Rise in poverty rate in Paraguay shows farmers hit hardest

Paraguayan farmer taking a break from work. (Samuel Auguste/Flickr)

Paraguay had been making progress against poverty over the years, but the government has reported a recent rise in poverty that some say stems from an inadequate focus on agricultural communities.

Despite the country’s overall economic growth last year, the total poverty rate – which the World Bank defines as less than $3.10 a day – rose from 26.6 to 28.8 percent, according to results of a survey by Paraguay’s Technical Secretariat of Planning.

Extreme poverty, experienced by those living on less than $1.90 per person per day, rose from 5.4 to 5.7 percent.

Paraguay’s economy depends heavily on agricultural products from rural communities, where most of those living in poverty reside. In rural areas, poverty remains at an all-time high, affecting nearly 40 percent of the population compared to just 22 percent in urban areas, according to the government survey.

Diosnel Benitez, leader of the Farmers’ Association of the North in the department (akin to province or state) of San Pedro, the poorest in the country, told the Associated Press that the government “prioritized the completion of some infrastructure projects but forgot the farmers, who are still as poor as they were 50 years ago.”

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“In the department of San Pedro, for example, hundreds of peasants sell their small farms at low prices to the big soy growers because there is no market for their products,” Benitez said. “If they find where to sell them, prices are very low.”

In addition to poor market conditions, the deterioration of natural resources, loss of soil fertility, and the absence of essential public goods and services also contribute to rural poverty in the region, according to an anti-poverty nonprofit organization called the Borgen Project.

The recent increase in poverty has gained attention since it represents a reversal from previous years of steady decline in poverty rates for the South American country. Prior to last week’s release of the new survey data, Paraguay had been able to report a decline in its poverty rate over the past five years, from 31.37 to 26.58 percent.

Some say the regress is due to the government’s focus on ‘extreme poverty’ rather than poverty overall. In an interview with Paraguayan radio station Monumental AM, the Minister of Technical Planning, José Molinas, admitted that the National Development Plan has a goal for reducing extreme poverty to less than 3%, but “no goal for the reduction of total poverty”.

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“The world has paid more attention to extreme poverty as something more urgent, if someone can not eat they are going to die,” he said, adding that extreme poverty has remained practically the same for the last 14 years.

Latin America as a whole experienced drastic reductions in poverty over the years, with the regional rate dropping from 48 to 28 percent between 1990 and 2015. But experts warn that this positive trend may not last, as the poverty rate for the entire region shot back up to 29 percent last year.

Speaking at a U.N.-sponsored event in Mexico City this April, Alicia Bárcena, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), warned that low rates of investment, structural gaps and limited productivity gains are threatening the region’s ability to reach the poverty reduction goals agreed upon by U.N. members in 2015.

“By 2030, we have to take 75 million people out of extreme poverty,” Bárcena told Reuters. “Zero is the only acceptable level of poverty.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com