The Multinational Beanfield War

Soy cultivation spells doom for Paraguayan campesinos

April Howard and Benjamin Dangl April 12, 2007

"Once, many companies owned silos in Paraquay," says Angelica Ramirez. "Now they are all Cargill."

Rur­al east­ern Paraguay used to be full of jun­gle, small farms, schools and wildlife. Now it is a green sea of soy­beans. The fam­i­lies, trees and birds are gone. The schools are emp­ty. The air is filled with the tox­ic stench of the pes­ti­cides like paraquat and 2,4‑D used to pro­tect the soy crops. 

We drove through the sea of soy on a red dirt road. Meri­ton Ramírez was bring­ing us to the for­mer com­mu­ni­ty of Min­ga Porá, to the farm where his fam­i­ly used to live. Ramírez is a mem­ber of the Aso­ciación de Agricul­tores de Alto Paraná (ASAGRA­PA), a farmer’s union spear­head­ing the fight against the expan­sion of the soy industry.

I didn’t want to leave. I built my farm and raised my chil­dren here. I plant­ed fruit trees. For the first time in my life I had good land,” Meri­ton says, motion­ing to the vacant space that used to be his home. Then the soy farm­ers arrived and we couldn’t stand the fumi­ga­tion.” As he walks through the few trees left that his chil­dren had plant­ed, he says, The days fol­low­ing a fumi­ga­tion we had ter­ri­ble headaches, nau­sea and skin rash­es, prob­lems see­ing, res­pi­ra­to­ry infec­tions. The chick­ens died. The cows abort­ed their calves and their milk dried up.” His crops per­ished along with his ani­mals. In 2001, when Meri­ton and his fam­i­ly left the land they had occu­pied to farm, their old neigh­bor­hood had been reduced to noth­ing but soy fields.

The bio­fu­el gold rush

In the mid 90s, if the pes­ti­cides didn’t dri­ve the farm­ers from their land, the soy indus­try stepped in with offers to buy or rent the land. ASAGRA­PA mem­bers told us that when farm­ers refused to con­vert or sell, thugs showed up to con­vince them to grow soy or leave. If you tried to resist, they’d kill you,” Angéli­ca Ramírez, Meriton’s daugh­ter, says. Min­ga Porá, once a com­mu­ni­ty of sev­er­al thou­sand farm­ers, is now a home to only 30 families. 

Soy pro­duc­tion has increased expo­nen­tial­ly in recent years due to ris­ing demand world­wide for meat and cat­tle feed, as well as the boom­ing biodiesel indus­try. Indus­tri­al soy is direct­ed toward these mar­kets, not the pro­duc­tion of food for humans. In 1999, 44 mil­lion acres of soy were grown in South Amer­i­ca; by 2004 this had more than dou­bled to 94 mil­lion acres. In the past six years, annu­al expan­sion of land cul­ti­vat­ed for soy in Argenti­na, Brazil and Paraguay has exceed­ed 10 per­cent, main­ly at the expense of rain­for­est and savannah. 

Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soy­beans. In 2003, 5 mil­lion acres of land were devot­ed to soy cul­ti­va­tion – more than dou­ble the amount of 10 years ago. If the cur­rent trends con­tin­ue, by 2020 the glob­al demand for soy will rise by 60 per­cent. The pro­ject­ed increase trans­lates into 370 mil­lion acres of cul­ti­vat­ed land devot­ed to soy, and in Latin Amer­i­ca an addi­tion­al 54 mil­lion acres of forests and savan­nah destroyed.

Man­ag­ing this gar­gan­tu­an agro-indus­try are transna­tion­al seed and agro-chem­i­cal com­pa­nies like Mon­san­to, Pio­neer, Syn­gen­ta, Dupont, Cargill, Archer Daniels Mid­land (ADM) and Bunge. All have become house­hold names in Paraguay. In June 2006, the chief exec­u­tive of Cargill told the New York Times that the bio­fu­el indus­try is a gold rush.” Inter­na­tion­al finan­cial insti­tu­tions and devel­op­ment banks have pro­mot­ed and bankrolled the agro-export of mono­cul­ture crops. Cargill is a main ben­e­fi­cia­ry of WTO trade poli­cies that grant increased sub­si­dies to agribusi­ness and tax cred­its to refin­ers involved in bio­fu­el pro­duc­tion. ADM, whose stock price and prof­its have more than dou­bled since 2003, is anoth­er big play­er in Paraguay. 

While Al Gore stress­es that bio­fu­els are good for the envi­ron­ment (and evi­dent­ly, busi­ness), two recent stud­ies sug­gest oth­er­wise. Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta cau­tion that bio-fuels raise a host of land use issues, while a joint-study by sci­en­tists at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Berke­ley con­clud­ed that both cur­rent and to-be-devel­oped bio­fu­els pro­duce less ener­gy than is con­sumed in grow­ing and pro­cess­ing the crops. Accord­ing to their study, biodiesel from soy results in a net ener­gy loss of 27 percent.

Green inva­sion

Tra­di­tion­al Paraguayan agri­cul­ture is small-scale and based on a vari­ety of crops, such as yuc­ca, corn, beans and pota­toes, and live­stock, such as chick­ens, pigs and cows. Campesinos (small farm­ers) plant fruit trees to shade their hous­es and their crops dur­ing the blis­ter­ing sum­mers. We knew the Brazil­ians weren’t going to live on their land,” Meri­ton says about the own­ers of the soy busi­ness near his home, because they nev­er plant­ed any trees.”

In Paraguay and Brazil, the soy indus­try is made pos­si­ble by large-scale defor­esta­tion. While sta­tis­tics are unavail­able for Paraguay, a recent World Wildlife Fund report for the Inter­na­tion­al Ener­gy Agency reveals that 80 per­cent of Brazil’s green­house gas emis­sions come from defor­esta­tion. Offi­cial fig­ures released in fall of 2006 show that dur­ing the 2005 log­ging sea­son a forest­ed area about the size of Hawaii was cut. A 2006 NASA study found that in 2003 more than 20 per­cent of the forests in the Brazil­ian state of Mato Grosso had been con­vert­ed to crop­land. The last agri­cul­tur­al cen­sus in Paraguay was tak­en in 1991, mak­ing sta­tis­tics about the how much of that defor­est­ed land is used to plant soy guess­work at best. Embed­ded car­bon diox­ide is released when forests are cut down and the har­vest­ed wood is burned. An acre of land can absorb near­ly twice as much CO2 by remain­ing forest­ed than it can when used to grow bio­fu­el crops. This out­weighs any cli­mate advan­tage adver­tised by bio­fu­el production.

The bio­log­i­cal­ly diverse Inte­ri­or Atlantic For­est once cov­ered 85 per­cent of east­ern Paraguay. Due to iso­la­tion and dif­fi­cult access, Paraguay was once a refuge for an esti­mat­ed 7,000 to 8,000 species, includ­ing rare and endan­gered flo­ra and fau­na such as the giant otter and the South Amer­i­can tapir. How­ev­er, by 1991, high rates of defor­esta­tion (high­er than that of any oth­er South Amer­i­can coun­try in the 90s) reduced Paraguay’s for­est by more than 80 per­cent. The defor­esta­tion has accel­er­at­ed since, large­ly due to agri­cul­tur­al expan­sion. Today even the most lib­er­al esti­mates sug­gest that no more than 12 per­cent of the orig­i­nal for­est cov­er remains, and the gen­er­al con­sen­sus is 5 to 8 percent.

Besides clear­ing land for agri­cul­ture, the soy indus­try is also har­vest­ing forests for fuel. More than half of fuel wood con­sumed in Paraguay goes toward pro­duc­ing soy­bean oil, sug­ar, cement and coal. Accord­ing to Angéli­ca Ramírez, an envi­ron­men­tal stud­ies stu­dent in the agron­o­my depart­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ciu­dad del Este in Paraguay, this includes Cargill’s oil-expelling plants.

Then there is the envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem caused by pes­ti­cides. The soy work­ers also wash their machines in the riv­er after spray­ing [pes­ti­cides],” she says. Com­bined with the agri­cul­tur­al run-off, this means that there are no fish left in our rivers, and the water is com­plete­ly contaminated.”

The poi­son nev­er gives us a rest”

Paraguay has the most unequal land dis­tri­b­u­tion in Latin Amer­i­ca, with 95 per­cent of the land under pri­vate own­er­ship in large estates. An incom­plete and cor­rupt agrar­i­an reform has left most campesinos land­less, occu­py­ing unused land for sub­sis­tence farm­ing. In Paraguay espe­cial­ly, the expan­sion of the soy indus­try has occurred in tan­dem with vio­lent oppres­sion of small farm­ers and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Farm­ers have been bul­lied into grow­ing soy with pes­ti­cides, at the cost of their food crops and sub­se­quent­ly their farms. Since the first soy boom, the indus­try has evict­ed almost 100,000 small farm­ers from their homes and fields and forced the relo­ca­tion of count­less indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. More than 100 campesino lead­ers have been assas­si­nat­ed, and more than 2,000 oth­ers have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance.

But there is often no need for thugs. Soy cul­ti­va­tion dumps more than 24 mil­lion liters of agro-chem­i­cals in Paraguay every year, includ­ing World Health Orga­ni­za­tion Class I and II extreme­ly and mod­er­ate­ly haz­ardous pes­ti­cides. These include Paraquat, a chem­i­cal with no anti­dote if ingest­ed, 2,4‑D, Gramox­one, Metamid­o­fos, which has proven to reduce sperm count and health in exposed males, and Endo­sul­fan, a ter­ato­genic sub­stance that caus­es birth defects in the infants of repeat­ed­ly exposed moth­ers, accord­ing to the EPA. The Paraguayans we spoke with didn’t use the terms pes­ti­cide or her­bi­cide; they called the chem­i­cals venenos,” ven­oms or poisons.

As we drove though the soy fields, a ter­ri­ble smell often forced us to cov­er our noses and eyes. That’s the ven­om,” says Angéli­ca Ramírez. 

How would you describe the smell?” we ask. 

Dead dog,” she says.

Leoni­da Laivas is Meri­ton Ramírez’s old neigh­bor. Her land is a tiny island of trees in the sea of soy that is now Min­ga Porá. Her entire fam­i­ly suf­fers from stom­ach pains, headaches and sight prob­lems due to the pes­ti­cides. The poi­son nev­er gives us a rest,” she says. Just yes­ter­day the trac­tors came to spray the soy crops, and the wind blew it all over us. The water is full of poi­son too and gives us nau­sea and diar­rhea.” In the near­by town of San Isidro, can­cer rates are high and sev­er­al chil­dren have been born with mal­formed limbs. 

Alter­na­tives to disaster

Petrona Vil­las­boa, who lives in the south­ern state of Ita­pua, Paraguay, has become an inter­na­tion­al­ly known sym­bol of resis­tance to the dan­gers of the soy indus­try. In 2003, her 11-year-old son Sil­vi­no died after he was caught in a cloud of the Mon­san­to her­bi­cide cock­tail Roundup from a crop duster on his way home from school. Vil­las­boa pressed charges, but even after sen­tenc­ing, sub­se­quent appeals and lack of enforce­ment have left the own­ers at home and using the same chem­i­cals. Vil­las­boa is deter­mined to see them in jail. 

I’m not doing this just for Sil­vi­no,” she says but because there are lots of kids left who are still alive. So many peo­ple have died in our com­mu­ni­ty, and peo­ple said nothing” 

Vil­las­boa isn’t the only one say­ing some­thing today. The Ramírez fam­i­ly now lives in anoth­er com­mu­ni­ty, with anoth­er vision. El Tri­un­fo is a com­mu­ni­ty formed by farm­ers involved in ASAGRA­PA, and is designed to prove that small-scale, non-chem­i­cal agri­cul­ture is pos­si­ble. The land is com­mu­nal­ly owned and farm­ers aren’t allowed to sell their land.

There has to be a change,” ASAGRA­PA Pres­i­dent Tomás Zayas says. Because if not, we are fac­ing the end of the Paraguayan campesino.”

April Howard is a teacher and a journalist. 

Ben­jamin Dan­gl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Move­ments in Bolivia, AK Press, 2007. Both are edi­tors at Upside​Down​World​.org, a Latin Amer­i­can news Web site.
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