Curitiba, Brazil – The recent decree by Roberto RequiÃ£o, Governor of the state of ParanÃ¡, to expropriate the Syngenta corporation’s experimental site in Santa Tereza do Oeste has become a powerful symbol for all interests in the struggle over the future of Brazilian agriculture. The magnitude of RequiÃ£o’s decision was highlighted on November 30th when members of the rural social movements the Via Campesina and the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST) closed the first Meeting of Education in Agrarian Reform, in Cascavel, with a march to the Syngenta site. En route to the march, the movements’ busses were halted by a blockade of tractors formed by about 100 members of the Rural Society of the West (SRO), an elite group representing the interests of large landowners and commercial agricultural producers in western ParanÃ¡. Some SRO members were on horseback and armed with guns. As the marchers began to cross the barricade on foot, a violent conflict began. Shots were fired into the air, and pieces of wood were used to beat the marchers. While no one was hospitalized, the confrontation resulted in the injury of nine people. According to Alessandro Meneghel, President of the SRO, the blockade was created “to show that the rural producers will no longer peacefully accept land invasions and political provocations.”
The conflict over Syngenta began on March 14th when about six hundred members of the Via Campesina and the MST occupied the 127-hectare locale after the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA), the federal environmental agency, confirmed that Syngenta had illegally planted twelve hectares of genetically-modified (GM) soybeans there. The planting was illegal because the site is located within the protective boundary zone of the IguaÃ§u National Park, and under Brazilian federal law it is illegal to plant GM crops within this zone. The Via Campesina and MST justified their occupation of Syngenta’s site with Article 186 in the Brazilian constitution, which stipulates that private property (including land) must serve a social function. Since the early 1980s, the MST has used Article 186 to justify non-violent occupations of unproductive land owned by large landowners in order to pressure the government to expropriate the land for the purpose of agrarian reform. The movements argue that the land at Syngenta’s experimental site, through the illegal cultivation of GM crops, was not serving its social function because it endangered Brazil‘s natural resource base, upon which all Brazilians depend. The occupation stopped all of Syngenta’s activities at the site, and cost the multinational millions of dollars. Additionally, the occupation successfully pressured IBAMA to fine Syngenta US $462,000 (which remains unpaid), and applied continuous pressure on the governor to expropriate the site.
RequiÃ£o’s decree to expropriate the site from Syngenta in the public interest was signed on November 9th, just days after he was re-elected Governor on October 30th. From the beginning of the occupation until he signed the decree, RequiÃ£o ignored various municipal and state judicial orders to expel the occupants. According to the statement released by the ParanÃ¡ government’s press agency, the legal basis for the decree is founded on a constitutional clause that gives Brazilian states the sovereignty to “protect notable natural areas and the environment, combat pollution of whatever form, and to preserve the forests, fauna and flora.” The decree also emphasizes the “fragility of the biggest and most important remnant of the semi-deciduous seasonal forest in the country, in the IguaÃ§u National Park,” which was declared the Patrimony of Humanity by the United Nations Educational Social and Cultural Organization in 1986. RequiÃ£o announced his intent to turn the site into a center for research and education in sustainable agriculture for small farmers and landless workers.
The efficacy of the occupation, and RequiÃ£o’s resulting decree, have elevated the social movements’ struggle for Syngenta to be the current most powerful global symbol of resistance to the growing hegemony of multinational agribusiness corporations. This is true for the social movements and civil society in Brazil, as well as for organizations and movements in the anti-GM struggle worldwide. Syngenta, which realized profits of over US $8.1 billion in 2005, has the third largest share of the global seeds market. The corporation is at the forefront of research into agricultural biotechnology, and the effort to patent and privatize genetic material from seeds, including the development of Terminator Technology. This technology, which causes GM plants to produce sterile seeds, is perhaps the biotechnology most threatening to peasants and small farmers, as it is designed to force all agriculturalists to purchase seeds from agribusinesses, as opposed to choosing, saving and reproducing seeds. Given Syngenta’s position as an agribusiness leader, for the anti-GM struggle the ParanÃ¡ government’s expropriation of the Syngenta site is strategic in the effort to resist the increasing control by multinational agribusinesses over global food and natural resource systems.
The expropriation is also vital to the effort to hold agribusinesses accountable for their crimes, and highlights the ability of social movements and civil society to affect them. According to JosÃ© Maria Tardin, who works in the Sector of Production, Cooperation and the Environment for the MST and also coordinates the Latin American School for Agroecology in ParanÃ¡, the decree “calls the attention of the public to the abuses of these companies in the country, and signals to the social movements the need for action in order to combat and criminalize these companies, which operate in an illicit form and under the complacency of the state, disseminating transgenics in the country.” With its immense geographic size and natural resource wealth, opening Brazil up to GM crops has been strategic to the survival and expansion of agribusiness’ interests.
Since 2003, agribusiness has dramatically increased its presence and interests in Brazil, a development that would not have been possible without the Monsanto Company’s illegal promotion of GM soy cultivation in the country. According to Darci Frigo, an attorney for the human rights organization Terra de Direitos, based in Curitiba, in 2001, when GM soy was still illegal to plant in Brazil, Monsanto encouraged farmers in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul to illegally pirate its Roundup Ready GM soy seeds from Argentine farmers and plant them. Monsanto then approached the Lula administration and demanded that it legalize cultivation of GM soy so that the corporation could collect ‘its’ royalties. Thus the process of fait accompli of how the cultivation of GM soy came to be legalized in Brazil. On May 8, 2006, the Correio Braziliense published an article reporting that Monsanto sold ParanÃ¡ congressman Abelardo Lupion, of the Liberal Front Party, who represents the interests of the Brazilian rural elite, a farm for one-third of its market value in return for Lupion using his political power to legalize glysophate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. After the sale of glysophate was legalized in Brazil, Monsanto’s sales of Roundup increased by more than 30%. In early 2004, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that despite a loss of $97 million for Monsanto that quarter, Brazil was “blossoming” and “becoming a bright spot” for the corporation.
Due to agribusinesses’ increase of economic and political power, and criminal activities in Brazil, in recent years the rural social movements have increasingly focused their actions against these corporations. The expropriation of Syngenta is their latest victory in a struggle against biotechnology that has an established history in ParanÃ¡. “This victorious expropriation crowns the struggle of the peasant movements and organizations of civil society,” says Tardin, “that since 2001 have intensified their mobilizations in ParanÃ¡, for a land free of transgenics and without agrotoxins, and for the promotion of agroecology amongst poor, rural families.” The rural social movements and civil society organizations have applied strong and continuous pressure on RequiÃ£o to reject GM technology, and to adopt various policies to impede the abuses of agribusiness corporations. Thus, while the rest of Brazil planted millions of hectares to GM soy, RequiÃ£o signed the ParanÃ¡ Law Free of Transgenics in 2003, which prohibits the planting of GM crops in the state, and prohibits the export of GM grains through the Port of ParanaguÃ¡, the largest port of agricultural export in Latin America. The decree to expropriate Syngenta is RequiÃ£o’s latest political maneuver in his already well-articulated anti-GM stance. The magnitude of the decree should not be underestimated; it is unprecedented in Brazil, as never before has any state or the federal government moved to expropriate land from an agribusiness multinational corporation. Without question, RequiÃ£o’s anti-GM policies are a result of the pressure applied by the social movements and civil society.
Therefore, for agribusiness, including the multinationals and their allies amongst the Brazilian rural elite, RequiÃ£o’s decree to expropriate Syngenta’s experimental site is a direct threat to its economic and political power. This power is based on a neoliberal model of economic growth through agricultural production for export. Brazil‘s agricultural sector has experienced massive growth in recent years, boosted primarily by exports of GM soy (Brazil is now second only to the U.S. in soy production and export). While Meneghel claims that the SRO does not have direct financial interests in the Syngenta site, the organization’s consternation about the expropriation is based on the fact that “the Rural Society of the West is historically constituted to represent the productive sector. Regionally, Syngenta performs the relevant research to raise the levels of productivity of agribusiness.” Meneghel maintains that RequiÃ£o’s decree is “based on questionable legality, sending a negative message to investors, chasing them away and inflating ‘Brazil risk.'” The expropriation, if upheld, will considerably weaken this current model of economic growth via agricultural export, and will strengthen the national and regional movements toward a sustainable agricultural model based on family farming, agroecology, and food production for domestic markets – all firmly grounded in a comprehensive agrarian reform. The success of these movements will necessarily entail the end of agribusiness in Brazil. For these reasons, Syngenta, the SRO, and all who have interests in Brazilian agribusiness are desperate to stop the expropriation.
The SRO and Syngenta have been mobilizing at the local and national levels to fight RequiÃ£o’s decree. Their tactic has been to criminalize the Via Campesina and MST by reframing the occupation by as ‘invasion,’ and by asserting RequiÃ£o’s decree has no legal basis. As the conflict of November 30th demonstrated, the SRO is attempting to resolve the issue by taking the law into its own hands. According to Meneghel, “The SRO does not defend violence as a form to resolve conflicts in the countryside, but the SRO also does not accept the invasion of land, provocation and impunity of the invadersâ€¦For every invasion of land that occurs in the region, there will be one similar action by the SROâ€¦The position of the SRO is simply to defend the productive sectors of society against the free will and the abuse of power by the Governorâ€¦We are not going to permit the agriculturalists that generate these riches for the country, and toil from sunrise to sundown, to be insulted by ideological political movements of whatever form.”
While Syngenta has not yet publicly responded to RequiÃ£o’s decree, its tactic to fight it has been to utilize its economic power to change Brazilian law and garner support from state and federal politicians in order to disprove that it committed any criminal activity. On October 31st, President Lula signed a provisional measure that reduced the distance of the protective boundary zone for national parks from 10 kilometers to just 500 meters. This maneuver, a result from local agricultural interests and of pressure from Syngenta, complicates the effort to find that Syngenta illegally planted GM soy, as it planted the soy six kilometers from the park. This measure was approved by the lower house of Congress in December, and will likely be approved by the Senate early this year. Additionally, on November 30th the Federal Public Minister of ParanÃ¡, through the Municipal Prosecutor of Cascavel, annulled the civil suit against Syngenta filed by Terra de Direitos on October 4th. This decision is currently waiting to be ratified by the Minister of Justice in BrasÃlia.
Syngenta has also enlisted the support of congressman Lupion to do its political bidding, despite the fact that there are currently two unresolved federal inquiries into his alleged corruption, including one into his connection to Monsanto. On December 13th the federal government’s Commission of Agriculture, Livestock, Supply and Rural Development (CAPADR), under the direction of congressman Eduardo Sciarra, also of the Liberal Front Party in ParanÃ¡, approved a proposal submitted by Lupion on June 28th to investigate IBAMA’s “administrative procedures” in regard to the fine it imposed on Syngenta for the illegal planting. Through the CAPADR investigation, Lupion intends to negate the legality of IBAMA’s fine. The investigation also intends to discredit the occupation by establishing that the site was ‘productive,’ and therefore serving its social function. Finally, it is an attack on RequiÃ£o for refusing to comply with judicial orders to forcibly expel the occupants from the Syngenta site.
Yet the evidence remains that Syngenta illegally planted GM soy within the IguaÃ§u National Park, and therefore broke a federal law. As Tardin points out, “In addition to Syngenta, there were 12 other farmers that committed the same crime of planting transgenic soy and corn in the protective zone of the IguaÃ§u National Park, an act duly prohibited by federal legislation.” IBAMA fined every single farmer found to have planted GM crops within the zone. According to Maria Rita Reis, the attorney for Terra de Direitos responsible for the case against Syngenta, “The Federal Justice already declared that the planting was illegal.”
It is clear that all interests in the struggle over RequiÃ£o’s decree to expropriate Syngenta’s test site understand that the outcome is critical to the future of agribusiness in Brazil. If Syngenta and the SRO are successful in their effort to annul the decree, and discredit the criminal charges against the corporation, the case will strengthen the power and confidence of agribusiness in Brazil, setting the stage for future crimes, increased hegemony, and further environmental destruction. In his article, “Trangenics: Concentration of Power of Multinationals and the Deconstruction of the Patrimony of the People,” presented in Caracas, Venezuela, in April 2005, Tardin writes: “The absolute and unhindered control over humanity’s natural resources by the multinationals is a key factor to the establishment, maintenance, and amplification of imperialism. It is in this context that agriculture occupies a strategic place in the accumulation of wealth, and biotechnology especially offers the multinationals the best techniques to gain absolute global control, and to manipulate that to their interests and necessities. It is through biotechnology that [the multinationals] make a concerted effort to achieve the maximum concentration of power over humanity’s food system, and biotechnology therefore offers them an instrument of geopolitical-military control as never before.”
RequiÃ£o and the social movements face what could be termed ‘an uphill battle’ against various powerful interests in Brazilian agribusiness before the decree to expropriate is upheld. Yet if it is upheld, the expropriation will serve to drastically curb agribusiness’ power. It will strengthen the local, national and regional movements toward alternative, sustainable agricultural systems, based on agrarian reform, food security, food sovereignty, and conservation of natural resources. RequiÃ£o is one of the increasing number of leftist politicians in Latin America that are a part of this movement, which also includes Venezuelan President Hugo ChÃ¡vez and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The occupation of, and RequiÃ£o’s decree to expropriate, the Syngenta site is the most powerful tangible example that currently exists in the world of how common people and civil society have been able to affect a multinational agribusiness corporation and the state. For this reason, success of the expropriation could help to stimulate popular resistance to agribusiness on a global scale. According to Tardin, RequiÃ£o’s decree “is the greatest global victory in this battle, that reverberates around the worldâ€¦energizing the struggles in all of the countries where these same companies commit the same crimes.” RequiÃ£o’s decree sets new precedents for the interpretation of the social function of private property, in particular how land, natural resources and food systems must be prioritized for Brazilian society – not the wealth of agribusiness. If agribusiness can be weakened in Brazil via expropriation of Syngenta’s experimental site, this will have profound impacts throughout the world.