Biofuel's Big Bean

How large-scale soy is threatening the environment and a South American way of life
by April Howard and Benjamin Dangl, In These Times
Utne Reader July / August 2007 Issue


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Rural eastern Paraguay was once flush with jungles, small farms, schools, and wildlife. Now it is a sea of soybeans. The families, trees, and birds are gone. The schools are empty. The air is filled with the toxic stench of pesticides.

We drive through this sea of green on a red dirt road. Meriton Ramírez is taking us to the former community of Minga Porá, to the farm where his family used to live. Ramírez is a member of the Asociación de Agricultores de Alto Paraná (ASAGRAPA), a farmers union spearheading the fight against the expansion of the soy industry.

"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 says, motioning to the vacant space that used to be his home. "Then the soy farmers arrived and we couldn't stand the fumigation. We had terrible headaches, nausea and skin rashes, problems seeing, respiratory infections. The chickens died. The cows aborted their calves and their milk dried up." In 2001, his crops destroyed, the neighborhood reduced to a swath of soy fields, Ramírez and his family left the land. Now Minga Porá, once a community of several thousand farmers, is home to just 30 families.

Paraguay has the most unequal land distribution in Latin America, with 95 percent of the country privately owned by large estates. Incomplete and corrupt agrarian reforms have left most small farmers, called campesinos, without property, occupying unused land for small-scale subsistence farming. In the mid-'90s, if the pesticides didn't drive the campesinos away from this land, the soy industry tried to buy them off. ASAGRAPA members say that when farmers refused to convert or sell, thugs showed up to convince them to grow soy or leave. "If you tried to resist, they'd kill you," Angélica Ramírez, Meriton's daughter, says.

In recent years soy production has increased exponentially due to worldwide demand for animal feed and the rise of an insatiable biodiesel industry. Biodiesel made from soy oil is touted as good for the environment, even more efficient than ethanol. In 1999, 44 million acres of soy were grown in South America; by 2004 there were 94 million acres. In the past six years, annual expansion of land cultivated for soy in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay has exceeded 10 percent, mainly at the expense of rainforest and savanna. If current trends continue, by 2020 global demands will require 370 million acres of cultivated land worldwide, and in Latin America an additional 54 million acres of forests and savanna will be destroyed.

In June 2006, the chief executive of Cargill told the New York Times that the biofuel industry is a "gold rush." Transnational seed and agrochemical companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer, Syngenta, DuPont, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge manage the industry. International financial institutions and development banks promote and bankroll the export of monoculture crops. The World Trade Organization grants increased subsidies to these agribusinesses and tax credits to refiners involved in biofuel production.

The cheap, unregulated land and labor available in places like Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina make the economic deal even sweeter. According to the Ecologist (March 2007), biotech businesses look to set up shop in countries where environmental regulations are slack.

Argentina has recently created corporate incentives to expand soy cultivation for biodiesel. And worldwide subsidies to the biofuel industry are now between $5.5 billion and $7.3 billion annually, according to a Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) report published in October 2006. "Many of these subsidies are poorly coordinated and targeted," says GSI director Simon Upton. "The potential for waste on a grand scale and some spectacularly perverse environmental outcomes is large."

The last agricultural census in Paraguay was taken in 1991, making guesswork of how much deforested land is used to plant soy. Of the Interior Atlantic Forest, however, which once covered 300 million acres, including 85 percent of eastern Paraguay and parts of Argentina and Brazil, even the most liberal estimates state that no more than 13 percent remains. According to the Nature Conservancy, Paraguay has one of the "largest" remnants of original forest--a mere 3.2 million acres.

An acre of forested land absorbs almost twice as much CO2 as land used to grow biofuel crops, thereby cancelling out any climate advantage advertised by biofuel production. Soy cultivation dumps more than 24 million liters of agrochemicals in Paraguay every year. They include Paraquat, which has no antidote if ingested; Metamidofos, which has reduced sperm count in exposed males; and Endosulfan, which causes birth defects in the infants of repeatedly exposed mothers. The Paraguayans we spoke with didn't use the terms pesticide or herbicide; they called the chemicals venenos, venoms or poisons.

As we drive though the soy fields, a terrible smell often forces us to cover our noses and eyes. "That's the venom," says Angélica Ramírez.

"How would you describe the smell?" we ask.

"Dead dog," she says.

"The soy workers also wash their machines in the river after spraying [pesticides]," says Angélica. "Combined with the agricultural run-off, this means that there are no fish left in our rivers, and the water is completely contaminated."

Leonida Laivas is the Ramírez family's old neighbor. Her land is a tiny island of trees in the expanse of soy. Her entire family suffers from stomach pains, headaches, and sight problems. "The poison never gives us a rest," she says. "Just yesterday the tractors came to spray the soy crops, and the wind blew it all over us." In the nearby town of San Isidro, cancer rates are high and several children have been born with malformed limbs.

Since the first soy boom, the industry has evicted almost 100,000 of Paraguay's small farmers from their homes and fields and forced the relocation of countless indigenous communities. More than 100 campesino leaders have been assassinated, and more than 2,000 others have faced trumped-up charges for their resistance. The Ramírez family now lives in El Triunfo, a community formed by farmers involved in the Asociación de Agricultores de Alto Paraná and designed to prove that small-scale, nonchemical agriculture is possible. The land is communally owned and farmers aren't allowed to sell it.

"There has to be a change," ASAGRAPA President Tomás Zayas says. "Because if not, we are facing the end of the Paraguayan campesino."


Excerpted from In These Times, the 2006 Utne Independent Press Award winner in the political coverage category. Subscriptions: $24.95/yr. (12 issues) from Box 1912, Mt. Morris, IL 61054; www.inthesetimes.com.


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