Better the devil you know than the devil you don't?

Why the production of agrofuels offers no solution to global climate problems, but rather creates and intensifies already existing social and ecological problems.

september 2007 - Reto Sonderegger, Asunción, Paraguay
Translation : Anton Pieper, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Presently the Amazonian rain forest is burning in 70.000 different places. The planet's green lung is getting more permeable while steadily drying out. The evapotranspiration capacities are being drastically decreased by the loss of biomass, the deforestation and slashing and burning to expand the cultivable land for soy and sugarcane, or the creation of new feedlots for the extensive cattle rearing. The blushing holds off and therefore consequentially also the rain. This results in an agricultural loss of production and some even fear an infernal conflagration that wipes out the rest of the dried out Amazonia.

An unsacred alliance of companies consisting of the big players of the agro business, the motor- and petrol industries as well as the biotechnologies, promotes the usage of agrofuels as ecology-minded mighty deed, instead of questioning the massive consumption of energy in the societies of the North.
The fact alone that Syngenta, Ford, Cargill and Shell refer to themselves as ecological avant-garde should make us worry. It's not those pseudo-green arguments that raise hopes for higher returns on capital by investing billions in countries like Brazil, Argentine or Paraguay.

As organic farmers we know about the consequences of mono cropping. But as Europeans we can simply not figure the dimensions of the big agrarian countries. 40.000 hectares of sugarcane fields are not really a curiosity in Brazil, and in Argentine you can go by car for hours without seeing anything but soy. In these countries the usage of pesticides has jumped up over the last few years – despite all promises of the GM-industry to decrease the needed crop protection product with their patents on seeds. Mono cultures stand for more pests and diseases, especially if the surrounding areas with a high biodiversity are being destroyed.

Soy in Paraguay: Migration into cities, violence and ecological devastation

In the main region of soy cultivation in Paraguay, in the department Alto Paraná, the two feeder rivers of the Itaipú-dam are basically dead thanks to Glifosat, Endosulfan and Paraquat. Dozens of little villages have been erased by mono cropping. Looking closely at the flashing by monotonous landscape, one can see every now and then the crosses of abandoned grave yards. Ten thousand of peasants moved to the Paraguayan cities, to the Argentine capital Buenos Aires or even to Spain. The rural regions are being downright depopulated and changed to deserted “green” deserts. To cultivate 1000 hectares of soy in Argentine with the appropriate advanced technology (Soy RR, Glifosat and direct seeding) only two workers are needed per year. Members of peasants' organizations who mobilize the communities against the mono cultures, are often terrorized and in the worst case even murdered. Since the end of the dictatorship of Stössner 1989, more than 100 peasants have been killed during land conflicts. And just like the Campesinos, also the rain forest had to give way. 50 years ago more than half of the eastern region was covered with rain forest. Today it's less than five percent.

Sugarcane in Brazil: working conditions like in the times of slavery

Unlike soy production, the cultivation of sugarcane really does create jobs. But what kind of jobs! In Brazil thousands of peons from the starving north-east of the country are being recruited to cut sugarcane in the endless fields of Sao Paulo. Thirty years ago the daily quota per worker used to be three tons. Today the average quota is about 12 tons and sometimes you even hear about top-outputs of 20 tons per day. It is obvious that these kinds of efforts can only be accomplished by the healthiest men in their twenties. Often they are being paid with crack, which is the highly toxic and addictive derivative of cocaine production. Before harvesting the fields are sprayed with Herbicide 2,4 D, component of Agent Orange, which was used in the Vietnam War. Afterwards the fields are burnt, setting free huge clouds of dioxin that cause respiratory diseases of epidemic dimensions in the affected areas.

The head of the Brazilian movement of landless peasants MST, Joao Pedro Sterile, tend to give the following example, when it comes to social consequences of sugarcane mono cropping: “Thanks to its high technological standards in the sugarcane production the community Ribeirao Prato in the center of Sao Paolo is called Brazilian California. 30 years ago this city produced all kinds of food, there used to be a huge farming community in the heartland and it really was a wealthy region with a balanced distribution of income. Today there is nothing but sugarcane fields and 30 factories that control the lands. 100.000 inhabitants out of half a million live in slums. There are 3813 prison inmates and just 2412 persons in the whole region that live on agriculture (children included). These are social patterns under sugarcane mono cropping. There are more prisoners than peasants!

Colombia: Oil palms for paramilitaries

In Colombia the acreage of oil palms at the cost of the evanescent rain forest increases rapidly. Within the scope of disarming and “pacifying” the paramilitary gangs, that have brutally murdered thousands of peasants as assumed guerillas, government gives land to former paramilitaries and friendly entrepreneurs. In Colombia, four million people have been displaced being transformed to internal refugees, but legally the land belongs to them. They still have collective land titles and a determined minority organizes their returning, under the protection of human rights organizations and decisions of international courts. But big multinational enterprises settled on their land and former paramilitaries are hired as watchdogs on the plantations.
On 1st September 2003 the paramilitary commandant “Rodrigo” explained to the newspaper “El Tiempo”, that “palm-oil projects are dripping from blood, calamity and corruption. The appropriation of estates and money supposedly deriving from agricultural credits takes part in a long chain of money laundering, drug-trafficking, undercover agents, usurping eviction, death and violence.”
Nevertheless, in the beginning of August, returning families chopped down 45 hectares of oil palms and sowed, being internationally protected in the region of Curvarado, corn and beans on the freed fields for their own consumption.
In this spirit the struggle of south American Campesinos is focused more and more on regaining or conserving territories and not only on the right to cultivate a little piece of land for their families. This struggle for land includes deep historical, cultural, ecological and spiritual dimensions. Inseparably linked to this is the saving of whole ecosystems, respecting the fundamental human rights of those who inhabit this geographic space as fragment of the ensemble.