Brazil's environmental and social calamities from green and gene revolutions (17/1/2006)

This article reports how, "The election of Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva as president of Brazil in 2002 raised hopes of a change of direction. But his pledge to ban GM crops went the same way as so many of his other promises."

Let's hope for better things from Bolivia's new president, Evo Morales, who has in the past charged "the U.S. with 'poisoning' Bolivia with transgenic crops" and who has vowed to shut down Washington's embassy for meddling in Bolivian affairs, once he came to power.

'Produce less in order to produce better'
Brazil: red state versus green revolution
Le Monde diplomatique, January 2006

GM soya has been smuggled into the fertile state of Parana in southern Brazil, where it suits the owners of agribusinesses that cover 70% of the land but endangers the survival of the remaining small farmers, who provide most of the agricultural jobs and key national foodstuffs.

By Renaud Lambert

The terra roxa - red earth - of Parana state in southern Brazil is among the most fertile in the world. "It's a dream," says the head of production, Laercio Trucolo, at the Capadao fazenda (1), an agricultural paradise of 1,400 hectares. "We get two harvests a year here, no problem: the envy of Europe!" A dream. But while some dream of high profits further swelled by what they think of as modern, technological farming techniques, many more dream only of subsistence and basic human dignity.

For 70% of Parana's 16m farmed hectares are in the hands of just 30,000 fazendeiros, each with more than 100 hectares per farm. Around 300,000 smallholders share most of the rest, each with between five and 40 hectares. The remaining 3% of the land has to feed another 300,000 "landless" families with less than five hectares each. It takes 15 hectares to feed a family of six.

These families were the first victims of Brazil's rush to modernise agriculture during the 1980s. As Roberto Baggio of the Landless Movement (MST) explains, the agribusiness model needed vast surfaces for "its cocktail of mechanisation, weed killers, chemical fertilisers and intensive irrigation". Between 1985 and 1995, 100,000 farms closed in Brazil. The authorities called it the green revolution. Given the environmental and social calamities these changes caused, especially those associated with massive deforestation, this title now appears ironic.

At the beginning of the 20th century, forest covered 16m of Parana's 19m hectares. Because of immigrant axes and chainsaws, it now accounts for barely 1.5m hectares, just 8% of the state’s total area. Meanwhile Paraná has the dubious honour of being Brazil’s leading consumer of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The state also has the country's highest rate of liver and pancreatic cancer. It is becoming clear that these two records are related. Unsurprisingly, more and more people, especially the MST, are denouncing the green revolution dream as false.

Transgenic seeds

Farming intensification has levelled out, but could start up again with the arrival of transgenic seeds. These are illegal in Brazil, but many are smuggled in from Argentina, where they are allowed, much to the satisfaction of Monsanto, a big multinational producer of genetically modified (GM) crops. On 25 September 2003 a provisional ruling permitted the harvest that year of transgenic soya, the seeds of which had been introduced illegally. The measure is still in place. Parana's governor, Roberto Requiao of the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), insists that GM soya accounts for "no more than 2% of production".

Yet Juan Bedenaski estimates that in the region of Francisco Beltrao in the southwest of the state, nearly 70% of farmers grow transgenic crops. He should know: he sells herbicides and chemical fertilisers to local farmers. As contamination spreads, Monsanto can begin to demand royalties for the use of its strictly patented seeds (2).

The royalties are paid on the seeds, independently of the final sale price for the crops. Monsanto didn’t collect them in the early years, which meant that GM seeds appeared to be free. Monsanto's sales services encouraged this perception, as did much of the media. Then, in 2004, Monsanto suddenly slapped a levy of 0.62 reals ($0.28) on each 60kg bag of seeds. Many producers opted to pay the levy even if they were using conventional seeds, to avoid the fine of 1.5 reals ($0.67) a bag imposed on those found with undeclared GM soya, many of whom never intended to use transgenic seeds without permission, but were involuntary victims of the natural, uncontrolled spread of crops from field to field.

Monsanto secures the support of the larger cooperatives by giving them an annual income. A 100% rise in royalty payments has already been announced for the 2005-06 harvest, so these sums are increasing. Meanwhile the noose tightens around small farmers, with drought damaging productivity and the exchange rate with the US dollar ever less favourable (3). Their survival looks precarious. Yet these small farms generate 80% of jobs in the sector, ensuring that its revenues are spread across the population and maintaining lively rural communities. They also guarantee the production of key foodstuffs that exporters are not interested in, such as the black bean, a staple of Brazilian cooking. According to the country’s Institute for Geography and Statistics (IBGE), black bean production has fallen from 38kg per capita in 1938 to less than 10kg today, though it is as popular as ever. Such is the power of agribusiness: farming has more important variables to consider than national demand levels. According to Baggio, the giants are about to seal their final victory with the introduction of GM crops, which represent "the ultimate battle for the land to be dominated not by a small group of big landowners, but by an even smaller group of multinational companies".

Lula's GM pledge

The election of Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva as president of Brazil in 2002 raised hopes of a change of direction. But his pledge to ban GM crops went the same way as so many of his other promises. The nomination of Roberto Rodrigues as minister of agriculture boded ill for agricultural policy from the start: he is on the board of the Fundacao Bunge, the social wing of the multinational food giant Bunge, Brazil's largest exporter of agricultural products.

From October 2003, first the sale and then the cultivation of transgenic soya were authorised in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. This proved the first in a long series of disappointments for opponents of GM crops. Their last hopes were extinguished on 24 March 2005 with the passage of a biosafety law legalising the cultivation and sale of GM produce. The bill has been challenged on constitutional grounds, not least by the Brazilian Institute for the Defence of the Consumer (Idec), but nevertheless represents a major victory for half a dozen multinationals, now well placed to secure a monopoly and a permanent income in a market that did not exist 20 years ago. The government is helping them. In 2003 it imposed a 35% levy on imports of glyphosate from China. Glyphosate is a herbicide that Monsanto's transgenic soya resists, and which Monsanto also makes. Monsanto’s own glyphosate was unaffected by the new duty.

Requiao is worried about the meaning of the establishment of such a monopoly. GM crops are not popular among consumers in Europe and Asia, and big importers are keen to buy non-GM produce. In 2004 soya exports from the US fell by 41.5%. Most US soya is transgenic, unlike that of Brazil, the sales of which rose commensurately (unofficial estimates say around a fifth of the soya grown in Brazil is GM). The competition is unwelcome in the North. But with the spread of GM crops, a handful of multinationals, whose interests tend to fit in well with those of Washington, will be able to manage it via their ownership of the patents. The Paraná governor sees this as an affront to national sovereignty: "If they succeed in generalising the use of transgenics, they will control our production." Agriculture becomes a tool of geopolitical struggle: the food wars.

In October 2003, thanks in part to pressure from social movements, Paraná attempted to declare itself a GM-free zone. The state had to fight to keep transgenic produce out of its port at Paranaguá, the largest cereals terminal in Latin America. The refusal to accept GM produce was justified on logistical grounds: "There is only one silo," Requião explains. "If transgenic soya entered the circuit, there would be contamination. All the soya in Paraná would have to be classed as transgenic". But this argument appears doomed: a second silo is under construction. The opposition, close to the seed-trading multinationals and keen for the port to be opened to transgenic produce, is putting immense pressure on the Paraná authorities. Principally through lockouts followed by parliamentary inquiries, it is campaigning for the central government to take over the running of the port from the state authorities. In most cases elsewhere in Brazil, this centralisation is a step on the way to privatisation and safe passage for GM seeds.

The Paraná state authorities have dug in their heels, basing their defence on principles enshrined in Brazil’s 1988 constitution. (Article 225 in particular contains an extensive list of environmental commitments, including pledges to "preserve the diversity and integrity of the genetic patrimony of Brazil and oversee the entities that are engaged in research and manipulation of genetic material" and to "protect the flora and fauna: practices that place their ecological function at risk are hereby prohibited".) But the only argument that really makes a difference is commercial, not constitutional. If European and Asian consumers continue to refuse to eat GM food, Paraná’s GM-free status will be an economic asset. Ruy Alberto Zibetti, head of development at the Paranaguá and Antonina port authority, is full of noble sentiments and ethics. But what really motivates him is economic pragmatism: Paraná should not miss this opportunity to propose an alternative product for which there is strong international demand. The underlying logic is still productivism and market integration.

‘Produce, produce, produce’

Requião insists: "We need large-scale agriculture." The state’s farming secretariat likes to publicise the fact that it regularly beats records thanks to major productivity gains (4). The state is national champion in cereals: it covers just 2.3% of Brazil, yet it produced 23% of the country’s cereals in 2004. Accounting for around 33% of Paraná’s gross domestic product, agribusiness is the state’s most important economic activity. Mostly these are mainstream crops: Paraná is Brazil’s leading producer of oats, and also grows large quantities of corn, wheat, barley and soya. It ranks second in Brazil for soya production, and its relative importance is constantly rising. Between 1990 and 2003 the total area occupied by cereal plantations in Paraná grew by 14% to more than 8m hectares. Production rose from 12m to more than 30m tonnes, and counting.

"You have to produce, produce, produce," says Marcos Prochet, pummelling his steering wheel for effect. Prochet is the Paraná representative for the Democratic Ruralist Union (UDR), a body created in 1986 by the big landowners to resist land reform and the MST. "The poor get given money when they have children," he jokes, "so we had better make sure there’s enough to eat." Yet while the forest is receding, poverty and hunger are not. Ecovida, an association that supports ecological farming in southern Brazil, says the UDR’s argument is false. "Hunger is a social and political problem, not a technological one." It will not be solved by "the conservatives’ polluting and inequitable brand of agriculture modernisation".

The UDR model has not even proved effective. One recent study showed that conservative modernisation of farming drove costs up twice as fast as productivity, meaning that gross added value actually fell (5). There are other, hidden costs. Pollution of the water table has been confirmed as the cause of 6,000 poison cases, and is thought to have caused as many as 30,000 (6). Another cost only now being recognised is the soil exhaustion that soya monoculture engenders. The drive to produce, produce, produce is not compatible with crop rotation or set-aside. Frei Sergio Gorgen, deputy for Lula’s Workers’ party (PT) in Rio Grande do Sul, joins the MST in arguing that agribusiness "only survives today thanks to subsidies and facilitation from the Brazilian state".

An example of facilitation is the 1997 Kandir law, which exonerates raw materials exporters from the tax on goods and services circulation, a state-level value-added tax set at 13%. This law was a spark that ignited the agribusiness explosion. The federal government had promised to make up for the loss of revenue that it inflicted on the states, but never did so in full. Paraná alone has "handed over more than 4m reals ($1.7bn) since the law came into force," notes Baggio. Through mechanisms like these, the move to intensive farming transfers resources from small farmers to big companies (especially those dealing in agrochemicals), and from the public to the private sphere. The same old neoliberal formula.

Social movements in Brazil have an alternative to this system, one that pays more attention to the needs of human beings and the environment. It is based around land reform and ecologically sustainable agriculture. Its motto is: "Produce less in order to produce better." "And in order to sell on the home market," adds Vanderlay Ziger of the Cresol-Baser cooperative. Created in 1996 in southeastern and central Paraná, this organisation exists to give small farmers "access to cooperative credits and to technologies needed for organic and sustainable farming". Cresol-Baser also aims to create "an alternative system for selling produce, outside the capitalist network dominated by the big cooperatives". This operates short supply chains, instead of the globetrotting groceries that leave the country only to return, having enriched a few intermediaries on the way.

To regain control

Such a system seeks to enable farmers to assert themselves and to regain control over their lives and their environment. As Gilmar Ostrovski of Ecovida explains, "regaining control of agriculture is a crucial political and social challenge". But is the alternative programme realistic? At the Cresol-Baser offices, no one is in any doubt: "It is the only programme that can solve both our environmental problems and our social ones - unemployment and depopulation of the countryside." Moreover, "it is already written into the law". So it is, in article 184 of the 1988 constitution: "It is incumbent upon the republic to expropriate for social interest, for purposes of agrarian reform, rural property which is not performing its social function."

Social function is defined as "adequate use of available natural resources and preservation of the environment; compliance with the provisions which regulate labour relations" and "exploitation which favours the wellbeing of the owners and workers".

In his office in Curitiba, the state capital, the director-general of the farming secretariat, Newton Ribas, dismisses these ideas. "Agrarian reform has already been completed in Paraná," he says. "We’ve got enough small farmers. Besides, there is no more land available here. Brazil is a big country, the landless can go somewhere else." He would presumably be happy to see them join the ranks of exploited labourers in the Cerrado (7). It is not true that there is no more land available. According to the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform, 2.6m hectares are unaccounted for in the Paraná land register. These are most likely being exploited by farming businesses that conveniently forgot to declare them. So there is every justification for them to be expropriated.

"In any case," says the agronomist Christophe Lannoy, "you could double the amount of land occupied by all those who have got only 25 hectares at the moment, and there would still be land available in Paraná. It is not land that is lacking, it is political will." For anyone who had hoped that Lula’s Brazil would encourage alternatives to neoliberalism, this is disappointing news.

The federal government has proved incapable of breaking with the traditional class-based structure of farming, firmly entrenched in Brazil’s institutions. The two-headed nature of the institutions responsible for reforms gives a clue to the nature of this structural blockage. Rodrigues’s agriculture and supply ministry is supposedly not responsible for providing for the needs of family farmers; that is the responsibility of the rural development ministry.

The same confusion is repeated at state level. Most government secretariats say they want to speak for the little guy and "protect the environment". There is even a plan to create an agro-ecology school in collaboration with Venezuela and Cuba. According to Requião, "agro-ecology is little more than a utopia".

The state’s budget secretary, Reinhold Stephanes, is a member of the Liberal Front party. He was among those behind the Plan Real, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s 1994 attempt to dollarise the Brazilian economy and a key stage in Brazil’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies. Providing aid to family farmers is not a high priority for Stephanes, who is happy to note that "it doesn’t cost us very much: most of it comes from the central government and the World Bank". Not that the World Bank is much of a champion of small farmers, either. As Frei Betto - who resigned from the Lula government in 2005 over the functioning of its zero hunger programmes - points out, the bank "prohibits Brazil from undertaking real structural reforms" (8).

One federal government programme for farmers is a system of credits that, being dependent on criteria set by the Banco do Brasil bank, favours the most solvent clients and keeps their recipients in debt. State authorities build barns to ensure that cereals can be stored and then sold at the best price, and certify produce to aid exports. Both of these policies only serve to perpetuate the agribusiness model. Should this be blamed on a structural crisis preventing real change, or on a lack of political will? As Lula’s hour of reckoning approaches (elections are scheduled for October) the debate rages between Lula loyalists and those who feel let down.

Requião’s achievements in Paraná throw the central government’s inertia into relief. His administration has brought (or brought back) under state control those key firms that operate only within Paraná, including the electricity provider, Copel. It has also renegotiated the immoral contracts that bound Paraná to predatory companies. The state has seen far-reaching education reforms, and, via a partnership with public service broadcaster Paraná Educativa, participated in the pan-South-American television channel, Telesur (9). By comparison, Brasilia has done little, especially in agriculture. Could this inaction have something to do with the strategic importance of this sector for Brazil’s elite, whose wealth and identity are tightly bound up with land ownership?

Brazilians have taken the doctrine of neoliberalism on board to such an extent that many see the shift in power from public to private sector as unavoidable. The PT’s current crisis (10) has dealt a severe blow to any hopes that this government could be a motor for change. People are beginning to mention Requião’s name as a possible candidate for the left if Lula decides not to stand for re-election. But would his policies of muscular nationalism not be thwarted by the same limitations: terms of office that are too short, and institutions rendered ineffective or worse by deep-seated corruption and clientelism? Would his vision of non-speculative capitalism based on compensatory policies (11) really satisfy the family farmers and the landless workers? It is a vision limited to sweetening the bitter pill of a fundamentally unfair system. The dominated classes want genuine emancipation. While they wait, GM soya continues its spread across Brazil.

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