By Barbara J. Fraser Catholic News Service
LIMA, Peru (CNS) — Although Pope Francis will not hold a special meeting with representatives of Paraguay’s small farmers and indigenous people, as church leaders had hoped, their plight is likely to come up during his visit to the South American country in July.
The country’s bishops had asked that the pope visit the city of Concepcion, in Paraguay’s agricultural region, to talk with landless farmers and indigenous people, said Bishop Heinz Wilhelm Steckling, Ciudad del Este, on the border with Argentina and Brazil.
The pope’s agenda will keep him close to Asuncion, but during a short stop at a low-income neighborhood in the capital, he will see the plight of people who have left rural areas and settled along the Paraguay River, where annual flooding displaces thousands of people.
In Banado Norte, which the pope will visit, some 70,000 people evacuated their homes last year because of higher-than-usual seasonal flooding. By mid-June this year, more than 5,000 had been forced to leave. They are among the 1.5 million poor people in a country of about 7 million.
Despite the flooding, which occurs yearly between April and June, people often are reluctant to move into government shelters because they are afraid they will lose the few possessions they have, said Father Alberto Luna, Jesuit provincial in Paraguay.
In rural areas, large companies are buying huge swaths of land for soybeans or biofuel crops, often for export, forcing small farmers off their land and polluting water used by indigenous people, said Jesuit Father Jose Maria Blanch, director of his order’s social action foundation in Paraguay. The country ranks fourth in the world in soybean exports and fifth in soybean meal exports.
Eleven farmers and six police officers died in June 2012, during the violent eviction of 60 small farmers from government land claimed by a private company in Curuguaty, northeast of Asuncion.
The incident was among the events that led to the impeachment of former Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo. Before he ran for the country’s top office, Lugo was bishop of San Pedro, another area where there are many landless small farmers.
That problem has a long history in Paraguay. In his recent encyclical, “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis quotes a letter about small farmers’ land rights issued by the country’s bishops in 1983.
In the encyclical, the pope also calls attention to deforestation. Although devastation of the Amazon forest gets the most attention in South America, Paraguay has one of the region’s highest deforestation rates, especially in its northern Chaco region.
The country, which is slightly smaller than California, has lost 10 percent of its forest — an area the size of Maryland — to farming and ranching since 2000, according to recent studies. Those operations encroach on territory inhabited by indigenous people.
Although Pope Francis will not hold an exclusive meeting with small farmers and indigenous people, they will be represented at an encounter between the pope and representatives of civic organizations. That gathering will include a gay married man.
In his remarks, the pope may also mention corruption, a problem that has made headlines recently in many Latin American countries, including his native Argentina. Several Paraguayan legislators are under investigation for alleged ties to drug traffickers.
Much of the illegal drug trade, as well as contraband smuggling, converges on Ciudad del Este, where Bishop Steckling was consecrated in December 2014. His appointment came after Pope Francis removed former Bishop Rogelio Livieres Plano “for serious pastoral reasons” following a Vatican investigation.
Bishop Livieres had opened a separate seminary, which led to conflict with other bishops. He also was accused of protecting an Argentine priest who had been accused of inappropriate contact with a student in Scranton, Pennsylvania, although a Vatican spokesman denied that was a factor in the bishop’s removal.
Pope Francis will name more new bishops in Paraguay, as most are due for retirement in the next few years, Father Luna said.
“Despite the past crisis, this diocese is a place of great religious fervor,” Bishop Steckling said of Ciudad del Este.
With many lay movements, “there is great religious strength in people who would like to change the (political) system, who would like a life without corruption,” he said.
About 7,000 volunteers from the diocese will be among the 70,000 who will help during the pope’s visit, which could draw 1 million or more visitors from outside of Paraguay.
But the real work will come after the visit, the bishop said.
“After the excitement comes the important part, which is studying everything the pope has said and taking ownership of his message in all the parishes,” he said. “We want to move away from a kind of Catholicism is that is just habitual to a more committed life of faith.”