On 8 June 2012 the UGP (Unión de Gremios de la Producción), which is a body representing the big farmers, published in the powerful local paper, ABC Color, a petition entitled “12 arguments for getting rid of Lovera”. The article accused Miguel Lovera, director of SENAVE (The National Service for the Quality and Health of Vegetables and Seeds), of being “opposed to modern farming production”, of permitting peasant farmers to use “common” cotton seeds (that is, seeds saved from one year to the next, not purchased from the seed companies) and, even more remarkably, of travelling abroad to a conference on climate change, an area which, it alleged, was outside his competence. The petition was handed over directly to Federico Franco, then Vice-President and now President, who was known to be sympathetic to the agricultural lobby.
The trigger for the protest was Lovera’s refusal to authorise the cultivation of Bt cotton in Paraguay. Bt cotton, produced by the biotechnology giant Monsanto, is a genetically modified form of cotton which has a bacterium introduced in it, called Bacillus thuringiensis, that makes it resistant to some pests that attack cotton. Peasant organisations in India and South Africa, where Bt cotton is widely cultivated, have been very critical of it, saying that it has created far more problems than it has solved. Lovera was acting with the backing of the Health Ministry and the Environment Secretariat (and, indirectly, of President Fernando Lugo) in banning Bt cotton.
It is scarcely surprising that ABC Color had agreed to carry the article. Aldo Zuccolillo, who has owned and directed the paper since it was founded in 1967 during the Stroessner dictatorship, also owns Grupo Zuccolillo, which is the main partner in Paraguay of Cargill, one of the world’s leading agribusiness groups. Zuccolillo is part of a powerful farming lobby that gained huge tracts of land under Stroessner and scarcely pays any taxes on its huge earnings for soya and other crops.
Further attacks on Lovera, widely reported in the media, came from Silvia Martínez, who works in Senave. Again, this was something that could be expected. The Paraguayan journalist and researcher, Idilio Méndez Grimaldi, explains: “Silvia Martínez is the wife of Roberto Cáceres, technical adviser to various agricultural companies, all members of UGP, including Agrosán, which was recently purchased by Syngenta, another biotechnology transnational, for US$120m.” UGP, itself, is run by Héctor Cristaldo, who is also employed by the Grupo Zuccolillo.
This interlocking network of big farmers and powerful media was planning a big protest – a tractorazo – against Lovera’s policies for 25 June. However, events took another course. On 15 June 11 peasants and six policemen died in a tragic clash in Curuguaty, which is where the landowner Bas Riquelme has a 70,000 hectare farm. Riquelme, who was president of the Colorado Party for many years, accumulated a great deal of wealth and land under Stroessner.
Recently, landless peasants occupied part of the land Riquelme claims, saying that land titles clearly show this area belongs to the Paraguayan state. They were asking the Lugo government to expropriate the land and give it to them as part of the land reform programme. A judge had ordered an elite police group, called the GEO (Special Operational Group) – which was reportedly trained by US military in Colombia during the Uribe government – to evict the peasants.
How precisely the deaths occurred is still shrouded in mystery. The Paraguayan journalist, Idilio Méndez Grimaldi, is sceptical of the official explanation that the GEO group was ambushed by the peasants. He says: “It simply doesn’t make sense that members of a police force that has been highly trained under Plan Colombia should fall so easily into a supposed trap set for them by peasants, as the press, dominated by the oligarchy, would have us believe.” Perla Álvarez, from the rural women’s organisation, Conamuri, believes that some peasant movements have been infiltrated by right-wing groups and this has made them vulnerable to political manipulation. The Brazilian blogger, Leonardo Wexell Severo, says that the incident recalls the snipers who were reportedly sent in to disrupt a peaceful demonstration in Caracas in 2002 to justify the attempted coup against President Hugo Chávez.
Whoever carried out the killings, the deaths provided a sufficient pretext for the move against President Lugo. Although the role of the agricultural lobby in the orchestration of the impeachment is not clear, they and their allies in the media certainly backed it. An editorial in ABC Color commented after the impeachment:
The expectations generated by the decision of the legislators to submit President Fernando Lugo to a political judgement was finally resolved in an orderly and peaceful way, that respected legality, institutionality and the essential criteria of equity that should govern delicate processes like the one we have just experienced. The removal of the President gives us grounds for hope in a better future.
The way is now open for the further expansion of Monsanto and the whole biotechnology industry in Paraguay. According to Grimaldi, Monsanto had earlier made it clear, in a presentation to the Ministry of Agriculture (which, he says, is no more than a branch of US government) that it wants to market a new type of GM cotton, which contains two new elements – the Bt bacterium and another gene which makes the plant resistant to Roundup, a herbicide produced by Monsanto, and thus makes it possible to deluge the plant with the herbicide without killing it. Grimaldi expects the government to authorise the sale of this new cotton shortly.
Monsanto already earns a good income from selling its GM soya seed to Paraguayan farmers. About three million hectares of arable land are currently cultivated with soya, all of it genetically modified. Production reached eight million tons in the 2010/11 season. As well as this, Monsanto charges farmers royalties for using its GM soya. This brought the company US$30m in 2010 – earnings which it pays no tax on, says Grimaldi, because it doesn’t declare them.
*This article relies on information from Leonardo Wexell Severo, in his blog ‘Paraguai: A desinformação midiática e o golpe de Monsanto’, and a statement issued by 11 Latin American environmental and peasant groups, entitled ‘Agronegocios, acaparamiento de tierras y transgénicos detrás del golpe de estado en Paraguay’.