Story Publication logo December 19, 2007

Pandora's Box of Ills


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Paraguay is the fastest growing soybean producer in the world bringing untold riches to a very poor...

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As the world's hunger for meat increases because of expanding middle classes and changing tastes, feeding the animals to feed that hunger is having a significant impact on our planet's agriculture - nowhere more so than Latin America where forests are giving way to soybean empires.

Paraguay is the world's fastest growing soy producer; its eastern region - 2 ½ million hectares of it - is devoted to the crop that has brought wealth and development to one of the poorest countries in South American.

But the soybean monoculture has also opened a Pandora's Box of ills - environmental damage to the land, and ill health to its most vulnerable people. Thanks to genetically modified seeds, soybeans are now the country's largest export, worth a billion dollars annually.

The cost to the landscape
The 300 or so multinationals that have flocked to Paraguay are responsible for the giant storage silos that dot the landscape and the brand new towns conjured almost out of thin air; towns where designer stores and youngsters with iPods give the impression of wealth and development. But the soybean landscape has come at a cost: The Atlantic Rainforest once covered nearly 400,000 square miles from the Brazilian coast through eastern Paraguay toward the centre of the continent. Now, 90% of it is gone.

It's a worry to environmentalists not only for the loss of trees and their role in CO2 exchange, but also because forest cover had helped protect the country's river supplies from contamination by the agrichemicals used to grow soybeans. Javiera Rulli is a biologist for Bases, an NGO vehemently opposed to farming soybeans in Paraguay. She says

"When you have forest around you can hunt, you can fish you make timber firewood and medicine. People used to live isolated but they had their own natural resources."

Guarani protests
For Paraguay's indigenous people, the Guarani, the world's growing demand for soy has been disastrous. As they lose their land to industrial soy farms they've taken to camping in the center of Paraguay's capital, Asuncion, as a way to protest. In a park surrounded by high rise buildings with cars and pedestrians whizzing by, Guarani children beat their laundry against the sidewalk while women cook donated noodles over an open fire.

Benito Rivarola a local leader says:

"Yes then they came, Brazilians and other foreigners and they started growing soy and they started spraying a lot of toxins and we ran away. Unfortunately we had to come here to get more land. And we have to beg for money so we can eat. The situation is really sad."

Death and illness
His wife Beatriz tells the tale of her five month old baby daughter who sickened and died from what she believes are the fumes and toxins of the agrichemicals used on the soy farms. There are other reports of people getting ill from agrichemicals, despite the fact that most of the chemicals that are used have been given the stamp of safety by the US Environmental Protection agency. This anomaly could be due to the fact that many of the smaller farmers haven't been instructed as to their proper handling.

Good governance would solve many of the ills that the soybean monoculture has brought to Paraguay, but for now it's a goal that remains out of reach.

*Dheera Sujan contribued to this article



navy halftone illustration of a halved avocado


Food Security

Food Security

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