Paraguay's soy boom: a blessing or a curse?

Stephanie Burgos

Blog post by Stephanie Burgos

Oxfam America, Senior Policy Advisor
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The recent assassination of Paraguayan small-farmer leader Lorenzo Areco is a stark reminder that access to land is literally a matter of life and death in Paraguay. Areco was gunned down on the street just steps from the office of the Regional Small Farmer Organization of Concepcion (OCRC), where he led work on access to land and agrarian reform. With his death, 131 small-farmers have been murdered in Paraguay since the end of the Stroessner dictatorship in 1989, the vast majority over conflicts to defend land rights.

Land rights and soy

In Paraguay, the Latin American country where land is the most unequally distributed, access to land is inextricably linked to soy.

A small, land-locked country with less than seven million people, Paraguay is in the grip of a soy boom, which has seen it become the world’s fourth largest exporter. Yet it remains one of the poorest countries in South America.

Soybean monoculture now covers 80 percent of the country’s cropland – nearly double that of a decade ago, with projections for further expansion. The driver is the insatiable international demand for soy-fed meat and biofuels, encouraged by government policies. European parliamentarians who will be voting on reforms to the EU’s biofuels policy over the next weeks should take note.

Problems for soy producers

What does this transformation in Paraguay's land use mean for small-scale farmers and rural communities? Can they too reap some benefit from soy expansion?

To find out, Oxfam commissioned research in Paraguay on land and soy and focused on one company - Desarrollo Agrícola del Paraguay (DAP) - that was reported to be making efforts to benefit small-scale farmers. The research, The Soy Mirage, found that DAP had taken a different approach than most soy producers, including initiatives to avoid harm to communities and help small-scale farmers. But DAP’s good efforts could not compensate for the problems caused by the soy business model which tends to:

  • deepen the concentration of wealth and land,
  • contaminate the surroundings,
  • harm the health of the local population,
  • compete for limited resources, and
  • put at risk the traditional livelihoods of small-scale farmers and indigenous communities.

Organic vs. GM

Soy production is highly dependent on expensive external inputs like pesticides and capital for mechanization, and thus is not a viable option for small-scale farmers in Paraguay. They don't have access to credit or the minimum land area to achieve the scale needed for mechanized production. DAP invested to give small-scale farmers a leg up to get started, but farmers assumed all the risk and lacked capital so they found themselves mired in debt after one bad harvest.

Now even DAP itself has concluded that organic production would be the best alternative for family farmers, because it doesn’t rely on external inputs. Yet there is no evidence that Paraguay’s dominant production model will turn organic any time soon. In fact, 95 percent of soy cultivated in Paraguay is genetically modified Roundup Ready, making it challenging to produce organically.

Oxfam’s research revealed reports of serious health problems resulting from the intensive use of agrochemicals required by Roundup Ready soy, estimated at 30 million liters per soy crop cycle, including some banned in Europe. These range from respiratory conditions, allergies, and cancer, to the death of small livestock and worsening pest infestations. The Paraguayan government has weakened legislation regulating agrochemical use due to pressure from the soy industry. Civil servants have lamented their inability to address the health and environmental problems that result.

Challenges of small farming

Lorenzo Areco’s murder was a brazen act – at mid-day in plain sight he was shot six times while on his motorcycle, from the inside of a pick-up truck. It was the third such murder in less than a year in the region of Paraguay where small farmer organizing and protest against the expansion of soy monoculture has been the strongest. Areco was promoting communal land rights to help small farmers stay on the land and improve their livelihoods.

Small-scale farmers in Paraguay face huge challenges and injustices linked to our broken global food system. Two models of production coexist uncomfortably in Paraguayan agriculture: the small-scale family farm that mostly produces food, and large-scale monoculture for export to meet international demand for meat and biofuels. Public policy is biased toward the latter, helping to spur investors to buy up large tracts of land to expand soy monoculture, displacing cattle ranches and small-scale farmers.

The cold truth is that soy expansion has been a curse rather than a blessing for small farmers. Companies that seek to work with them are welcome, but trying to reproduce industrial agriculture on a smaller scale is not the solution.

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Paraguay’s Destructive Soy Boom (nytimes.com)

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For more debate on different methods of farming, see the Future of Agricutlure blog series