Paraguay: Transgenic corn destruction fuels national debate


ASUNCION, Paraguay – The federal agricultural agency’s dramatic destruction of more than 100 acres of transgenic corn a couple of weeks ago has provoked a fiery new round here in the debate about genetically modified crops.

I landed here in Paraguay on the day of that intervention and found myself at the heart of what’s been dubbed “The Soy Wars,” where transnational giants like Cargill and Monsanto have held virtually unchallenged political influence for years, and vast stretches of the countryside have been bulldozed to create Roundup-ready empires. Paraguay has become the world’s fourth largest producer of soy, and those campesinos and indigenous people who have tried to hold out against the pressure to sell their land have found their subsistence lifestyles and even their very lives under attack from aerial sprayings of “agrotoxins,” and from roving thugs who have tried to repress dissent by targeting community leaders for harassment and even, in one extreme case, assassination.

The entire region, stretching across national borders into Argentina and Brazil, was dubbed “the United Republic of Soy” by enthusiastic industry leaders, according to Marie-Monique Robin, author of the book “The World According to Monsanto,” which includes an entire chapter on the rise of transgenic soy in the region.

That war has taken a new turn with the entrance of the first left-leaning government in Paraguay’s history – and indeed, the first democratic government not linked to the four-decade Stroessner dictatorship. In April 2008, former Catholic bishop-turned-politician Fernando Lugo came into office on promises to implement a long-denied land reform and to recover national sovereignty from foreign governments and transnationals. After two years, fighting a right-wing parliament, judicial system and national media, and now his own cancer, Lugo has been able to accomplish little of what he promised. But the ministers he has appointed to various posts have managed to shift the dialog in this country, and one of the big shifts has been in the area of agricultural policy.

That shift has been most visible in the dramatic “intervention” staged recently in which SENAVE officials destroyed 44 hectares of transgenic corn, an act that prompted sharp criticism from the defenders of the agribusiness elite that has controlled national politics over the past two decades.

I had met Miguel Lovera, the controversial head of SENAVE, the Paraguayan equivalent of the. U.S. Food and Agriculture Service, at a conference held by local environmental, human rights and campesino groups to lay out their arguments for government leaders. I decided to request an interview with him, and surprisingly, an hour later, I was in his office.
He had just come from meeting with the president – who was sporting a new buzz cut in anticipation of the hair loss his chemotherapy would bring, but who was feeling hale and hearty and in control, Lovera assured me.

He received me warmly in his spacious office on the 15th floor of the Planeta 1 building in downtown Asuncion. The cityscape outside his ample windows was grey with the smoke of a thousand fields burning across the river in the Gran Chaco – fires from agricultural fields being burned to make way for the new crop.

I wanted to ask him about this, and about so many things – among other activities, Lovera was chosen to lead the country’s delegation to Copenhagen last year for the climate talks, and his televised interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reflected a particularly thoughtful approach to the problem of climate change. I decided then to look him up once I reached Paraguay, but nine months is a long time, and I’d forgotten about that connection until, when preparing for this interview, I picked up the reference to that one.

But his time was short – sandwiched as it was between other meetings, this interview would have to be concise. Far from being the wild-eyed radical his critics have painted, he came off as a cautious but emphatic proponent of what he calls, in a discourse reminiscent of Obama, the rule of law.

“This is not a political action, it’s just implementing the legislation,” he emphasized. “It’s quite simple, actually – transgenic corn is not legal in our environment. I’m just enforcing the legislation – although there’s a lot of opposition, because there’s a huge economic interest behind the illegal cultivation of transgenic corn.”

The only genetically modified crops that are currently authorized in Paraguay for cultivation are several specific varieties of soy.

Unfortunately, he said, previous administrators of SENAVE were “completely oblivious” to this legislation, so its enforcement has come as something of a shock. It has also kicked off a new round of debate over the merits and threats of transgenics in general, a debate that Lovera declines to participate, sticking with the stable ground of legal enforcement.

The decision to destroy the transgenic cornfields dominated the front page of ABC Color, the most conservative newspaper, for most of the week. Héctor Cristaldo, head of the powerful producer’s guild, derided Lovera and the entire Lugo administration, saying the country needed this technology in order to grow the economy and meet its obligations.

“That’s nonsense, actually,” he retorted. “We are reaching the highest levels of agricultural production ever in this country – the only thing we are doing is being legal. If your productivity depends on illegality, then actually you’ve got it wrong. And I think Crisaldo’s got it wrong because he defends an immoral position. We actually do have a legal system in this country; President Lugo’s government is working really hard to comply with decency, with legality and applying the rule of law in the country – so we cannot have these people roaming around the country doing whatever they want anymore. “

Another opponent, Regis Mereles of the Soy Producers Association, was harsher. He called Lovera “retrograde,” and suggested he needed to pay a visit to the countryside to get a better idea of what was happening there.

Lovera shook his head and laughed. “You’ve just heard what kind of a retrograde I am,” he said. “If being against the law of the jungle is being retrograde, well, yes, I welcome that epithet.”

He acknowledged that he doesn’t get out to the countryside as much as he’d like – “Probably because I’m sitting in this chair most of the time –“ but he wondered if Misales had a vision problem.

“Because if you go to the countryside the way I go and see all the abuse – and there still is some – you cannot say, this is fine. They are just producing here. If you’re not capable of understanding the level of abuse being applied and inflicted on bystanders, then you really have a terrible psychological problem.”

Reports of chemical poisonings of communities and water supplies have been common over the years, and even more cases have not been reported due to fear and intimidation, according to Marie-Monique Robin. One rare case, that of 11-year-old Silvino Talavera, who died of chemical intoxication, actually was fought to a successful conclusion in Paraguay’s court system in 2004 and brought international attention to the problem. Not much changed until Lugo took office in 2008. Campesinos and indigenous people continue to be displaced by the thousands from their rural communities as foreign investors buy and raze vast tracts of land for soy production. But at least something is being done about the most egregious violations of basic safety laws.

Already the new emphasis on enforcement has brought about an enormous change in compliance, due in large part to what Lovera calls the “pedagogic effect” of applying the law. When Lugo took office two years ago, Lovera estimates the level of compliance to agricultural regulations at about 10 or 15 percent. Nowadays, Lovera believes compliance to those regulations is closer to 50 percent.

“I see that as a good sign, and this will only increase our competitiveness in terms of international trade in terms of being considered as a serious place to do business,” he said.

Most growers, he says, have been open to learning about the legislation and changing their practices.

“The producers are saying, ‘If we’ve done this in the past, we’re not going to do it again.’ That’s the response we’re getting from the real producers, not from these clan leaders and syndicate leaders who are my critics at the moment.

“The guys who are earning their living plowing the land and sowing the seeds, they want to do the best job they can. So we are going to help them; we’re open to dialog, discussions, debate – that’s the only way of solving the debate we’re having at the moment. They are really cooperating, and I predict we’re going to have a much better countryside in a few months.”

Besides the focus on cleaning up noncompliance in the fields, Lovera said, the agency is working hard to clean up corruption in its own ranks through the establishment of an internal affairs unit. “We are serious about it,” he said. “What we hope is to achieve a level of decency which is complying with the law, and I think we are making a lot of progress.”

I asked Lovera to discuss some of the challenges his agency has faced in trying to enforce the law.

“The main impediment we have at the moment is nostalgia,” he said. “Some people like Crisaldo – he represents a group of pseudo-entrepreneurs who are basically a privileged caste in this country and of course they are fighting not to lose those privileges, which are highly unjust and unfair for the rest of the population.

“In any moderately civilized country if you would spray your pesticides on people, you’d basically go to jail. In this country that wasn’t the case, it may still be the case in many places in the country that they may be spraying on the wrong places, on the wrong people, on the wrong animals. We’re out there to put an end to this situation. So if you protest against that, then, well you’re not really fit to live in a democratic society; you’re not fit because you’re not able to respect fellow human beings, and you’re not sensible enough to recognize that you need a certain degree of environmental quality, and that your business and economic activities should be limited by those discernable impacts.”

I asked him to talk a bit about those impacts, some of which I saw with my own eyes as I crossed the Gran Chaco and saw places that were once forested wildlands, now vast expanses of soy as far as the eye could see.

“If you want to see the general picture you just have to look at the map and look at the deforested area. What was once a dense subtropical moist forest, more than 90% of that is gone at the moment. The reminders are just a few patches spread around some 200,000 square kilometers of land. That’s the first level of abuse. Of course people can say, this happened everywhere. And I know – but why would that be a license to commit the same mistakes over and over?”

“They go right straight through whatever they can, so there are many sources of water that have been plowed over, all the streams and creeks that were leveled, and desiccation of this landscape is just drastic. The deforestation goes right to the banks of the rivers, spraying goes completely throughout the landscapes, over rivers and lakes.”

Continued deforestation, conversion of wildlands and subsistence communities into extensions of the “United Republic of Soy” is out of his purview. But for now, Lovera takes the optimistic view, saying that these growers are beginning to modify their practices.

I also asked Lovera to discuss the connection between climate change and the work he is currently doing for SENAVE.

“In technical terms there’s a very strict relation between what I’m doing now and what I did then, which was recovering a sovereign position for Paraguay,” he said. “In the past Paraguay was just following certain policies imposed by other nations and misrepresenting the national interest. So I think it’s part of the same kettle of fish.

“It’s a struggle to comply with the law, to recover our sovereignty through our legal system, through the implementation of our legislation and our norms, which is exactly what most countries in the world have: the rule of law is the main tool we have to organize in a positive manner our way of living together as human beings – regardless of different social classes, different ethnic backgrounds and especially in terms of respecting everyone’s human rights, the rule of law is the only way of achieving that.”

 Tracy L. Barnett is the editor and founder of The Esperanza Project, A Green News Portal for the Americas. She is currently traveling through Latin America doing research for a book on environmental initiatives throughout the Americas and exploring the use of social media in promoting environmental awareness. 

Leave a comment