Civil Society, Development & Aid, Environment, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean

PARAGUAY: President and Congress Face Off Over Agrochemicals

Natalia Ruiz Díaz

ASUNCIÓN, Jul 1 2009 (IPS) - “Silvino was riding his bike on a dirt road near our home when he was poisoned by toxic agrochemicals, sprayed on a nearby field of soybeans. He died soon afterwards. He was 11,” said his mother, Petrona Villasboa, a rural activist in southern Paraguay.

Silvino Villasboa died in 2003 in the village of Pirapey in the southern province of Itapúa, an area of large soy plantations.

His mother is a leader of CONAMURI, the umbrella group of organisations of indigenous and rural women, which is opposed to a draft law on the use of pesticides and herbicides that would override a presidential decree that set health and environmental standards for the use of agrochemicals.

Because of the discrepancy over the issue between the executive and legislative branches, it is not clear whether President Fernando Lugo will sign or veto the draft law.

The bill, passed by Congress in May, is opposed by organisations of small farmers and environmental groups and supported by the rural associations representing large agribusiness interests.

The controversial legislation contravenes the decree issued in April by the centre-left Lugo, who lacks majority support in parliament. The decree outlines specific measures and controls to ensure the appropriate use of agrochemicals.

Among other things, the presidential decree requires the participation of the National Service for the Health and Quality of Plants and Seeds (SENAVE), the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare, and the Secretariat of the Environment in overseeing spraying and monitoring the areas sprayed.

Under the draft law, by contrast, only SENAVE would be involved in the registration and monitoring of the use of agrochemicals, thus eliminating the participation of the Health Ministry and the Secretariat of the Environment.

“All three institutions have to be involved, like in other countries, because the issue has facets linked to human health as well as the environment,” Hebe González, head of the agroecology programme at the non-governmental organisation Alter Vida, told IPS.

The presidential decree also establishes a 100-metre protective buffer of forest to separate water sources and inhabited areas from fields where agrochemicals are sprayed.

The draft law, on the other hand, allows the buffer to be reduced to 50 metres in some cases and provides for more flexible regulations for spraying toxic chemicals.

Under the law, “because it is not obligatory for the authorities to be present during the spraying, there is no control over how the products are used,” said González.

A study carried out by the BASE Investigaciones Sociales (BASE-IS), a local social research organisation, shows that most of the soy grown in Paraguay is the genetically modified Roundup Ready (RR), produced by the U.S. biotech giant Monsanto. The herbicide used on RR soy is Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

In 2006 and 2007, Paraguay was the fifth-largest producer of soy in the world, accounting for 2.2 percent of the total, and the seventh largest in terms of the number of hectares planted in transgenic soy, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).

Soy cultivation began to expand in this land-locked South American country in the mid-1960s and boomed in the late 1990s with the introduction of GM soy.

The area under soy in Paraguay doubled in seven years, reaching 2.4 million hectares by 2007, and accounting for 38 percent of the country’s total agricultural output, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Large-scale soy production has pushed aside traditional economic mainstays like the logging industry, cattle ranching and cotton farming. Once the country’s main export crop, cotton production dwindled from around 500,000 hectares in 1990 to 160,000 hectares in 2006.

The expansion of monoculture plantations has led to the expulsion of small farmers from the countryside, with rural families finding themselves hemmed in by soy fields, and the resultant spraying of toxic chemicals, which takes a toll on their crops, livestock and health. Many end up selling their land at low prices to agricultural companies, and flocking to the slums surrounding Asunción and other large cities.

Paraguay is the Latin American country with the greatest concentration of land ownership. The last national agricultural census indicates that 77 percent of farmland is owned by just one percent of the population.

And according to a study by BASE-IS, 70 percent of Paraguay’s farmland belongs to foreign landowners, mainly Brazilian companies.

The land is in the hands of agribusiness, people who have access to land because they have the economic resources to purchase it, said González. “The countryside does not belong to small farmers,” said the activist.

Herminio Medina, executive director of the Unión de Gremios de la Producción (UGP) agribusiness association, said the presidential decree outlines regulations that are impossible to live up to, but that the draft law is in line with the standards followed in the rest of South America.

Soy producers argue that the decree would reduce farmland. “The decree establishes an excessively large buffer area where agrochemicals cannot be used,” he told IPS.

Large-scale producers argue that some of the positions expressed against the use of pesticides and herbicides are out of touch with the mechanised agriculture that is expanding in Paraguay.

But social organisations complain that the draft law passed by Congress represents a major setback in creating regulations for the use of toxic agrochemicals.

“The global tendency is to create safer conditions, but this law represents a step backwards in terms of health safeguards,” said González.

Studies show that children in soy-producing areas suffer from skin ailments, headaches, nausea, vomiting and other health problems, and that rates of congenital deformities, cancer and miscarriages are unusually high. Local residents and activists blame the health problems on the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals on surrounding soy plantations.

The legislators “said ‘no’ to life and ‘yes’ to death when they passed the law. And I feel bad when I think about our children, because they have the right to a healthy life,” said Villasboa, who pointed out that no one went to jail for her son Silvino’s death.

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