Return to the killing fields: the unspoken cost of Europe's cheap meat

| 14th July 2011
A victim

Petrona Villasboa, standing by soy fields in her home village of Pirapey, holding a picture of son Silvino (Credit: FOE)

Two years on from our first investigation of the impact of intensive soya farming, Friends of the Earth campaigner Nick Rau explains how progress in tackling the problems are still frustratingly slow

An investigation by Friends of the Earth and the Ecologist in 2009 revealed the devastating impact of intensive soy farming on communities and the environment in Paraguay.

Harrowing video footage showed people who had suffered pesticide poisoning or lost their land and livelihoods to industrial farmers, as well as vast swathes of rainforest destroyed to make way for new plantations.

And it explained how Paraguay’s problems are fuelled by the demand for cheap soy in European and Asian factory farms.

This March, Friends of the Earth returned to Paraguay to see if the situation had improved. The good news is that change is afoot, as a new Government stretches its wings after 50 years of a corrupt dictatorship and authoritarian regimes. But the progress we saw is limited, and the pace of change frustratingly slow.

Doctors told us about serious pesticide poisoning symptoms they see in people who live alongside soy plantations – and stressed the urgent need for research into the long-term harm these chemicals could be causing.

From a small plane we witnessed extensive deforestation due to the relentless expansion of soy – now even being planted in the remote Chaco, dubbed one of the world’s last wildernesses by David Attenborough.

We went back to visit Petrona Villasboa, whose 11-year-old son Silvino died in 2003 after being sprayed with pesticides while cycling home along a public path beside a soy plantation. Two farmers were convicted of manslaughter.

But neither has ever paid their fines or served a day of the two-year jail sentence. Petrona bravely turned down an out-of-court settlement and instead has begun a civil case, for compensation to cover her other affected children’s medical costs. Friends of the Earth supporters are backing her by pressing the Paraguayan Government  to ensure justice is done.

Meanwhile, vulnerable families like Petrona’s live on the frontline of the battle against soy. Near her home we saw none of the dense vegetative barriers legally required to protect residential areas from plantations where pesticides are used. The community road has been planted over with soy, making reaching the outside world for isolated villagers even harder. And the cemetery where Silvino is buried is surrounded by soy fields. 

We asked the Government minister charged with enforcing agricultural standards about the flagrant breaches of safety regulations we saw around the country. He pointed to an increase in prosecutions against rogue farmers, but admitted there was still a long way to go. A new mobile unit is carrying out inspections nationwide and a free helpline has been set up for people to report problems. 

It’s encouraging to know that laws to protect people and the planet exist. But they’re little help unless used.

One solution is making sure communities have a better understanding of their rights and how to stand up for themselves using the legal system. We’re working with Friends of the Earth Paraguay (Sobrevivencia) to train people to report illegal logging and accurately track spraying occurrences so they’re able to file official complaints.

Protecting livelihoods of smallholders

Another solution is helping poor smallholders make a decent living from their family plots and so they stay on their farms and resist the pressure to sell to big soy companies for a quick buck. Teaching them ecological farming techniques means they can use the land more productively, while protecting the local environment.

But to really make a difference, the whole flawed farming model needs addressing. In recent years Paraguay has shifted from a country with diverse ecosystems to one dominated by monocultures for export crops.

Ministers told us they wanted to shift to a more sustainable agricultural model that would give Paraguay the ability to feed itself – but the change would not be easy.

European demand for soy is a key factor in the crop’s boom, as factory farmers here rely on the crop as high-protein feed to make their animals grow more quickly. It would be easier for the Paraguayan Government to promote good farming practices, Ministers told us, if importer countries asked for these too.

Back in the UK, Friends of the Earth is campaigning for an overhaul of factory farming to support planet-friendly alternatives instead. £700 million a year of taxpayers’ money is currently spent propping up factory farms in England – and billions across Europe.

We’re calling for a big shift in how this money is spent, so that it doesn’t hurt people and rainforests in Paraguay. Instead, the money should be used to boost livestock farming based on home-grown feeds and grazing, and encourage people to consume less, but better quality, meat and dairy. 

With European farming funding – the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) - now being reviewed, there’s a huge opportunity to rewrite the rule book. In June MEPs voted on a preliminary report to back incentives for grassland livestock farming and home-grown protein crops for Europe.

In the run-up to the final decisions about CAP reform in October, Friends of the Earth will continue to pile on the pressure for a fairer, less damaging system.

In Paraguay, it’s clear the Government has its work cut out: implementing laws, tackling corruption and educating the population. Over here we’re calling on MEPs to do their bit, by fixing the broken agricultural system and supporting a fairer farming future for all.

Nick Rau is a campaigner for Friends of the Earth



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