Paraguay: Soaring Soybean Production Prompts Clashes

This post was commissioned as part of a Pulitzer Center/Global Voices Onlineseries on Food Insecurity. These reports draw on multimedia reporting featured on the Pulitzer Gateway to Food Insecurity and bloggers discussing the issues worldwide. Share your own story on food insecurity here.

As the global demand for soy rises, Paraguay has become the world's fastest-growing producer of the crop. But with resulting riches have also come battles over land rights and environmental concerns.

Soybeans are used in the production of food, edible oils and animal feed, as well as biofuels. The industry has grown exponentially in recent years, in part because of increased demand for meat and cattle feed in China and a rising biofuel industry in Europe. Many South American countries, including Paraguay, have responded to this demand by boosting soybean production.

Photo by Olmo Calvo Rodríguez from a series on soybeans and campesino rights in Paraguay (see slideshow below).

Paraguay is the now world's fourth largest exporter of the crop, trailing the U.S., Brazil and Argentina, and the sixth biggest producer of soybeans. Earlier this year the country saw a record soybean crop. This growth has come at a price though, creating social disputes and land rights issues for the country's small-scale farmers, known also as campesinos, as well as environmental and health concerns.

In the blog of the Brussels office of the German Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, Edgardo Lander in Venezuela argues that the recent growth in Latin American trade and agriculture is “predatory” and that leftist governments must seek sustainable alternatives:

“Given a rapidly growing international demand and high levels of profit, agribusiness has responded with a rapid increase of the extensions of crops in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. In addition to the negative impacts of monoculture and transgenic crops, the tremendous expansion of the soybeans has led to a greater concentration in land tenure and the displacement of peasants, affecting the production of other crops such as rice, maize, sunflower and wheat. This has also led to a strengthening of the economic and political power of the business groups that participate in the different stages of production and marketing of the soybeans. This is what Syngenta, (one of the main agribusiness corporations), cynically and arrogantly, referred to as the United Soya Republic.”

The industry has had particularly adverse effects on Paraguay's small farmers and indigenous people, many of whom have been forced off their lands.

New York City-based photographer Evan Abramson documented the social conflicts generated by industrial soy production in some of Paraguay's rural communities. In a photo essay for NACLA Report on the Americas, he says:

“The soy boom has been disastrous for small farmers, who, after living for years on government-allotted forestland, have begun to be uprooted. In the last decade, the Paraguayan government has given away or illegally sold this public land to political friends in the soybean business, pushing the peasants out. Today, about 77 percent of Paraguayan land is owned by 1 percent of the population… Since the first soy boom in 1990, almost 100,000 small-scale farmers have been forced to migrate to urban slums; about 9,000 rural families are evicted by soy production each year.”

In 2009, photographer Olmo Calvo Rodríguez, a member of the Latin American photographer's collective SUB, took the photos featured in the slideshow below. He wrote that the campesinos in the photos form part of a community of 40 families who were evicted from their land by the soybean industry 17 times in the past six years, but still have not lost hope of building their lives there. (The photos are shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.)

Journalist Charles Lane, in a series supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, calls this scenario “the soybean wars.” But landless farmers are fighting back, he says, protesting and even staging armed invasions on the land of soybean producers, who have themselves also been accused of resorting to violence.

Many of these farmers had hoped Paraguay's president Lugo would bring them some relief. Lugo received nearly unanimous support from the campensinos when elected in 2008, but in March of this year thousands of farmers protested in Asunción to demand Lugo follow through on campaign promises.

Kyle Tana, blogging on the Council on Hemispheric Affairs's Web site, suggests that Lugo is caught between two polarized groups–the campesino movement and Paraguay's congress:

“While campaigning, then-Bishop Lugo characterized himself as the “bishop for the poor,” and was successful in giving hope to Paraguay’s indigenous and disadvantaged communities. However, after two years in office, comparatively little has been done to address the promised redistribution of land to landless farmers as well as the rising tensions between campesinos and large monocrop (primarily soy) producers.”

The growing soy industry has also had environmental effects, contributing to the destruction of rain forests and leading to heavy use of toxic agrochemicals. In his photo essay, Abramson says that soy cultivators dump more than 6 million gallons of pesticides and herbicides into the Paraguayan soil every year, including extremely hazardous chemicals, partly due to lax environmental law enforcement. Some fear that in addition to harming the environment, these chemicals are harming the health of local residents. To make matters worse, a post on the blog of the Union of Journalists of Paraguay (Sindicato de Periodistas del Paraguay) says the press isn't covering deaths or diseases that may be related to chemical overuse, sanitizing the image of multinationals:

Este tipo de información negativa que afecta la imagen de los poderosos sojeros no son publicados con frecuencia por los grandes medios del Paraguay, como ABC Color, que inclusive niega el poder destructivo de los “agrotóxicos”. El diario del empresario Aldo Zuccolillo prohibe a sus periodistas utilizar este término en caso de que no pueda evitar la publicación de una denuncia de intoxicación (la palabra autorizada por el diario es “agroquímico”).

This type of negative information that affects the image of the powerful soy producers are not often published in the mainstream media of Paraguay, like ABC Color, who even denies the destructive power of “agrotoxins”. The newspaper of the businessman Aldo Zuccolillo prohibits its journalists from using the term in cases where it can't avoid publishing a report of intoxication (the word authorized by the newspaper is “agrochemical”).

Another concern, for people like Alan Raul Banda Huatay in Cancun, Mexico, is the planting of genetically modified (GM) soy. After watching a film on the subject, Huatay had this to say in a discussion board on Facebook:

Es lamentable comprobar que lo único que realmente importa es el beneficio económico, ni la salud, ni los derechos de los campesinos, todo queda en segundo término ante la soja transgénica y no se sopesa el riesgo de los alimentos transgénicos. A los campesinos sólo les queda plantar cara e intentar frenar el avance del monocultivo…

“It is regrettable to confirm that the only thing that matters is profit, not health, nor the rights of peasants, everything takes second place to the transgenic soybean and they do not weigh the risk of genetically modified food. The peasants are left to stand up and try to stop the advance of monocultivation…”

Bloggers’ suggested solutions to minimizing these various consequences range from eating less meat to establishing voluntary standards for eco-friendly soy production, to alerting students in China about the issues. A post on The Socialist WebZine says the first step, however, is to recognize that we're all in this together:

“Digging our way out will necessarily entail creating a movement with the ability to link the soy consumer in the north with a Paraguayan farmer or to see how yucca, corn, beans and potatoes might produce a far greater benefit for the planet than mono-cropping. The politics of the “we” of socialism hold far more potential for addressing the dire needs of our planet than the “I” of capitalist consumption.”

Thanks to Juliana Rincón Parra and Belen Bogado for help in finding Spanish-language blogs.

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