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The spread of monocultures is harmful to the environment and violates human rights. Smallholders are fighting back.
Mario Abdo Benítez’ government in Paraguay pursues a policy of monoculture expansion, which includes crops such as soya. His programme violates a range of human rights: the right to food, the right to water, the right to a clean environment. It displaces the local population and disregards their land rights. MISEREOR supports national organisations that defend human rights and fight for land titles for peasant and indigenous families. Other partners of MISEREOR provide information about the health implications of pesticide use. As a countermodel, MISEREOR supports ecological farming projects at a local level. It focuses on strengthening basic peasant organisations and networks and encouraging their unionisation, e.g. in the national farmers’ union FNC. The fate of Alcides Ruiz, as told below, is not an isolated case: the partners of MISEREOR encounter similar circumstances often. Their goal is to improve the living conditions of people like him permanently.
MISEREOR works with other civic organisations to inform the general public about the impact of pesticides on human health and the environment and to highlight the responsibilities of agricultural corporations, such as Bayer AG. It also promotes agroecological alternatives and raises awareness of them among farmers and consumers.
The landscapes between the town of Puente Kyjá and the city of San Juan in eastern Paraguay are lined with endless expanses of soya monocultures. An unpleasant, acrid smell of pesticides lingers in the air and irritates the sinuses. A tractor with a crane-like attachment sprays the plants with glyphosate. The fields start right next to the mud road. Not a single square centimetre is wasted, even though the law prescribes that protective tree barriers must separate the fields from surrounding roads and settlements.
Currently, the soya fields span an area of 3.2 million hectares. This year’s harvest is likely to break all records. ‘No droughts, few pests.’ José Berea, the President of the Paraguayan Chamber of Cereals and Oilseeds Exporters (CAPECO), looks satisfied in his air-conditioned office in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay. In 2016, the soya export business lined the pockets of the soya barons with USD 3.1 billion of virtually tax-free money. Income tax was only introduced in 2012, but tax avoidance is not persecuted. The economist Víctor Raúl Benítez has found that although the agricultural exporters generate a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, they only pay two per cent of its tax revenue.
The highly industrialised, capital-intensive business model of exporting genetically modified crops has no room for smallholders like Alcides Ruiz (33) from San Juan. GMO soya is not profitable if it is grown at a scale of less than 150 ha. Many farmers have given up and moved to the slums on the outskirts of the capital. But Ruiz perseveres: ‘I am not going to polish shoes in Asunción.’ Instead, he joined the national union of farmers, the FNC, which organises peaceful resistance.
But what can 20,000 organised peasant families really do against the concentrated power of the multinational corporations that run the billion-dollar soya business? Against biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta that dominate the GMO soya and corresponding pesticide markets? Against large, local landowners such as the Argentinian Los Grobo group, against agricultural exporters like Cargill and Bunge? According to the BASE IS research institute, which receives support from MISEREOR, Paraguay has one of the highest degrees of land concentrations in the world. Just 2.6 per cent of major landowners control 85.5 per cent of agricultural land.
The landlocked South American country was not predestined to become an agricultural country: after it gained independence 200 years ago, its then dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia took the nation down an unusual path of economic development. The economy was fully state-controlled. Imports were limited to machinery, and only mate tea and wood were allowed to be exported. Foreigners were not allowed into the country. Successive heads of state continued to pursue this policy, as it supported local manufacturing and helped Paraguay become one of the most economically advanced countries in South America. But the complete renunciation of market liberalism was a thorn in the side of the United States and United Kingdom, who collaborated with allied neighbouring countries to destabilise Paraguay. Around 150 years ago, their attempts culminated in a six-year war which pitted Paraguay against an alliance between Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. Paraguay lost half of its territory. Three quarters of its population died. The country never fully recovered from the foreign interference.
Its soya boom, too, was imposed on it by outsiders. It was planned in the offices of the multinationals. In 2003, the Swiss Syngenta corporation placed an advert that gave the moniker ‘The United Republic of Soybeans’ to a vast soya cultivation area spanning 46 million hectares of Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
A few years earlier, Monsanto developed its famous Roundup Ready (RR), genetically modified soya crops that are resistant to glyphosate. The vision of Monsanto and Syngenta has come true: the entire east of Paraguay has become dependent on soya. During the main harvest period between November and March, huge machines work day and night. A fleet of lorries takes the freight to the silos of the multinational buyers, such as Cargill and Bunge, or to private cargo ports that ship the beans to Europe, where they are turned into animal feed.
During their march to the top, soya beans devoured everything that stood in their way: forests, wild animals, indigenous protected areas, farmers (now replaced by machines) and their family-run farms. Variety gave way to an industrially tended wasteland that soaks up 20.5 millions of litres of pesticides every year. Today, Paraguay is forced to import most of the food it consumes. Alcides Ruiz is sitting on a plastic chair in the shade of a mulberry tree. He takes a long sip of ice-cold tea, then he begins: ‘This place used to be paradise in 1999. Fertile soil, forests, a clear river. We still hunted armadillos back then.’ Today, he does not let his one-year-old son Igor bathe in the river. The wind carries the pesticides from the neighbouring soya fields to his land, suffocating his chickens. According to the government, viruses are to blame. Ruiz does not believe them, but how could he possibly prove them wrong? There are no veterinarians in San Juan.
The statistics produced by the local health station are vague. Carlos Acosta, a nurse, explained: ‘Only acute, unambiguous cases of pesticide poisoning are reported as such.’ Rashes, respiratory infections and kidney conditions do not count, even though they are very frequent in the area and may well be caused by pesticides. Causation is difficult to establish scientifically.
Stela Leite, a paediatrician at the Asunción University Hospital, is one of few researchers exploring the issue. A few months ago, she visited San Juan and examined the local children. She is concerned about potential long-term health problems caused by the pesticides. Stela Leite is still working on her study, for which she examined the children's blood for tumour markers. In the general statistics, she found disconcerting figures: ‘Paraguay has a very high level of infant mortality: 19 in 1000 births. They are caused primarily by infections and, secondarily, by deformities. Just a few years ago, deformities were only the fourth most common cause.’
Alcides Ruiz did not come to San Juan out of his own volition in 1999. He was driven out of the neighbouring state of Alto Paraná, where the rise of the soybean began. Glyphosate clouds wafted from the soya fields towards his farm, withering his corn and killing his animals. Ruiz was one of the last to leave. He placed all his hope in this new, then unspoilt, piece of land. Alongside 500 other families, they settled on around 5,000 hectares of fallow public land. Paraguay’s constitution and agricultural charter give every peasant family the right to ten hectares of agricultural land. But the chasm between constitution and reality is deep.
The soya farmers already had their eyes on the fertile, red soil of San Juan. Those occupying the land were violently displaced, 64 farmers ended up in jail, one was murdered during the eviction. Their wooden houses and their school was burnt to the ground, their crops destroyed. A few days later, Ruiz and the remaining farmers came back and started sowing their crops from scratch. The INDERT agricultural authority granted every family the right to use the land and the prospect of a full land title ten years later. Ruiz is still waiting. Instead of the land title, the soya barons came – with the police in tow. The violent game of forced eviction and occupation started again.
But the farmers refuse to give up. Teodolina Villalba, General Secretary of the FNC, recalled: ‘Over the course of 25 years, we have won more than 300,000 hectares of land for the smallholders. But that is not nearly enough. We estimate that there are 327,000 young farmers who have no land and are forced to continue working on their parents’ farms. That is not a suitable long-term prospect.’ The FNC organises land occupations, supports training courses and helps establish common seed banks. Villalba knows that the peasants’ chance of survival depends on their ability to make Paraguayan society understand why produce grown by peasants is preferable to industrially produced alternatives. This may even give Alcides Ruiz‘ son, Igor, a chance to own a piece of land and eat healthy food.
About the author: Sandra Weiss is a political scientist who has worked as a freelance journalist in Latin America for 18 years.
About the photographer: Luis Vera was born in Asunción, Paraguay. He specialises in photojournalism and documentary photography and works with indigenous tribes and farmers from Paraguay and America. Vera studied communication science. He holds a Master’s degree in social anthropology and a diploma in art photography.