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LATIN AMERICA: Predatory Harvests

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Jun 14 2010 (IPS) - Industrial-scale monoculture farming is violating the human rights to adequate food and housing, as well as labour, territorial and environmental rights in Latin America, according to a report released Monday in the Mexican capital.

The 255-page study “Azúcar roja, desiertos verdes” (Red Sugar, Green Deserts) says monoculture agriculture destroys biodiversity, pollutes and exhausts water sources and rivers, erodes soils, causes forced displacement, deprives indigenous and other campesino (peasant) families of natural resources and seriously damages health through the use of pesticides and herbicides.

The multi-author report was coordinated by Habitat International Coalition (HIC), Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) and Solidarity Sweden-Latin America, international networks concerned with housing, the right to food and solidarity with Latin America, respectively, to assess the impact of monoculture crops in the region.

“The current model of development encourages agroexports, and national government policies support this model,” Natalia Landívar, a FIAN delegate in Ecuador and one of the study’s authors, who took part in the launch of the report, told IPS.

The report includes case studies of African oil palm plantations in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, sugarcane in Central America and Brazil, soybeans in Argentina, pineapples in Costa Rica and the forestry industry in Chile.

Monocultures appeared in Latin America in the mid-20th century, and spread rapidly in the 1970s, when Latin American countries took on a leading role as commodity suppliers to industrialised nations.

The phenomenon “is part of a complex web of control and domination that includes the struggle for power, financial markets, the exploitation of labour and energy sources,” Gerardo Cerdas, the Costa Rican coordinator of Grito de los Excluídos Continental (Continental Cry of the Excluded), a movement for work, justice and life, who was also present at the event, told IPS.

For example, Argentina’s soybean production, which occupies more than 16 million hectares and is primarily for export, climbed from 10 million tonnes in 1991 to 48 million tonnes in 2007, encouraged by soaring international prices, which rose from 180 dollars per tonne in 1991 to 580 dollars in 2008.

Agribusiness companies “concentrate land, destroy forests and exploit campesino families,” Paulo Aranda, a leader of the National Indigenous Campesino Movement of Argentina, which is against genetically modified soybeans, complained to IPS at the presentation of the report.

In Costa Rica, pineapples are grown on some 54,000 hectares, which has made the Central American country the top global producer. The U.S. food giant Del Monte is the main harvester and the chief market is the United States.

“Pineapples have grown because of agrochemicals. They have caused water pollution, loss of ecosystems, soil degradation and labour exploitation,” Soledad Castro, of the Costa Rican Centre for Environmental and Natural Resources Law (CEDARENA), who travelled to the Mexican capital for the launch of the report, told IPS.

Now monocultures are being developed to produce raw materials for agrofuels, like ethanol made from sugarcane and biodiesel produced from African palm oil. The main motivation is to supply the voracious U.S. energy market.

The prospect of a decline in oil production and the need to curb emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) as a result of fossil fuel use have contributed to the surge in enthusiasm for biofuels.

Brazil has become the main Latin American producer of ethanol from sugarcane, making more than 27 billion litres a year, and it is seeking to replicate its production model in Mexico, Central America, Japan and several African countries.

Several sugar mills in Mexico have invested in equipment to generate ethanol, although domestic consumption has not taken off. A pilot project to mix ethanol with gasoline for cars in Guadalajara, a city 535 kilometres northwest of the Mexican capital, has stalled.

A tender process organised by the state Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX) for the purchase of 658 million litres of ethanol failed, and a new bidding round is under way, although producers are more attracted to the idea of selling to the U.S. market, which demands greater volumes and pays higher prices.

“Agrofuels are an attempt to artificially maintain the present energy mix, which is not at all viable,” stressed Cerdas.

Social organisations that oppose monocultures want to press their case at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Committee on World Food Security’s next session, to be held in October.

“International aid has supported agribusiness rather than small farmers,” said Landívar.

The report recommends diversifying agricultural production, satisfying the food needs of families, using eco-friendly agricultural techniques, reducing the energy cost of agricultural systems and making productive use of biomass generated by agriculture.

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