”
says Maria. “And during all those years, every single
labour has gone without a hitch.”
Although Western medicine is effective, traditional medicine
still has a strong hold in Paraguay. The Swiss Red Cross is
also supporting a programme to conserve and develop this branch
of medicine, which is based mainly on medicinal plants. For
example, at San Miguel College, more than 150 students from
rural families are enrolled in a six-year course, which includes
the study of products of traditional medicinal plants, such
as meadowsweet or maté.
The Swiss Red Cross also assists the Paraguayan Red Cross
during emergencies, such as during an outbreak of dengue fever
in 2007. On that occasion, emergency activities, including
blood donation, the distribution of mosquito nets, the destruction
of larva nests and the establishment of clinics to treat people
affected by the disease, were launched in 50 communes.
“We are trying to defend the small peasant farmers
from the big landowners who are covering every inch of land
with soya,” explains Jose Parra, coordinator of Tesai
Reka Paraguay. Soya — the fatal word. “Paraguay
is being taken over by soya,” says Thomas Palau, a sociologist
in the capital Asunción. The area devoted to soya cultivation
rose from 1 million hectares in 1997 to nearly 3 million today.
The social and health consequences of this ‘soyization’
are unprecedented. Spraying herbicides from the air poisons
the people who live near the soya fields. They end up leaving
their plots of land, which are then bought up at rock-bottom
prices by the soya farmers.
“It is not always easy to do our work. Some latifundium
[large ranch] owners refuse outright to let us onto their
properties,” says Volker Sitta, the Swiss Red Cross
delegate for Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador. “Their employees,
mostly Guarani Indians who are treated like slaves, have to
come off the estates to get a check-up. Fernando Lugo has
promised agrarian reform, but it will be an uphill task. The
big landowners stick together and most of them have their
own militias to keep out any interference.” The new
president will therefore have to walk a tightrope between,
on the one hand, the affluent who will do everything possible
to obstruct his reforms and, on the other hand, the dispossessed
who will not forgive him if the reforms are not hastened through.
Pierre Bratschi is a freelance journalist based in
An information session organized by the Paraguayan Red Cross,
in a school in San Pedro province, on yellow fever prevention.
©LUIS VERA / SWISS RED CROSS
Work in progress
Paraguay has been out of the media spotlight since
the fall of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner in 1989,
but the ICRC still has significant work to do there.
Its delegates make regular visits to the country’s
detention centres and act in times of crisis, such
as in 2004 when 600 poverty-stricken and desperate
peasants were arrested for illegally occupying land
that had been left to lie fallow. “The prisons
were not designed to house so many people, and the
sanitary conditions were appalling,” says Michel
Minnig, head of the ICRC regional delegation for South
America. “We helped the authorities to improve
living conditions for the inmates by installing running
water and providing mattresses and medicines.” The
peasants were released, but more than 3,000 remain
on probation and can be reimprisoned at any moment.
To support the Paraguayan Red Cross in its goal to
become a reference organization, the ICRC is helping
to train its members in first aid. It is also working
with the police forces to try to bring their directives
in line with human rights law, as was done with the
Rio de Janeiro police in Brazil. The armed forces,
who according to the constitution can be called upon
to intervene in the maintenance of law and order, are
also an important target audience for the regional
“You have to make them understand that they are
not engaged in a military action aimed at destroying
the enemy, but in a policing exercise in which force
must only be used as a last resort,” explains
The ICRC also acts as a ‘consultant’.
The government’s decision to place prisons under
the authority of the Ministry of Health prompted a
full investigation into the general state of the penitentiary
system, and the implementation of the resulting reforms
has been carried out under the ICRC’s supervision. “Fernando
Lugo’s coming to power should facilitate the
ICRC’s task, even though the state of the prison
system is not one of his central concerns,”
Cultivation of meadowsweet, a plant used in traditional medicine, at San Miguel
©LUIS VERA / SWISS RED CROSS