Paraguay's Land Struggle

Jordi Ruiz Cirera

2013 - 2014

Intensive large-estate agriculture is taking over most of the food production in the world affecting harvests, feeding trends and life around the globe. Based on Genetically Modified (GM) seeds, and the strong use of agrochemicals to improve the harvest, this new model is bringing together genetic engineering, food processing and bio-fuels, with the underlying promise of tackling hunger, and creating huge revenues for big transnational companies who ultimately control the market.

However, this model is based on a neoliberal economy that empowers the deregulation of markets and the transfer of capital, thus leaving little revenue for the production poles. International organisations and NGOs state that its expansion is actually impoverishing local communities, by strangling small producers and destroying the local market economy, either in the Southern Cone, India or South Africa.

The Southern Cone is nowadays one of the main food producers in the world, and the spearhead of agribusiness. Significantly, the Syngenta Corporation dubbed it the “United Soya Republic” on an advertisement published in the newspapers Clarín and La Nación of Argentina; a bold statement showing the optimism and fervour with which agribusiness companies are attempting to control this area of the world.

In 2013 I started documenting the changes in the landscape and socio-economic climate that agribusiness is bringing to Paraguay, a country that has devoted itself to the agro-export model under promises of a never-ending growth. In the last 15 years the soya surface has tripled, and is currently the world’s fourth biggest exporter of these legumes, which are mostly shipped to China and the EU for cattle feed. The export of soya as well as meat and cereals places Paraguay as one of the fastest growing economies of Latin America, reaching a historical 13% GDP growth in 2013, one of the biggest in the world. In this context the small but powerful land elite has their eyes on the Chicago stock exchange, which sets the prices for agriculture commodities worldwide, and is seeing a promising future blurred only by the social unrest and the lack of authority in a highly corrupted country.

On the other hand, deforestation and land grabbing are on the rise in Paraguay, with 9000 rural families being evicted by soya production each year, and nearly half a million hectares of land being turned into soya fields. Independent studies link the uncontrolled use of pesticides such as Glyphosate with serious effects on human health, and protests against fumigations and over land-ownership are spreading, leading to strong confrontations between police, peasants and large estate owners.

This work documents the complex realities of the global food chain and its socio-economic implications, at a time when we are seeing a shift from the traditional view of agriculture (as a means to produce food), to a system designed to produce livestock food and oil for cars.

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  • A peasant at la Terza Kué remains jobless as the fields they once owned are now part of a large soy plantation. The community is on an ongoing conflict over the ownership of the land with the plantation company, which they accuse of steadily grabbing their lands in connivence from corrupted authorities. They also face pressure from a Rural Police group they accuse of acting on behalf of the company, as well as threats and economic pressure to leave the area. Since 2003 there had been 11 unsolved murders in the community, all by hit mans. Land grabbing and concentration of land sometimes in foreign hands is reported by national and international organizations to be one of Paraguay's major problems.

  • A silo near Minga Pora

  • Nestor Genés, 27, has had a throat infection and skin affection for over 15 days, he claims since fumigation started in the large soy field 20m away from his house, since some of his neighbors suffer from the same affections. His brother died at the age of 27 after strong fever and intense stomach ache, and his nephew died as well form an undiagnosed stomach disease. They claim the intense use of pesticides is related to those deeds and diseases, although no doctor has proved so.

  • Michael Kolbeck, a large-estate soya producer speaks with his brother in law at the house of the latest. He broke his leg on an accident during a motorbike trip a couple of months before, and flew to Germany, where he was born and where he spends part of the year, for the operation.
    He arrived in 1983 when his father sold his lands back home for a larger extension in Paraguay which was “like the American West, a land of opportunities”. He now works with Genetically Modified soya, but believes has the same performance as conventional, however harvest is easier since no weeds are growing. He complains about the large amount of supplies needed, which makes the harvest more economically risky than before. “This is the best soil in South America, too valuable to waste it in cattle-ranching”.

  • Alice Peña takes a look at a sample at the germination room at Semillas Veronica’s lab, where different breeds of Genetically Modified seeds from Syngenta are observed at an even temperature of 25ºC to compare and verify its behaviour with different soils and procedures. The company is part of Paraguayan agrobusiness giant Grupo Favero, and is located on Los Cedrales, a town which flourished in recent years due to the boom of the soya industry in the area.

  • María Lina Estorales cries while explaining how she and the other 21 families of the small community of Guayaqui Cuá were evicted and their properties burned two days ago. She stated nearby cattle-ranch security men together with local police officers went on behalf of the large-estate owner who directs the ranch and evicted them without notice. According to government authorities the lands are owned by the government but the large-estate owner has been expanding his property and claims ownership over the area where peasants were living. Multiple ownership of lands is a major issue in Paraguay and is linked to corruption of authorities in the country.

  • Luz Mariana Roman, 30, with some relatives and friends at her house the day after her 9 year-old daughter died of kidney cancer. She claims the pollution spreading from the large soy farm 100m away from their house is the cause of her daughter's disease, as the doctors pointed out when she was first visited. Recent studies link the increasing number of cancers as well as congenital malformations with the pesticides used in large-estate soy plantations.

  • Cows at estancia Santa Amalia, a large estate soya plantation and cattle-ranch farm. Since 2008 an indigenous group has illegally occupied part of the plantation and in 2010 the land-owner was attacked, allegedly by the indigenous, and they were expelled by the police. However in 2014 they returned and are claiming ownership over the lands as they state they are their historical lands from where they were expelled years ago when the estancia was created.

  • A silo full of corn at Puerto Gical, one of the main ports on the river Paraguay near Asunción.

  • Aldo Galeano, 5, lives with his extended family on an impoverished area close to a large soy extension. He was born healthy but now has some undiagnosed problem on his legs and hips, leaving him with strong pain and sometimes unable to walk. His parents claim it is the effects of the intense use of pesticides in the neighboring fields. According to some doctors the number of congenital malformations has increased dramatically in the areas where soy is planted on a large scale.

  • A burned bed is one of the few remains of the community of Guayaqui Cuá after its eviction two days before. 22 peasant families were evicted and their properties burned by nearby cattle-ranch security men working together with local police officers allegedly on behalf of the large-estate owner who directs the ranch. According to government authorities the lands are owned by the government but the large-estate owner has been expanding his property and claims ownership over the area where peasants were living. Multiple ownership of lands is a major issue in Paraguay and is linked to corruption of authorities in the country.

  • Peasants at the community of Crescencio Gonzalez harvest sesame

  • An abandoned house in the middle of a soya field is the last trace of the Olimpia community, which hosted over 50 families a few years ago.

  • A peasant shots a firecracker to alert the population that a fumigation is happening near the community. In that situation peasants occupy the soy field in order to stop the fumigation, since they consider it to be against the community environment and its populations health. On a similar situation two weeks before the police protected the fumigation and heavily repressed the peasants leaving several injured.

  • Luís Llamosas a mechanical engineer formed in Argentina, on his office as a director of the Club Centenario, the most exclusive of Asunción. He is also a mid-size cattle breeder, with around 1200 heads of cattle in the Chaco region.