The predicament of Francisco Olmedo and his band of 60 barefoot peasant families could be a chapter in Shane - the tale of range war in the old West. A neighboring rancher claims the land they have farmed for a generation belongs to him. So he puts up locked gates and, at times, armed guards across the only road to the peasants' land.
Now the only way in or out of the woodshack campesino (peasant) settlement is to row half a mile across a reservoir and hike 3 muddy miles.
The knotty Arroyo Torin dispute is typical of the pressures building in a countryside where justice has long been the personal whim of the powerful.
But more important, say political analysts and human rights officials, a recent proliferation of land disputes is a sign of growing opposition to the corrupt status quo - that is, the 34-year regime of strongman Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
In a nation without industry, land is the main commodity of speculation for the rich and the poor's only access to income.
Long parceled out as a political patronage, land is running out. The strain is made more severe by a century of loose and crooked deals that make multiple land titles frequent.
For the second summer in a row here, the campesinos' crops - corn, melons, squash - are rotting because there is no way to get them to market.
They have farmed this rich 1,220-acre spot for a generation. Despite sham land titles that Mr. Olmedo and his neighbors unwittingly bought, the peasants won legal recognition as owners. The government land reform agency, the Institute of Rural Welfare (IBR), formally expropriated their land from the nearby owners' for them. (The IBR pays for the land it expropriates.) And the courts have ordered the road to their land opened.
But no one is enforcing the law. All the official documents Olmedo keeps on file seem to weigh little in the balance of Paraguayan justice. The campesino, about 400, remain virtual hostages on their own land.
The owner did not return phone calls to explain his case. IBR executive director Hugo Halley says only that ``the owner [blocking peasants access to their land] doesn't agree with us.'' But Mr. Halley says he cannot explain why government agencies have not forced the owner to comply with the law.
The Arroyo Torin case is not unusual, says Carlos Podest'a, former executive director of the IBR. On the contrary, ``It would be strange if it didn't occur this way because our laws are a joke. Stroessner does what he wants.''
Paraguay has been called ``a land without people and a people without land'' ever since the 19th century. By 1900, 14 proprietors, most foreign, owned 56 percent of the land in Paraguay.
Over the generations, the lack of available land led to a shady tradition of land-use practices that leaves today's legacy of duplicate and triplicate titles to single pieces of land, fake land sales, and the occasional government distribution of infertile land to peasants.
Likewise, says Mr. Podesta, Stroessner's government handed out huge land tracts as political favors to military officials, civilian supporters, and foreigners. Meanwhile, smaller lots were parcelled out through Stroessner's local Colorado Party bosses in order to build grass roots peasant loyalty to the party.
Now, Podesta says, all the land in the rural eastern region of the nation where three quarters of the population lives has been distributed - much of it in large tracts to the wealthy.
Podesta estimates 200,000 families - about a fourth of the nation's population - are landless, or without title to the land they think they own. The only way for campesinos to get land now is to squat or for the government to expropriate land from larger farms, he says.
``If this problem continues this way we'll force the campesinos to be guerrillas,'' he adds.
Indeed, many residents here had been Colorado Party loyalists and have now shifted to the the left - if not ideologically, then because leftist organizers offer them more support than Stroessner's Colorado Party. During the two-year dispute, 14 peasants were arrested by Stroessner officials.
Several legal-human rights groups aim to gain legal titles for peasants through the courts. While waiting for court action, they have organized large squatter camps on unproductive lands. Attorneys for these groups, as well as the peasants themselves, are frequently jailed and at times detained by large landowners. Several unarmed campesinos have been killed in recent years too as the military tried to evict them.
These kinds of abuses represent the bulk of human rights problems in this nation, says a forthcoming Americas Watch report on the rural Paraguayan problem. Last year 176 arbitrary detentions in land conflicts were reported. ``Human rights organizations can only cover a tenth of the problem'' because these incidents happen in isolated rural areas often among people who don't even know they have rights to the land, says Patricia Pittman, an Argentina-based consultant for Americas Watch.
``The peasant's world is defined by the land he lives off. Traditionally, and even today it's difficult for a peasant to accept the significance of a paper land title. For him, the land belongs to [the one] who works it,'' the report explains.
Juan Manuel Frutos, IBR founder and president, says the government considers land reform an ongoing program rather than a one-time redistribution. He says over the past 27 years 300,000 families have been put on their own plots. Though available government land already has been distributed, he says, the government can ``expropriate whatever we want'' in order to fulfill the current need.
But that's a political dilemma that has already begun to split the rural side of the Colorado Party, says Gustavo Laterza, a land use attorney. ``With no more public land to give away, they [the government] would have to expropriate private lands. And they can't do that because it has been practically a state industry to offer land as a safe investment,'' and the government would have to take land from those it already gave to.
Politically, says Mr. Laterza, ``He who can promise land gets the majority support, but they can't promise more land to anyone now and it has created a lot of problems and resentment in the [Stroessner] party.''