Paraguay's Silent War: the farmers struggle against GMOs
By Claudia Pompa 30/03/2012
Geronimo Arevalos never intended to be a peasant leader in the struggle to stop soya taking over his country. He was not brought up in the countryside but, when he was young, he fell in love, had a child and decided with his wife to build a new life as a campesino (peasant farmer). He occupied a plot of land in the small village of Santa Rosa in the soya zone of eastern Paraguay near the Brazilian border. Along with other families, he became involved in a struggle to win rights to their land.
It was only little by little that he realised that he and the other families were being surrounded by what he called a 'sea of soya'. For Geronimo, and for many other campesinos in Paraguay, their land is the key to their life: 'our land is our factory, I have always said it, the land is the factory of the poor.' But what will happen to them if they were to lose this land? They would lose everything: their livelihoods and their independence. That's the threat Geronimo battles against every day. His life is portrayed in the film, Raising Resistance, a German-Swiss documentary that is seeking to bring to the attention of the world the problem of GMOs in Latin America and elsewhere.
His story is the story of thousands of peasant families who struggle against genetically modified soya plantations in Paraguay. To date, over 100,000 campesino families have been evicted from their lands, and over a hundred people have been killed in conflicts over access to land related to GM soya plantations.
Since the mid-1990s, when GM cultivation began in Paraguay, production has expanded very rapidly, making the country today the world's fourth largest exporter of soya, surpassed only by the United States, Brazil and Argentina. According to the Ministry of Agriculture, in the past ten years the area of soya cultivation has increased from one million to 2.6 million hectares, corresponding to 38% of the agricultural production of the country. Four-fifths of the soya is genetically modified.
In an interview, Magui Babalbuena from Conamuri, the National Coordination Committee of Indigenous and Rural Women, which promotes alternative farming techniques and food sovereignty, told me: 'GM soya monoculture cultivation is at the core of many social and environmental problems in the country, including deforestation, environmental destruction, unemployment, and the concentration of land ownership, which has led to campesinos and indigenous people losing their land.' Out of the 85% of forest that used to cover the eastern zone of Paraguay, today only 5–8% remains. Much of the cleared territory is now used for soya cultivation, with the monotonous landscape looking like a green – or brown – desert, depending on the time of the year.
Soya cultivation has also exacerbated the land problem in the country. Paraguay has a highly unequal system of land distribution, even by South American standards: 2.5% of the population owns 85% of the land, while 83% of the population owns 6% of the land. Many of the large soya producers in the country are brasiguayos, as producers of Brazilian origin are called in Paraguay. Several of them came in the early 1990s, when the soya boom in Brazil was inflating the price of land, and they started acquiring cheaper land in fertile zones in Paraguay. As world demand for soya has gone on growing, driven by China's apparently insatiable appetite, their demand for land has also intensified, worsening even more the land problem.
Chemicals used in the farming of GM soya have also had a devastating impact on the health of communities living near soya fields. Every year more than 24 million litres of toxic agrochemicals are sprayed over Paraguay, including pesticides classified as extremely dangerous by the World Health Organisation. As a result, entire communities suffer from stomach pains, headaches and sight problems and there have been several reports of children dying or becoming blind shortly after pesticides were sprayed on the fields.
If the pesticides do not drive farmers off their lands, large soya producers offer to buy or rent their properties. According to peasant associations, there has on occasions been outright intimidation: if farmers have refused to sell their lands or allow soya to be cultivated on it, thugs have shown up to convince them to change their minds. Magui Balbuena mentions the case of the indigenous community in Itakyry, which tried to resist the invasion of their land and refused to sell it. As retaliation, soya producers sprayed the entire community with agrochemicals from the air, leading to the death of several children, miscarriages in recently-pregnant mothers and acute bouts of illness in the population.
As a consequence of extensive soya monoculture, other traditional economic sectors have sharply declined, including the timber industry, livestock breeding and cotton production. The highly mechanised system used in the cultivation of GM soya has also created high rates of unemployment. Magui Balbuena says: "While soya produced is used in Europe to feed the animals, all we are left with is destruction and poverty. In Paraguay, a country whose primary economic activity is agriculture, half of the rural population is living below the poverty line. The expansion of soya cultivation is strongly correlated with an intensification of poverty."
According to Magui Balbuena, "what we are seeing in Paraguay is a severe crisis of the rural sector with deteriorating living standards for small producers. Soya monoculture is translated into the destruction of the campesino culture and a progressive lost of our food independence, for the lands that used to use to produce food are now being use for soya."
It is difficult to see change coming quickly. Large soya producers have immense economic and political power in the country, which has allowed them to buy the necessary votes in congress to prevent any significant reform, leaving the executive branch powerless. Furthermore, producers do not pay taxes on their soya exports, making it even more difficult to fund real development. It will take a lot of pressure from people like Geronimo Arevalos and organisations like Conamuri before the agribusiness lobby will be weakened.
To learn more about Conamuri and the work they are doing to promote alternative farming techniques among rural and indigenous women please visit:their website.
Claudia Pompa is a Paraguayan consultant with extensive experience in development and political risk analysis. She has worked for several international organizations and consulting companies in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. She holds a Master of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University