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  • Rural Paraguay 1870-1963: A Geography of Progress, Plunder and Poverty
  • Daniel W. Gade
Rural Paraguay 1870–1963: A Geography of Progress, Plunder and Poverty. Jan M. G. Kleinpenning. Madrid/Frankfurt: Iberoamericana/Vervuert. 2 vols., 1410 pp. tables, maps, index, glossary. 98 Euros. (ISBN: 978-84-8489-4834).

Paraguay does not often get on the radar of even Latin Americanists, so the appearance of a major work on this country from a geographer is an occasion to celebrate its individual place in the continental mosaic. In this two-volume work, Jan Kleinpenning has focused his main attention on a century of capitalistic landuse schemes and foreign agricultural colonies. The end of the War of the Triple Alliance in 1870 left Paraguay penniless and prostrate with ca. 90 percent of the male population killed. Since virtually all of the national territory was then owned by the state, the government had little recourse but to sell land to outsiders as a way of repopulating the country. By 1915 more than 80 percent of public land had been sold off to entrepreneurs and those seeking to create their own little utopias by starting farming settlements of like-minded folk. The book's starting date of 1870 has a stronger logic than the cutoff of 1963 when the government promulgated a new agrarian statute that opened up remaining frontiers.

Volume 1 covers three main productive activities, farming, livestocking, and forest exploitation as well as the processing industries associated with each. Traditional Paraguayan agriculture has consisted of small peasant farms on which maize and manioc have been the two main food crops. Tobacco cultivation was tied in with high local consumption: homemade cigars were smoked by men, women and children alike. Argentines and others who saw commercial opportunities in buying large amounts of cheap land brought a different notion of landuse. They started ranches carved out of the public domain to raise cattle which they processed in salting and drying establishments. Another commercial objective on privatized holdings was the production of yerba mate, [End Page 181] the leaves of which were first collected from wild-growing trees and later cultivated in plantations. A similar shift from a spontaneously growing plant to one under cultivation occurred with the bitter orange tree after a French entrepreneur successfully distilled an essential oil called petitgrain from its leaves (not the fruit). Extraction of tannin from the wild-growing quebracho tree became another entrepreneurial objective. One Argentine businessman, Carlos Casado, acquired more than 2.4 million hectares of land on the Eastern Chaco to exploit this now much diminished resource.

The second volume of this work focuses on the historical geography of the diverse peoples involved in settling the land in more than 100 colonies since 1870. German-speaking people from Europe, but also from Brazil and elsewhere, formed the single largest rural ethnic element in these projects. Hohenau, founded in 1899 near the Paraná River north of Encarnación, prospered from yerba, sugar cane and tung oil. Better known have been the Mennonite colonies of Menno and Fernheim founded established in the 1920s in the Chaco wilderness. Their success holds a grand lesson to anyone tempted by environmental determinism. Failed colonies included Nueva Germania founded in 1887, a remote ideologically-based settlement of German intellectuals who knew little about farming; Nueva Australia, a project dating from 1893 of English-speaking social utopians; and Nueva Italia, formed in 1906 by Italian settlers, but later occupied mainly by Paraguayans. Discussion of the historical geography of many of these colonies enables the reader to make useful comparisons about the basis of viable settlement of this kind and sources of agricultural innovation that spread to the country as a whole.

The author's nuanced assessments of rural Paraguay justify the mixed message conveyed in his subtitle. Although progress as conventionally defined certainly occurred, a century of rural land use in this country cannot be so neatly generalized. Crass plundering of resources, often facilitated by venal governmental officials, is also part of Paraguay's not so distant past. At the same time, poverty expanded among Guaraní-speaking Paraguayans of peasant stock. Hundreds of thousands of these people left their homeland to establish...


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