Tracy L. Barnett
ASUNCION, Paraguay – The federal agricultural agency’s dramatic destruction of more than 100 acres of transgenic corn a couple of weeks ago has provoked a fiery new round here in the debate about genetically modified crops.
I landed here in Paraguay on the day of that intervention and found myself at the heart of what’s been dubbed “The Soy Wars,” where transnational giants like Cargill and Monsanto have held virtually unchallenged political influence for years, and vast stretches of the countryside have been bulldozed to create Roundup-ready empires. Paraguay has become the world’s fourth largest producer of soy, and those campesinos and indigenous people who have tried to hold out against the pressure to sell their land have found their subsistence lifestyles and even their very lives under attack from aerial sprayings of “agrotoxins,” and from roving thugs who have tried to repress dissent by targeting community leaders for harassment and even, in one extreme case, assassination.
The entire region, stretching across national borders into Argentina and Brazil, was dubbed “the United Republic of Soy” by enthusiastic industry leaders, according to Marie-Monique Robin, author of the book “The World According to Monsanto,” which includes an entire chapter on the rise of transgenic soy in the region.
That war has taken a new turn with the entrance of the first left-leaning government in Paraguay’s history – and indeed, the first democratic government not linked to the four-decade Stroessner dictatorship. In April 2008, former Catholic bishop-turned-politician Fernando Lugo came into office on promises to implement a long-denied land reform and to recover national sovereignty from foreign governments and transnationals. After two years, fighting a right-wing parliament, judicial system and national media, and now his own cancer, Lugo has been able to accomplish little of what he promised. But the ministers he has appointed to various posts have managed to shift the dialog in this country, and one of the big shifts has been in the area of agricultural policy.
That shift has been most visible in the dramatic “intervention” staged recently in which SENAVE officials destroyed 44 hectares of transgenic corn, an act that prompted sharp criticism from the defenders of the agribusiness elite that has controlled national politics over the past two decades.
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