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Saying No to Soy: The Campesino Struggle for Sustainable Agriculture in Paraguay

April Howard (april.m.howard [at] gmail.com) is a journalist and teacher of Latin American history at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh and of high school social studies in Vermont. She is also an editor of Upsidedownworld.org, an online magazine reporting on politics and social movements in Latin America.

When Paraguay elected Fernando Lugo, its first non-Colorado Party president in more than sixty years, the mood was elated. In the streets of Asuncion that night in April 2008, “Grandmothers, wrapped in the Paraguayan flag, danced with children in the streets, and cried at the top of their lungs that this [was] the moment they’d been waiting for their whole lives.”1 While Lugo’s election was a clear victory for the social movements that united to elect him, movement leaders knew that this was just the beginning. As Worker Party and Indigenous Farmer organizer Tomás Zayas told me the previous year: “Lugo will not solve our problems. If Lugo is elected, it will be a door, an opening, through which we can add to our movement and demands.”

One sector of Paraguayan society that has the most to gain from this transfer of power is the dwindling, poisoned, and often criminalized campesino (peasant farmer) population. Across Latin America, incomplete or corrupt agrarian reforms have left farmers fighting for their right to grow food for themselves. The flourishing soybean industry in Paraguay is leading towards an industrial agricultural export model that leaves no room for small food producers. While many Paraguayan campesino families have moved into urban peripheries, tenacious farmers have fought not only for their right to land, but also to redefine and recreate the agricultural model based on cooperative, organic, and people-friendly alternatives.

Leftist presidents, recently victorious in Bolivia and Ecuador, are contemplating land reform and agricultural planning to serve internal consumption. Such actions have been at the heart of revolutionary struggles for centuries. Cuba remains a leader in this area. Venezuela, under the leadership of Chávez, has made major advances in this realm through encouraging endogenous development and cooperatives. Both of these examples have much to offer Paraguayan campesinos, as they continue to mobilize and exert pressure on the new government to institute agricultural change.

The Colorado Road to Ruin

Last year’s election marked the end of the official rule of the Colorado Party, in power since 1947, but left its legacy of corruption, clientilism, and violent repression. During the thirty-five year dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, the Colorado Party and the military worked as the “twin pillars” holding Stroessner in power. The Colorado Party’s vast system of clientelism—offering public jobs to gain political support—is entirely reliant on state programs and public services. It is effective because of the country’s high unemployment rate: one of the few prospects for employment is through the Colorado Party, whether as a road construction worker, teacher, or mayor. Though many citizens viewed the party as corrupt and ineffective, supporting it often meant receiving a salary. As of 2007, the Colorado Party employed some 200,000 people, 95 percent of whom are members of the party.2 Much of the party mechanism remains intact, even though the executive branch has changed.

The need for change in the Paraguayan countryside is urgent. Paraguay has the most unequal land distribution in Latin America; 83 percent of Paraguayan campesinos occupy only 6 percent of the land. Forty percent of all property is possessed by 351 owners of large estates.3 Stroessner’s land reform institution, INDERT, ran a corrupt and incomplete agrarian reform that illegally sold vast parcels of state land reserved for Paraguayan farmers to Brazilian and Argentine buyers and left most campesinos landless, with no choice but to occupy unused land for subsistence farming.

Paraguayan president Fernando Lugo, a former bishop, was born in 1951. He grew up in a family opposed to the Stroessner dictatorship and his three brothers were exiled. As a young man he taught in a rural school that was “so remote that he was able to escape the usual rule that teachers had to be members of the Colorado Party.” After he became a priest in 1977, he worked as a missionary in Ecuador, then studied at the Vatican, and returned to Paraguay in 1982 where he became the bishop of the San Pedro province. His support for landless families’ occupations of large estates put him in conflict with the Catholic hierarchy. In 2006 he led a march of nearly 50,000 Paraguayans in Asuncion against then-president Nicanor Duarte Frutos’s plan to change the constitution to allow a second term for president. Lugo was catapulted into the national political scene and social movements requested that he run for president.4 Nearly a year after his election, social movements are pressuring Lugo to enact the changes he promised in his platform. As Paraguayan farmer and anti-industrial agriculture activist Letitia Galeano explained to me, “Lugo is alone, he is at the top, but he is alone. We need change now, and we are going to have to make it happen ourselves.”

The Agricultural Export Industry—A Poisonous Green Desert

A biologically diverse Interior Atlantic Forest once covered 85 percent of Eastern Paraguay. Intermingled with the necessary shade and fruit-bearing trees of the forest, farmers grew diverse crops and raised a variety of livestock. However, today only 5–8 percent of that forest remains. The land now resembles the rolling hills of a green desert. Brazilian industrial farmers have invaded Eastern Paraguay and bought up the much of the land, bit by bit, in order to grow monoculture crops for export. Their bounty is sold to such companies as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge. They transform communities and strong-arm farmers to produce soy, corn, and cotton for export. Paraguay and parts of Brazil and Argentina have become “soy republics.”

Soy production has increased exponentially in recent years to keep up with worldwide demand for animal feed, as well as the ecologically bankrupt, but still thriving, agrofuel industry. Industrial soy is directed toward these markets, not human food. Today, Paraguay is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of soybeans. In 2003, five million acres  of land were devoted to soy cultivation—more than double the amount ten years before that.5 Today, according to sociologist Javiera Rulli, that number is closer to thirty million acres, and is expected to continue rising exponentially.6

The expansion of the soy industry in Paraguay has occurred in tandem with the violent oppression of small farmers and indigenous communities. Farmers have been bullied into growing soy with pesticides, at the expense of their food crops, health, and subsequently their farms. Farmers who live next to the soy fields have been driven away by the chemicals, which kill their crops and animals and cause illnesses. Since the first soy boom, almost 100,000 small farmers have been evicted from their homes and fields. Countless indigenous communities have been forced to relocate. Mechanized production reorganized labor relations, as those who stayed to work in the soy fields were replaced by tractors and combines. Entire communities fled to the cities to be street vendors and live in the exploding semi-urban slums around large cities. Farmers who refuse to leave their land are targeted by hired security forces, employed by the surrounding soy growers, in hope that they will eventually sell. A simultaneous campaign of “criminalization” has allowed the soy industry to use the state security and judicial apparatus to remove and punish resistant farmers. More than a hundred campesino leaders have been assassinated, and more than two thousand others have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance to the intrusion of agribusiness.

Various campesino organizations have joined forces to fight the violence and criminalization experienced by their members. The Front for Sovereignty and Life is made up of the National Workers’ Center, the Authentic Unitarian Center of Workers, the Permanent Popular Plenary, the Coordinating Table of Campesino Organizations, the National Campesino Organization, and the National Coordinator for Life and Sovereignty.7 Some groups have taken the next step and are working not only to stop the fumigations and criminalization, but to create alternative models of agriculture.

Though the soy plants are green, they represent the death not only of the way of life of Paraguayan farmers, but of the land itself. According to campesino leader Tomás Zayas, “transnational businesses are not concerned with the destruction and contamination of the land because when the land can’t give any more, they just move to another country.” Soy cultivation dumps more than 24 million liters of toxic agro-chemicals in Paraguay every year, including pesticides designated by the World Health Organization as “extremely hazardous” and “moderately hazardous.” These include Paraquat (a toxin with no antidote), 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), Gramoxone, Metamidofos (which reduces sperm count and health in exposed males), and Endosulfan (which causes birth defects in the infants of repeatedly exposed mothers). Rather than “pesticides” or “herbicides,” Paraguayan campesinos call them “chemicals,” “agrotoxins,” and “venenos” (venoms).

Paraguayan farmers exposed to these pesticides have experienced all of the known side effects and worse. While laws dictate spraying practices and safe barriers between fields and residential and community land, there is no official enforcement. A recent investigation conducted in areas of high soy production found that 78 percent of families in several of the communities had health problems caused by the pesticides used in crop spraying. Sixty-three percent of this was due to contaminated water. Children have died as a result of coming into direct contact with chemical clouds. In most cases, farming families are isolated and lack medical or monetary resources, so their complaints go undocumented.8

In the spring of 2007, Meriton Ramírez, a farmer, and his daughter Angélica, a university student studying agronomy, escorted me to the site of their former home in the eastern province of Alto Paraná. Minga Porá, once a community of several thousand farmers, is now occupied by only thirty families who don’t know where else to go. “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,” Ramírez said, motioning to the vacant space that used to be his home. “Then the soy farmers arrived… The days following crop spraying we had terrible headaches, nausea, and diarrhea, and skin rashes, problems seeing, and respiratory infections. Our well was full of chemicals. The chickens died. The cows aborted their calves and their milk dried up.” His crops and fruit trees withered along with his animals, and the fish and wildlife disappeared. One by one, the neighbors fled due to the worsening conditions. When the Ramírez family left Minga Porá in 2001, there was almost no evidence that there had ever been a community there.

Now the green desert of soy plants extends monotonously in all directions. The schools and farms that used to exist along the road are gone. Trucks heaped with pale soybeans rumble down the road. “It’s endless,” Angélica Ramírez muttered. She clenched her fists as she looked at the site of her former home. “Terrible. Disaster!” As we drove back through the soy fields, I noticed a bitter, foul smell. Our eyes began to itch and sting. I felt a moment of panic as I realized that I was breathing in poison, but there was no way to escape it. “That’s the smell of the venom,” said Angélica, covering her mouth with her sleeve. “This is what it was like at our house every day. Unbearable!”

In spite of the arrests and assassinations, farmers have fought against the agribusiness invasion. The remaining campesino communities have become increasingly organized and radicalized. This January, one hundred campesino residents of the Ybypé community in the province of San Pedro physically blocked the crop spraying of a new soy field in their community. Communities are making appeals for legal protection, which have been backed by the Paraguayan Human Rights Committee (Coordinadora de Derechos Humanos del Paraguay). They want public scrutiny of how soy growers fail to follow protective policies, such as the installation of live barriers like tall bushes or other plants to block the drift of pesticides onto community lands.9 Farmers confront many difficulties in their efforts to fight back agro-capital. In 2004, residents of the Ypecuá community were beaten and killed for attempting to block spraying.10

Saying No to Soy

One famously political community that supported Lugo’s candidacy is the Tekojoja settlement, located seventy kilometers from the city of Caaguazú. This community is part of the campesino movement, and its organization—the Popular Agrarian Movement—promoted the separate Tekojoja Popular Movement during Lugo’s campaign.11 In the recent elections, the Tekojoja Popular Movement made gains in Congress.12

Tekojoja, meaning “equal terms” in Guaraní, is one of the peasant settlements recovered during the land reform. It is a land settlement of five hundred hectares where fifty-six peasant families remain out more than a hundred. By 2002, nearly half of the five hundred hectares of community lands had become soy fields. According to community leader Jorge Galeano, it was “a terrible period for us, every day we witnessed how seven to eight families were leaving their land. We calculated that 120 families had been expulsed because of the entrance of the Brazilian producers.” Residents complained, but INDERT made contracts granting the lands to Brazilian soy producers. In 2003, campesinos forcefully reoccupied their lands, but they were served an eviction order in 2004, which resulted in forty-six houses being burned and twenty hectares of crops being destroyed. According to community members, “after the tractors had destroy[ed] our crops, they came with their big machines and started immediately to sow soy while smoke was still coming out from the ashes of our houses. Next day we came back with oxen and replanted all the fields over the prepared land. When the police came, we faced them with our tools and machetes, we were around seventy people and were ready to confront them. In the end they left.” In 2005, soy producers evicted four hundred people and killed two community members.13 Since that time, the community has repeatedly denounced illegal and inappropriate use of agrochemicals in neighboring soy fields.14

One of the principle zones of production of genetically modified soy in Paraguay is the eastern province of Alto Paraná. Here the campesino organization, the Association of Alto Paraná Farmers (ASAGRAPA), is attempting to forge alternative models of agriculture while resisting the expansion of the soy empire. It is a regional chapter of the National Center of Indigenous and Popular Organizations, but in many ways it leads the organization. Tomás Zayas, is the leader of both organizations,  and participates heavily in the Workers’ Party. While the goals of these organizations have changed over time, their main focus now is the danger of the growing green desert of soy.

While many of the campesino organizations in Paraguay share the vision of “agroecology,” Zayas believes that the movement needs a “philosophical and theoretical framework so that it can become a project not only of resistance, but of the construction of a new society that prioritizes human life.” ASAGRAPA promotes small-scale organic farming of a diversity of crops for community needs, and community ownership of land to protect farmers from isolation, land speculation, and fumigation. In this context, it started the Stop the Fumigation: In Defense of Communities and Life campaign in December of 2007.

In 1989, Zayas helped found the community where the Ramírez family now lives. El Triunfo (The Triumph) is a community with a vision. It was formed by farmers involved in ASAGRAPA, and it is designed to prove that small-scale, non-chemical agriculture is possible.15 In February 2007, I visited El Triunfo. The shady agricultural town seemed like an oasis in the soy desert. Each family has two parcels: one in the residential center for their house and small gardens, and another for larger fields of crops. Over the years, the community has built a health clinic, school, and soccer field. The community started as a squat, and has been attacked several times by what the farmers call the local “soy mafia.”

The land is communally owned and the charter does not allow farmers to sell their land. If they decide to leave, the community assumes possession and can give the land to a new member. Members see the formation of a democratically led collective (minga, in Guaraní) with indivisible and non-transferable ownership of land as the only way to ensure that members do not sell their land to soy growers. In this, they are fighting against fumigations and the pressure to grow soy. While all farmers may choose what to grow on their land and may sell some of their produce, they must use their land to plant diverse crops for their own consumption without pesticides.16

ASAGRAPA reaches out to communities in Alto Paraná that need to defend their land physically or legally, or want to learn more about its organic “agro-ecological” model. “It has been difficult to convince people,” said Zayas. “They are told that you can’t grow anything without chemicals, that you need to grow soy to make money, and then we show them that soy and agro-toxins are killing us, and people are unsure. They don’t want to take risks. But every year it becomes more obvious that soy only benefits the big businesses.” When communities decide that they want to stop growing soy, they face many challenges. The pesticides used to grow soy are so toxic that after a few seasons of growing soy, microorganisms in the soil die, the soil is compacted, and vital nutrients have been lost. ASAGRAPA shows farmers how to use plants with deep, strong roots to reclaim and aerate the degraded fields. In 2007 ASAGRAPA used a grant from the European Union to help farmers plant fruit orchards on their land.17

In March 2008, the Workers’ Party published a Proposal for Agrarian Reform, which drew on the model of agrarian ownership as established in El Triunfo. It called for the “confiscation of large estates without compensation and delivery of the land to campesinos.” The Workers’ Party notes that it has pulled out of the fight to give land to poor campesinos, but that they will “work within the fight with two axes that point in the direction of even more integral change.” They see the occupation of land by cooperatives as the only viable way for campesinos to gain property. Their declaration reads: “The conquest of land will only come through the force of our organization, mobilization and fight, never through the good will of bourgeois governments.” They call for an end to the use of pesticides and for the nationalization of all large agro-export businesses. “Right now,” they write, “the campesino is a stranger in his own land because the countryside is bought up by foreign businesses. The monocultivation of soy is directly commercialized by the multinationals, which have also appropriated the business of agricultural products and seeds.” The proposal also calls for the creation of a national production program of food security and sovereignty over natural resources that promotes sustainable agriculture geared toward ending hunger and creating campesino farming communities.

State Prospects for Agricultural Change

The campesino struggle has gained strength and press over the past few years. In the buildup to the election, presidential candidates postured themselves either against soy expansion or in favor of it. Former vice president Luis Castiglioni, who lost the Colorado Primary to former education minister Blanca Ovelar, was seen by many as a representative of the soy industry.18 To distance herself from this, Ovelar played up the Colorado Party’s populist rhetoric, saying that as president she would change agro-legislation and fight against the development of a “soy fatherland.”19 In opposition to the Colorado Party stood Lugo. A large part of his base was made up of farmers who had been hurt by the soy companies. Lugo promised his campesino supporters comprehensive land reform.20

While Zayas and some campesino organizations stopped short of promoting the election of Lugo as a panacea, the Workers’ Party proposal outlined some of their demands on the new president:

We promote and defend a State that assures all the conditions for this form of production by supplying credit, raw materials, tools and technology for this model of production and guarantees the process of commercialization of all production through adequate trade centers and at low cost to the working people. We reclaim, as well, the fixing of base prices for agricultural products, agricultural insurance and retirement for campesino producers.21

Before the elections, Zayas expressed hope but not enthusiasm for a Lugo presidency, “If Lugo is elected, it will open a door for there to be changes in the future, but that’s all. We’ll take what we can get.”

Though Lugo has characterized himself as inspired by the liberation theology movement, he has also described himself as “not of the left, nor of the right. I’m in the middle, a candidate sought by many.”22 Throughout his campaign, he worked hard to maintain his “middle of the road” image. He deflected questions about how his policies were similar to those of Chávez, Morales, and Correa, with comments such as “Paraguay is feeling the new winds growing across the region….But it cannot be like Venezuela because it has no oil. Nor can it be like Bolivia because it has no natural gas and it can’t be like Chile because it has no copper.”23

Agrarian reform is one of the most contentious topics a new leader can take on and the most likely to cause uproar among powerful landowners. In Paraguay, land reform involves much more than taking fallow fields from the landed gentry. Here much of the land is owned and in use by Brazilian farmers and multinational corporations. Plus, if the land is reclaimed, additional support is needed to help enrich the depleted soil after years of exploitation under soy production and pesticides.
So, in a Paraguay with no oil or gas or copper, how will the state respond to campesino demands for agrarian and agricultural reform? Campesino organizations in Paraguay are working at the grassroots level to forge a new future. They have concrete proposals for how to transform destructive industrial-export agriculture by following an “agro-ecological” model that will serve the Paraguayan people, rather than the soy corporations that are poisoning the land and people.

Notes

  1. Michael Fox, “Paraguay Celebrates Lugo’s Historic Victory,” April 20, 2008.
  2. Raúl Zibechi, “Paraguay’s Hour of Change,” IRC Americas Program, September 24, 2007; “The Twin Pillars of the Stroessner Regime,” Library of Congress Studies (1988).
  3. Document.
  4. Andrew Nickson, “Paraguay: Fernando Lugo vs the Colorado Machine,” February 28, 2008.
  5. April Howard and Benjamin Dangle, “The Multinational Beanfield War,” In These Times online, April 12, 2007.
  6. Javiera Rulli, “GM Soy Brings Death & Misery to Paraguay.”
  7. Frente por la Soberanía y la Vida—contiene el Central Nacional de trabajadores (CNT), Central Unitaria de Trabajadores Autentica (CUT-A), Plenaria Popular Permanente (PPP) Mesa Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (MCNOC), Organización Nacional Campesina (ONAC), Coordinadora Nacional por la Vida y la Soberanía (CNVS).
  8. Andrew Nickson, “Paraguay: Fernando Lugo vs the Colorado machine,” Open Democracy, September 28, 2008.
  9. Reto Sonderegger, “Paraguay: Campesino Families Block Fumigation of Soy Fields,” January 10, 2008.
  10. David Vargas, “Fighting for Survival in Paraguay’s Green Desert Wonderland,” March 18, 2008.
  11. Partido Popular Tekojoja.
  12. Partido Popular Tekojoja, “Izquierda logra escaños en un Congreso mucho más plural (ABC).”
  13. “The Battle of Tekojoja, Paraguay.”
  14. Jorge Galeano, “Contamination, Violence and Oppression Continue in Tekojoja, Paraguay,” November 5, 2007.
  15. Tomás Zayas, “Informe sobre la situación campesina en Paraguay,” June 16, 2005.
  16. Personal interview, February 2007.
  17. Research in Paraguay, February 2007.
  18. April Howard & Benjamin Dangl, “Dissecting the Politics of Paraguay’s Next President,” April 11, 2008.
  19. “Contra la patria sojera,” ABC Color, (April 10, 2008).
  20. “Paraguay: Land Reform for Sure, Says Lugo,” Prensa Latina, March 27, 2008.
  21. Julio López, Cynthia Fernández, and Tomás Zayas, “Paraguay—Propuesta de Reforma Agraria del PT.”
  22. Agencia de Noticias del Pueblo, “Masiva manifestación en apoyo al sacerdote José Palmar en el Zulia: El Gobernador Rosales perdió el derecho de frente.”
  23. Jenna Schaeffer, “Is Paraguay Set to Be the Next Latin American Country to Lean to the Left,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, June 29, 2007.
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