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Lucia’s tears in the forest of Chaco

No longer having any choice. Weeping in silence and not finding any accessible path. Sinking deeper and deeper into a ravine the end of which was impossible to see. All these sensations troubled Lucia when she left her daughter, little Mary at a family-style home for women who give up motherhood in Paraguay, for ever. Her child is two years old, some children at that centre are four times as tall as she is. She is still unweaned because of an illness affecting her growth. In order to get to the home Lucia walked on beaten earth tracks pitted with holes that cut through soya fields as well as for dozens of kilometres through the wild nature of the forest. The Casa Esperanza Centre takes in about 30 children from birth until the age of three, all of them the children of single women who are unable to keep their own off-spring. The youngest of five daughters, Lucia too, at the age of three, was entrusted to a couple of very poor campesinos, who died when she was 16. Her birth family was prevented from taking care of her by their great poverty.

Casa Esperanza is located in a part of the forest of Chaco, which is divided between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay. It is an area with a very rich biodiversity, the second largest such area in South America. Today, this forest, exploited by farming and industrial livestock breeding, has become a land that expels people. Nine thousand families a year flee to cities, escaping not only from unemployment and the lack of any prospects but also from being bombarded by chemicals from the aeroplanes and helicopters that spray the cultivated land with pesticides, exposing the inhabitants to the toxic effects of herbicides. They call it el mal del avión (“the aeroplane sickness”).Aided by mechanization and an intensive use of plant protection products, today a single campesino can tend up to 600 hectares of cultivated land, a surface area that could once feed 60 families. But for those who remain living in the country, often single women and elderly people, there is a price to pay.

It is this that little Mary, Lucia’s daughter, must contend with as a victim of malformation from birth, a consequence of being exposed to certain chemical components. We are speaking of one of the most widely used herbicides, the terrible glyphosate, recently recognized as probably carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (iarc). The campesinos’ associationsspeak openly of a “very serious situation” and there are thousands of reports of suspected deaths while one study of the Sociedad Paraguaya de Pediatría has ascertained that more than 40 per cent of the mothers exposed to agrotoxinsduring pregnancy subsequently gave birth to babies with serious malformations.

In a few years Paraguay has become the third largest exporter and the fourth largest producer of soya in the world As a result the country has known years of high economic development while at the same time remaining one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Despite the entry of their products on the world market, about 22 per cent of the population lives in poverty, while about nine per cent is in the grip of extreme poverty. Moreover, the monoculture of soya has destroyed the traditional peasant productive system. The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of peasants from their land and the expansion of intensive soya plantations are two established facts. It is precisely because of this situation that the country is mentioned expressly in Laudato si’. Pope Francis cites the strong words of denunciation pronounced in 1983 by the Paraguayan bishops on the right to land: “Every campesino has a natural right to possess a reasonable allotment of land where he can establish his home, work for the subsistence of his family and a secure life. This right must be guaranteed so that its exercise is not illusory but real. That means that apart from the ownership of property, rural people must have access to means of technical education, credit, insurance, and markets”.

Lucia, like so many other campesina women, knows that in some places in the Paraguayan countryside the law of the strongest prevails. And she is too weak to do anything about it.

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