Paraguayan Women Fight to Change Agriculture and Patriarchy

Paraguayan Women Fight to Change Agriculture and Patriarchy

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March 15, 2007

Paraguayan Women Fight to Change Agriculture and Patriarchy
By April Howard,
Tuesday, 13 March 2007

The state of Alto Paraná, Paraguay, sits on the triple frontier with Argentina and Brazil, an area which some Paraguayans know as the soy frontier. In the past 30 years, what was once jungle and small farms has become a vast sea of industrial soy plantations. On February 12, I spoke with three women who are working with ASAGRAPA to fight these corporations and the spread of industrial monoculture in Paraguay.

Companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge have literally invaded eastern Paraguay, buying up land bit by bit, and strong arming farmers to grow monoculture crops for export, such as soy, corn, and cotton. These often genetically-modified crops are grown with dangerous herbicides. Farmers who live next to the soy fields are driven away by the chemicals, which kill their crops, animals and cause illnesses. A local farmer’s union, ASAGRAPA, the Alto Paraná Association of Agriculturists, is fighting back.

ASAGRAPA is a regional organization of the CENOCIP, the National Center of Indigenous and Popular Organizations. While the goals of CENOCIP and ASAGRAPA have changed over time, their main focus now is the danger of the growing green desert of soy. ASAGRAPA promotes small scale organic farming of a diversity of crops for self-supply, and community ownership of land to protect farmers from isolation and land speculation.

During my time speaking with campesinos [farmers] in Alto Paraná, I had to work hard to speak with women. Otherwise, men did the talking while women stayed inside, sat far away, or silently served us tea. In one instance, I asked to speak to the woman of the house, only for her husband to tell me preemptively “She thinks the same as me.” Only when we stopped at houses where men were out working was I able to talk to female farmers like Leonida Laiva.

Leonida Laiva moved to the farming community of Minga Porá in 1983. By 1995, the community had grown to over 2,000 families. Farmers had formed schools for their children, and an informal government. Today, the Laivas family is one of less than 35 left in the rural community. “Everybody has moved away,” she told me. “We don’t want to leave, but we also don’t know how much longer we can stand the fumigations.” Laivas house is a treed island in the sea of GM soy that was once Minga Porá.

Soy cultivation dumps more than 24,000,000 liters of toxic agro-chemicals in Paraguay every year. Red category herbicides, classified as “extremely dangerous” or “very dangerous,” are common. Paraquat, for example, is a chemical with no antidote if ingested. Other chemicals include Gramoxone and Metamidofos, which has proven to reduce sperm count and health in exposed males. According to the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States (EPA), another chemical, Endosulfan, is a teratogenic, a substance which causes birth defects in the infants of repeatedly exposed mothers.

Laivas told me that she knew that the carcinogenic hormone weed killer 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid) was commonly used. “But they use everything,” she said. “They even put illegal chemicals, like DDT, in other containers and use them. A few years ago a tractor trailer of chemicals crashed, and the owners just buried the chemicals in the ground. They spray the fields, but the chemicals go wherever the wind blows them.”

The herbicides have driven local farmers out. “My animals die when there are fumigations,” Laivas said. “The day after the last fumigation my cow aborted, the second time this year, then she swelled up and died. Some of chickens died, and pigs too.” Animals aren’t the only ones affected. “The day of a fumigation, we get sick, we have terrible headaches, nausea and stomach cramps. We are also all having vision problems, even my children who have now moved away. My daughter might not be able to continue her studies because of her eye trouble.”

Water is also a problem. “Now even our well is contaminated,” Laivas protested, “we can feel it when we drink the water. We made another well, but its hard to bring the water from far away, you need money for containers and a truck and gas.” According to Laivas, the soy workers also wash their machines in the river after spraying crops with pesticides. “There are no fish left in our rivers,” she lamented. “The water is completely contaminated.”

I asked why she doesn’t she leave? “We don’t want to, this is our house, our home, but we are going to have to, to where I don’t know.” But Laivas acknowledged that her family may have more options than others. “We have an advantage: we have flat land, and can sell it to the soy-growers for good money. Our next door neighbor has steep, sloped land. They won’t be able to sell, what will they do? How could we be such bad neighbors as to leave them, alone here?”

With me at Laivas farm were neighbors who had already left: Angelica Ramirez and her father Meriton. Angelica is 23. She grew up “in the middle of the fight,” as she says. ‘When the animals started dying, I began to understand that things weren’t going well. I started to hate the people that were making it happen. A lot of youth tried to resist, to stop the soy fields by occupying them. The Brazilians came with guns and kicked them out.”

Next to Laivas’ house, I took a picture of Angelica and Meriton in front of the soy field that once held their home. “We had beautiful fruit trees: bananas, mangos, guava, but they all died from the poison,” Angelica recalled.

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