‘Sustainable soy’ proposal sparks protest

‘Sustainable soy’ proposal sparks protest

A roundtable conference in Brazil in March initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature provoked a counter-meeting and protest by peasant, indigenous and workers’ movements who viewed it as a diversion from the fundamental problems associated with large-scale soya production in the region. Lilian Joensen explains the background to this revolt by those involved in local, subsistence agriculture against agribusiness which dominates the global market.

SOY, the signature crop of the biotechnology industry in South America, continues to create turbulence.

Over 600 people from peasant and indigenous movements, worker unions and unemployed worker organisations from Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil gathered in San Miguel do Iguaz£, Brazil from 16 to 18 March.

They were at a counter-meeting against the first Roundtable Conference on Sustainable Soy. This counter-meeting was called by Argentine NGO Grupo de Reflexi¢n Rural and peasant organisation Via Campesina Argentina, and supported by Via Campesina Paraguay and Brazil.

The 600 participants, most of whom had travelled long distances by bus, held lively and intense discussions in several workshops and conferences at the Technological and Educational Institute for Agrarian Reform (ITEPA). The counter-meeting ended with a two-hour-long demonstration outside the Bourbon Hotel against the proposal for sustainable soy production where the Roundtable Conference was taking place on 18 March. The Roundtable was organised by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Coop (Switzerland), Grupo Andr‚ Maggi (Brazil), Unilever (Netherlands), Cordaid (Netherlands) and Fetraf-Sul (Brazil).

What the counter-meeting opposes

The idea of the peasant counter-meeting originated when WWF announced in the world media the publication of the report Managing the Soy Boom: Two Scenarios of Soy Production Expansion in South America, by the Dutch consultant AIDEnvironment. This report commissioned by WWF’s Forest Conversion Initiative mentions superficially some negative impacts of soy expansion in South America, without questioning the agro-export model behind this development. It accepts that this is a trend likely to continue and therefore it proposes the need to discuss and find solutions that agree with the stakeholders responsible for the disaster that soy has meant to South America. The variety grown is mainly genetically modified Roundup Ready soy. This herbicide-tolerant soy of Monsanto is grown legally in Argentina and illegally in Paraguay and Brazil.

The first page of the Managing the Soy Boom report already provoked rage among several peasant and indigenous organisations from the Southern Cone of Latin America. It assumes that soy demand is expected to increase 60% to over 300 million tons per year in 2020. Furthermore it states that since China and the US have little arable land reserves, future expansion will be accommodated primarily in South American producer countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

When WWF announced the Roundtable, it became clear that the idea was to sustain and increase soy production in South America to secure the supply of fodder for animal protein production in Europe and China. While trying to show an objective point of view, the Roundtable disregards the fact that soy production has spawned two opposite and irreconcilable points of view.

On one side is the view of those who have profited enormously during the last few years from soy production and export since the soy boom started, pushed by the demand for cheap animal feed in Europe and China. On this side are the GM seed and agrochemical companies. All these are allied to the soy producer business, such as AAPRESID (Zero-Tillage Farmers, the main GM soy lobby in Argentina), CAPECO (Chamber of Cereals and Oilseeds, Paraguay), and Grupo Andr‚ Maggi (main soy producer in Matto Grosso, Brazil). Other actors who have direct interest in sustained soy production are the ‘alternative’ food industry such as Unilever (soy ‘egg’, soy ‘milk’, etc), animal product producers and retailers in Europe. All these stakeholders with direct interests in soy production participated in the Roundtable.

On the other side are the victims of the Zero Tillage GM and hybrid-seeds lobby, who must suffer the consequences of the industrial intensive agriculture involved in this system. Consequences such as repression and eviction from the land, unemployment, poisoning by agrochemicals, and loss of crops and animals that are indispensable for peasant and indigenous peoples’ economies, are a daily fact in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.
Moreover, the environmental and human health effects of genetic engineering have not even begun to be taken up.

Behind the Roundtable and the AIDEnvironment/WWF report

Some NGOs believe that the current market conditions of globalisation are here to stay and not much can be done about it, whether we like it or not. Therefore they are allying with agribusiness. To justify these alliances, some NGOs say this is the only way to prevent further deforestation, since fighting the companies would be suicidal. ‘Experts’ from the industrialised world, funded by their respective development agencies, banks and transnational companies, are choosing and consulting ‘experts’ from NGOs in the developing countries that best suit their interests. ‘Expert’ reports are produced and continuously improved in language to sound more ‘progressive’ and ‘democratic’ to the common unskilled target.

These reports propose solutions to the problems that the same industrial ideology of ‘progress’ has created. They state that bad consequences of current trends are inevitable and pragmatically address the need to convince the industry that there can be ‘good business’ in showing a more humane and environment-friendly image through inventing criteria of ‘sustainable’ production of commodities and management of the environment.

These NGOs see as good news the fact that ‘agro-ecological’ production controlled by companies such as seed giant Cargill and Grupo Andr‚ Maggi is becoming big business. The companies can even profit from certification or environmental services if they get a green light from certain NGOs as being environmentally safe and socially fair, in order to get their products sold in supermarkets, fast food and clothing chains. Certification and environmental management can give the common citizen in the industrialised world the sense that the poor and the environment in developing countries are benefiting from the sales of products in the industrialised world or from tourism.

These kinds of proposals can be gathered from the AIDEnvironment report and the initiatives towards sustainability pushed by WWF and other NGOs together with the soy-related industry. However, they are denounced by peasant, indigenous and environmental organisations in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil as mere ‘greenwashing’ initiatives that will only benefit the transnational corporations and threaten even more the rights of the local communities.

In the case of the AIDEnvironment report, it proposes a ‘better policies and practices scenario’ to avoid deforestation. It states that ‘intensifying production along existing roads and near existing population centres will reduce the need to expand additional frontiers and investment in costly infrastructure projects’. This shows complete ignorance of recent years’ development in the countries of the Southern Cone of Latin America. Thus, it does not take into account the fact that these areas are already saturated with GM soy and people in urban neighbourhoods are suffering severe health problems due to constant fumigation with chemicals such as glyphosate, paraquat, atrazine, 2,4 D, and endosulphan. At the same time, this ‘better case scenario’ ideally suits the interests of the Zero-Tillage lobby that goes hand in hand with GM seeds and agrochemicals, as has been proved in Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil.

There are also concerns that ‘agro-ecology’ in the hands of agribusiness will undermine genuine efforts in ecological agriculture.

The ‘100 million sustainable Forum’

Meanwhile, in Argentina, WWF’s associate Fundaci¢n Vida Silvestre (FSVA) is promoting the ‘100 million sustainable Forum’ together with the Argentine Association of Agribusiness, as a way of solving the environmental and social problems caused by the conversion of wild areas to agricultural production in the country. They refer to this forum as a process of open dialogue. Among the points they wish to agree on is the ‘necessity to identify the geographic localisation of 5 to 12 million hectares of new projected agricultural areas in the plan to achieve the production of 100 million tons of grains and oilseeds’.

Greenpeace Argentina participates in this initiative as an environmental NGO. Most of the institutions and companies that participate in the 100 million Forum were also at the March Roundtable. This forum triggered indignation among Argentine organisations that seriously question the agro-export model imposed on the countries in the Third World. This model only benefits the seed, agrochemical and export corporations and can by no means be made sustainable by further increasing and intensifying the agricultural areas. According to the Argentine NGO Grupo de Reflexi¢n Rural, the participation of well-known environmental NGOs that have some prestige among the public will be used by agribusiness to legitimise their goals of making profit with the aid of greenwashing initiatives.

Roundtable versus counter-meeting

While the Roundtable concluded by expressing appreciation of the importance of having started a dialogue on the issue of soy and acknowledges that soy production ‘brings about social, economic, environmental and institutional benefits and problems’, the participants of the counter-meeting unanimously agreed that sustainable soy production is not possible in South America.

Growing fodder in the South American continent to satisfy the demand of meat production in other continents will never meet the needs of peoples’ food sovereignty and therefore cannot be done responsibly.

Agronomist Adolfo Boy from Grupo de Reflexi¢n Rural explained at the counter-meeting that the scheme behind the new idea of agro-ecology defended by agribusiness-friendly NGOs cannot be thought of as sustainable. Their proposal is to work with certified seeds and will bring into play technological-agroecological packages developed by companies. These packages utilise approved pheromones, organic fertilisers, etc. This means that the companies will profit from certification in all instances of production from seed to port. Farmers will be tempted to go into this ‘agro-ecological’ production with secured markets, good credits and high prices, if they agree with the companies. The idea behind this is that subsistence agriculture is abandoned and that virgin land which today belongs to small-scale producers will be used to produce agro-ecological crops for the needs of the global market.

Even the concept of land reform will be bastardised if this path is followed. Ownership of land by peasants will not be important, as long as agribusiness can decide what and where to produce. The worst aspect of the current export-oriented agricultural model is that it leaves defenceless societies with no capacity to respond.

The counter-meeting is the starting point in pushing initiatives to defend the land, seeds and subsistence and local agriculture against the global market. Anything else will be suicidal, not only to the forests, but also to peasant societies. NGOs must understand this and not be under any illusion that agribusiness can be environmentally sustainable and socially just.

Dr Lilian Joensen is a member of Grupo de Reflexi¢n Rural in Argentina. She worked as a molecular biologist with the Dr Mario Fatala Chaben National Institute of Parasitology in Argentina from 1991 to 2003.


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