Biofuel's Big Bean

How large-scale soy is threatening the environment and a South American way of life

| Utne Reader July / August 2007 Issue

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.

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