By Gustavo Torres
Farming, as a campesino or indigenous family practice that for centuries ensured natural food on Paraguayan land, is threatened by a small number of producers that are developing a farming model based on large-scale modern agricultural technology, which continually decreases the need for manual labor and in which multinational corporations take control of much of Paraguay’s natural resources like land, water, and biodiversity.
In the early 1970s, during the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954-89), Paraguay opened itself up to agro-businesses, including the mass production of soy—at first conventional, then transgenic—by multinational corporations.
Since then, the advance of this practice, which is based on mechanization and the use of pesticides, has been constant. The landowning sector and transnational agricultural corporations— including Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniel Midlan, or ADM, Shell Agro, Dow, BASF, Mosaic, Bunge, Dupont, Syngenta, and Bayer, among others— that monopolize the market of genetically modified seeds, pesticides and grains, have appropriated large land tracts.
This economic production model forces the rural population to substitute desired foods, like beef, for others that are less valued and less nutritious, affecting their ability to adapt to new environmental conditions and deteriorating their traditional food system, according to Marcos Glauser, an anthropologist and researcher with the non-governmental organization Base Investigaciones Sociales, or BaseIS.
The disappearance due to deforestation and forest destruction of wild foods that were part of indigenous traditional food systems also affect in that regard.
Some products and planting practices are threatened or, worse, are on the cusp of disappearing, like sugarcane, yerba mate, tung, castor, organic soybean, organic corn and rice, sesame, fruits and vegetables, cotton, peanuts, beans, bitter orange (used in petit grain essence), mint, stevia, lemon verbena, honey (because of habitat-clearing and degradation), and livestock.
At the root of this production model are genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, known as transgenics. GMOs are plant or animal products artificially created in laboratories, whose characteristic is the introduction of genes from another species to create new organisms. Genetically modified seeds are designed to withstand broad spectrum herbicides like glyphosate and glufosinate.
The transgenic seed trade was banned in the country until 2004, when it was approved by the Ministry of Agriculture. The use of transgenic seeds has always been questioned by NGOs, social movements, campesinos and indigenous people; however, in 1999 seeds began to be smuggled in from Argentina by large soy producers.
The main future potential offered by genetic engineering is profit, so the transgenics business was taken over by multinational biotechnology companies, which dominate world markets for fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides (such as glyphosate, a herbicide used to remove unwanted plants), among which are Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Dupont, Syngenta, Bayer, Shell Agro, Dow, BASF, Mosaic and Dreyfus.
Likewise, the machinery used comes exclusively from multinational corporations —tractors, harvesters, sprayers and sowing machines that retail from US$100,000 to $400,000. The profitability of soybean production as a monoculture depends on large tracts of land, intensive use of chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified seeds. It requires little manpower to operate specialized machinery; one employee is needed to grow 100-200 hectares, notes US researcher Richard Doughman in his book “Chipa and soy: The gastro-political conflict on the agro-export border of Eastern Paraguay”.
Doughman explains how “the soy production chain has expanded with such intensity, starting in the east and southeast of the country, that it has made Paraguay the fourth largest exporter of transgenic soy with more than 2 million hectares cultivated, and ranks sixth in world production of this oilseed.”
The area sown with soybeans in 2010 reached 2.83 million hectares, equivalent to 7% of the country.
What is paradoxical in Paraguay’s production model is that despite macroeconomic growth —14.5% in 2010, ranking first in Latin America, according to the International Monetary Fund, thanks in large part to the production of 8.4 million tons of soybeans—, the number of people in extreme poverty grew from 19% to 20% during the same period, according to Paraguay’s General Directorate of Statistics, Surveys and Censuses, or DGEEC.
“The agro-business model decimates employment, both urban and rural. In a country that currently is highlighted as the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world, and sixth in beef — an export record — but at the cost of a shortage to the local market, 20% [slightly more than one million of Paraguay’s population of 6.7 million] live in extreme poverty. A population that consumed 70 kg of beef per person is down to 30 kg per person,” said attorney Milena Pereira Fukuoka, author of the book “The State and the guarantee of the right to adequate food in Paraguay”.
Given the environmental, economic, and social impact that the so-called “transgenic soy production boom” has generated in Paraguay, a situation denounced by the main rural organizations —the Paraguayan Campesino Movement, or MCP, National Coordinating Body of Organizations for Working, Rural and Indigenous Women, or CONAMURI, and National Organization of Independent Aborigines, or ONAI, among others—and NGOs like BaseIS, Alter Vida, and Sobrevivencias, the responsibility of agribusiness is discussed more and more on the destruction of land, its negative interference in biodiversity with massive deforestation, pollution of streams, rivers and aquifers, and its share of responsibility for the exclusion of campesinos and indigenous people from the agricultural production chain, together with the plunder of natural and cultural heritage of much of the rural population.
“Facing the structural problems of food security in Paraguay can only be done with the effective support of the State,” said Pereira Fukuoka.
She said aid should be in the form of access to land as a means of production “for the campesinos and indigenous communities, with adequate technical assistance to small farmers, agricultural diversification programs and long-term soft loans.”
Through the Strategic, Economic and Social Plan 2008/2013, along with the National Plan for Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security in Paraguay, or PLANAL, the government seeks to reverse the situation of those people exposed to rampant under-nutrition, malnutrition and food-based illnesses, which includes nearly 40% of the population.
With regard to family farming, PLANAL lays out several initiatives in support of agricultural production, affirming the need for better evaluation of the plans as the programs were described as fragile by campesino organizations and family farmers interviewed, Pereira Fukuoka said.
This year, the executive branch will submit to Congress a food security bill, regarding the distribution of seeds for crops, vegetables and peas to campesinos. The vice-minister of Agriculture, Andrés Wehrle, said there is a food emergency in the country due to drought. The plan would impact approximately 210,000 families (of which 28,000 are indigenous) that own up to 10 hectares. If the bill passes, the government will invest US$3 million in food kits for each family, the vice-minister said. Each package would consist of 15 kg of seeds for corn and three kg of beans in February; in March and April, it would be for vegetables and peas.
The bill states that campesino or indigenous individuals can claim the right to aid if it is not initially received.
Nevertheless, for Pereira Fukuoka the economic and production measures entailed in the plans will not provide for income redistribution, job creation, or the needs of the community regarding food security, especially given that the State’s leading agencies intend to further expand farming and livestock falta exportador without concern for maintaining sufficient domestic food levels.
National seed bank
On the other hand, President Fernando Lugo’s administration will implement at the end of February a project for production, recuperation, and commercialization of native seeds through a joint effort of technical support from the executive coordination board of the energy firm Itaipu Binacional, producers and inter-agency cooperation.
“Once there is sufficient production, we’ll aim at commercialization,” said Manuel Galiano, a technician with the Itaipu Binacional board. “It’s a commitment by the company, as a matter of national sovereignty in this area,” he said through the firm’s news portal.
Farmers and seed producers would benefit from an alternate income source, taking into account that not only will they produce and maintain the seeds, but market them as well, Galiano said.
The project will ultimately result in the creation of a large national seed bank at the Faculty of Agricultural Engineering in San Lorenzo Campus. It will also include a germplasm, which consists of a genetic bank that will allow the preservation of varietals in spite of future changes, climate or otherwise. The bank will also have a reserve of seeds, in addition to promoting the recuperation of national and food sovereignty.
Galiano highlighted that the native varietals are better adapted to the country’s climate, soil and any unforeseen changes that could occur, especially with the weather. “They are seeds that are better for farmers to use, especially for food security,” he said.
He added that the project includes varietals of fundamental importance for the religious tradition of the native peoples, like maize, which over time are being lost.