Rural life, like much else in Paraguay, was defined by a series of dichotomies: commercial versus subsistence agriculture, large landholdings as opposed to small farms, and landowners in contrast to squatters. Land ownership was highly concentrated, and large- scale enterprises dominated the production of lucrative commercial crops. Most farms were smaller than ten hectares. In the densely settled central region (comprising the departments of Paraguarí, Cordillera, Guairá, and Caazapá), these small landholdings constituted as much as 80 percent of all landholdings.
Although inequality underlay the system as a whole, the extensive land reserves and low population density that characterized Paraguay until the 1950s softened the impact of the disparities recorded in agricultural surveys and censuses. The largest holdings were vast ranches in the Chaco or along the country's eastern border, regions of low population density. Large estates were typically worked extensively, but custom permitted squatters to occupy the fringes with little interference. The landowner would be either unaware of their presence or undisturbed by it. Even where there were terms of rent for land, they might be as minimal as occasional labor for the landlord or gifts of produce at harvest or on the landlord's birthday. Although surveys showed that few Paraguayans owned land, fewer still paid much for the privilege of using it. Historically, squatters were useful to a landowner in a variety of informal ways. They were a pool of reserve labor, semi-obligated to work for below-average wages during labor shortages. The presence of squatters also was insurance against more serious incursions on one's lands in an environment where clear land titles were not easy to come by. Patterns of land use were deeply ingrained in any event, and they often limited a landowner's options in dealing with tenants.
The relationship between the landowner and squatters was usually transitory, but in some instances it persisted for generations as a patrón-peón arrangement. The patrón served as an advocate for his peones; they were to him the elements of a loyal following. In essence, the connection was that of client to powerful protector. It implied unquestioning loyalty and respect on the part of the peón.
The patrón-peón relationship served as a metaphor and model for proper social relations for rural society; indeed, the terms effectively delineated social boundaries. Peasants used patrón as a general term of respectful address in speaking to any urban person of obviously higher status. Townspeople generalized peón to refer to any lower-class person-- although not in direct address, because to call a person peón to his face would be a breach of etiquette. The relationship also colored economic relations between patrón and peón; anthropologists Elman and Helen Service described contracting wage labor between the two: ". . . a patrón hires a person as though he were asking a personal favor, and the peón responds as though he were obliged to grant it." Economic relations as a whole were ideally enmeshed in social ties like that of patrón to peón. Storekeepers each had their loyal followings, and it was considered disloyal to shop at another shop merely to take advantage of better prices. In return, customers expected preferential treatment, small favors, and some credit when they needed it.
Peasant farming was characterized by "agricultural nomadism"; the search for a better plot or improved circumstances was perennial. Cultivation was slash-and-burn followed by a fallow period of several years. Farmers preferred land on the fringe of primary or dense secondary strands of tropical forests. Agricultural income among small farmers was not particularly tied to land tenure. A successful peasant might own, rent, or simply use the lands he farmed.
Population growth eventually increased pressure on farmland and forest reserves. The pressure was most acute in the arc stretching roughly 100 kilometers north and east of Asunción, where approximately half the farms and half the squatters in the country were found. By the late 1950s, squatters and landowners faced increasingly bitter confrontations over communal grazing rights and land boundaries. Large landholders called for programs to "decongest" the central area and move the squatters to less populated regions along the northern and eastern borders.
These calls led to the formation in 1963 of an agrarian reform agency--the Rural Welfare Institute (Instituto de Bienestar Rural-- IBR)--charged with the task of resettling peasants in the eastern border region, especially the departments of Alto Paraná, Canendiyú, Amambay, and Caaguazú. Although the program resettled many families in the 1960s and 1970s, critics noted that efforts to improve the farmers' standard of living were hampered by a lack of credit, technical assistance, and infrastructure.
The eastern region enjoyed an economic boom during the building of the Itaipú hydroelectric power plant. As construction was completed, however, thousands of laborers were lost their jobs. In the meantime, the land tenure situation in the region had changed dramatically. Many large landowners sold their properties to Brazilian and other foreign agribusinesses. These new owners, more committed than their predecessors to modern farming techniques, strongly objected to the presence of peasants on their properties. In addition, thousands of Brazilian farmers entered the area to claim properties significantly cheaper than comparable lands in their own country. As a result, the erstwhile Itaipú laborers were unable to resume the practice of occupying plots as squatters. Clashes occurred between squatters and authorities throughout the mid-1980s. During the same period, the demand for farm laborers declined as the large-scale timber and soybean enterprises in the area became more mechanized.
Despite these dramatic changes in land tenure, many other aspects of rural society remained unchanged into the late 1980s. Most farming was subsistence-oriented. Given a holding of some ten hectares, a family might keep four to six hectares under actual cultivation at any given time. The traditional tool kit and technological repertoire reflected the limited economic opportunities the countryside afforded most farmers.
The family was the chief source of farm labor. Men usually cleared the land and prepared the soil; women and children planted, weeded, and harvested the crops. Men were frequently absent in search of wage labor and women were accustomed to manage the farm in their absence. Farms permanently headed by women were rare, however; a woman widowed or deserted by her spouse typically moved to a nearby town.
Neighbors frequently exchanged labor for various agricultural tasks; recipients were obliged to return the assistance when the neighbor needed help, although this arrangement was not formalized. The rate of labor exchange was greater when, as was often the case, neighbors were also relatives. Most crops had a lengthy planting and harvesting season, which spread out the periods of peak labor demand and facilitated the exchange of labor among households.
Wage labor was important to the family's subsistence. In some regions men supplemented agricultural production by gathering the yerba maté bush--the leaves of which produced a bitter tea consumed by Paraguayans--or by hunting game. If the homestead was along a major road, women sold handicrafts. Raising livestock often was a subsidiary source of income.
The numerous small towns dotting the eastern half of the country every ten to twenty kilometers were the loci of commercial relations and all effective political and religious authority. A town's inhabitants normally included a few large commercial ranchers, wholesalers and retailers of all kinds and degrees of prosperity, small manufacturers, government officials, and a few professionals such as teachers and pharmacists. There were numerous poor people who eked out a living as servants or laborers. The occupational specialists common to rural Paraguay -- barbers, curers, and craftsmen--were typically town dwellers. Most households headed by females were urban; the women earned their livelihood as storekeepers, servants, seamstresses, laundresses, curers, midwives, or cigar-makers.
Peasants attended town functions primarily as observers. Rural families might visit a nearby town during its saint's fiesta, but church would be too far away for regular attendance. The lay functionaries who attended to many church affairs in the community were urban and prosperous. Civic events and fiestas themselves reflected enduring social distinctions based on wealth and breeding: that between la gente (the common people) and la sociedad (society, those with wealth and the required social graces). Fiestas traditionally included separate dances for the two groups that might be held on different nights or in different locations. There was little doubt about who should attend which function. The only role for la gente at the formal dance for the upper crust was as observers.
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