International Women’s Day—dozens of Brazilian women occupied a research site of the U.S.-based agricultural biotechnology giant Monsanto in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, destroying the greenhouse and experimental plots of genetically-modified (GM) corn. Participants, members of the international farmers’ organization La Vía Campesina, stated in a note that the act was to protest the Brazilian government’s decision in February to legalize Monsanto’s GM Guardian® corn, which came just weeks after the French government prohibited the corn due to environment and human health risks.
La Vía Campesina also held passive protests in several Brazilian cities against the Swiss corporation Syngenta Seeds for its ongoing impunity for the murder of Valmir Mota de Oliveira. Mota was a member of the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST)—the largest of the seven Brazilian movements in La Vía Campesina—who was assassinated last October in the state of Paraná during these organizations’ third occupation of the company’s illegal experimental site for GM soybeans. While Brazil already has a high number of land activist murders, Mota’s was significant because it was the first to occur during an occupation organized by La Vía Campesina, and the first assassination in Brazil to occur on the property of a multinational agribusiness.
The expansion of agricultural biotechnology into Brazil is increasing agrarian conflicts and exacerbating historic tensions over land. The movements in La Vía Campesina reject seed patenting, claiming the practice traps poor farmers in a cycle of debt to corporations that own the seed patents, and undermines small farmers’ autonomy to save and share seeds. They claim that GM technology threatens biodiversity and native seed varieties, and violates the rights of consumers and small farmers by contaminating conventional and organic crops. In the United States, where more than half of the world’s GM crop acreage is grown, widespread contamination of conventional and organic crops by GM varieties is threatening the organic foods industry, which is finding it increasingly difficult to certify products. According to Greenpeace International, there were 39 cases of crop contamination in 23 countries in 2007, and more than 200 in 57 countries over the last 10 years.
Resistance to agricultural biotechnology threatens a multi-billion dollar industry. In the midst of global economic downturn, Monsanto and Syngenta are realizing unprecedented profits—thanks largely to agrofuels. In January, results showed Monsanto’s stock appreciated 137% in 2007, hitting a record on the New York Stock Exchange. In February, Syngenta—the world’s largest producer of herbicides and pesticides with control of one-third of the global commercial seed market—announced its 2007 sales amounted to $9.2 billion. Latin America was Syngenta’s “star performer” in 2007, where sales of herbicides, pesticides, and seeds increased by 37% respectively, and sales in Brazil increased for all product lines.
Brazil holds particular strategic importance to the industry’s expansion. An agricultural superpower, Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of ethanol, the largest producer of sugarcane ethanol, the second largest producer of soybeans (the country produced almost a fourth of the world’s soy crop in 2007), and the third largest producer of corn. As global demand—and financial speculation—for Brazil’s agricultural commodities ramps up due to agrofuels and increasing food scarcity, Monsanto and Syngenta are determined to expand sales and market control of GM seeds, herbicides, and pesticides in Brazil—at whatever cost.
Monsanto’s Illegal Expansion into Brazil
Hours before the decision by the Brazilian government to legalize commercialization of Guardian® corn on February 12th, Brett Begemann, executive vice president of global commercial business for Monsanto, told investors at Goldman Sachs in New York that the company’s 40% share of the Brazilian corn seed market “serves as a foundation” for the introduction of the corn , “once approved by Brazilian officials.” Begemann also highlighted that Monsanto’s GM Roundup Ready® soybean seeds account for 55% of total soybean acres planted in Brazil this season, and that the company expects 90% penetration of the country’s soybean seed market by the end of the decade.
Begemann did not, however, mention that the expansion of Monsanto’s GM crops into Brazil has been accomplished illegally. In January, the Brazilian minister of science and technology acknowledged that GM soybeans and cotton were legalized only after they had already been smuggled into and planted in the country by large farmers. Various civil society organizations and social movements claim that Monsanto participated in this process illegally through fait accompli. Monsanto began legally selling and collecting royalties for Roundup Ready® soybean seeds in the country in the 2003-04 growing season. In May 2003, about 800 people occupied the company’s research station in Ponta Grossa, Paraná, destroying several hectares of GM crops and the laboratory. The MST occupied the site for over a year.
Roundup Ready® soybean seeds are genetically engineered to resist glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used herbicide and the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup®. Glyphosate has been shown to cause reproductive problems in rats, including spontaneous abortions, and liver damage. Begemann boasted that Roundup® could deliver up to $1.4 billion in profits for Monsanto in 2008, due to higher acreage planted to Roundup Ready® soybeans.
Not surprisingly, Begemann did not mention that Brazilian federal deputy Abelardo Lupion is currently under federal investigation as to why Monsanto sold him a farm for two-thirds of its market value. In May 2006, journalist Solano Nascimento published an article in the Correio Braziliense with evidence that in return for subsidized purchase of the farm from Monsanto, Lupion used his political clout to legalize glyphosate in 2003.
After glyphosate was legalized in Brazil, Monsanto’s global sales of Roundup increased by more than 30%. In early 2004, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that despite a loss of $97 million for Monsanto that quarter, Brazil was “blossoming” and “becoming a bright spot” for the corporation, due to “improved overall performance” in the country. A report from the non-governmental organization Assistance and Service for Projects in Alternative Agriculture (AS-PTA), based in Rio de Janeiro , reports that Monsanto presently controls 80% of the Brazilian market for glyphosate, and has elevated the price by 50% since its commercialization five years ago.
A recent study on the environmental impacts of GM soybeans in Brazil by researchers at the Brazilian Department of Agriculture Research Service, found 13 weed species that have developed resistance to glyphosate, representing what could become a “large problem.” Glyphosate is creating weeds that are harder to control, and require increased amounts of chemicals. Instead of reducing the need for agrochemicals—as proponents once claimed—GM technology has increased their use. The secretary for agriculture in Paraná reports that between 2003 and 2006, glyphosate residue in soybeans harvested in the state increased by 97%. The Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA) reports that in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, for every kilogram of non-glyphosate herbicide reduced during the period of expansion of Roundup Ready®, the use of glyphosate increased by 7.5 kilograms. To accommodate the increase of glyphosate residue in Brazilians’ diet, Monsanto has solicited the Brazilian government to revise and increase the acceptable daily amount of the chemical.
Because Guardian® poses similar risks to human health and the environment, and will increase the use of glyphosate, several Brazilian federal agencies, civil society organizations, and social movements were strongly opposed to its legalization. The National Agency for Sanitary Vigilance claimed that the information presented by Monsanto did not exhibit that the corn is safe for human consumption, citing the inexistence of studies on toxicity and the insufficiency of tests on allergens. IBAMA advised against the commercialization of GM corn due to the absence of environmental studies and risk of contamination of native seed varieties and organic crops. In response to the Brazilian government’s decision, La Vía Campesina declared, “The political decision by the Lula government to place agribusiness over the health of the population, the environment, and agro-biodiversity is a huge irresponsibility that will mark his mandate.”
Increasing Violence and Impunity
The decision to commercialize Guardian® came just four months after Vía Campesina and MST member Valmir Mota de Oliveira was assassinated by an armed militia last October, during the movements’ third occupation of Syngenta Seeds’ experimental research station in the state of Paraná. The movements first occupied Syngenta’s site in March 2006, after they discovered that the company was illegally growing and testing GM soybeans within the federal boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park (IBAMA fined Syngenta about half a million dollars for the crime, which Syngenta continues to refuse to pay, even though a federal judge upheld the fine in December).
La Vía Campesina’s occupation of Syngenta gained international support, and in November 2006, Roberto Requião, governor of Paraná, signed a decree of intent to expropriate the site from the multinational in the public interest, to convert it into a research and educational center for agroecology. Requião’s decree—unprecedented in Latin America—was a huge political win for the social movements and a blow to agribusiness.
Yet Syngenta, thanks partly to its alliance with Deputy Lupion and a good lawyer (the same lawyer as for Monsanto), was able to overturn Requião’s decree in the state and federal courts. In July 2007, after the MST was forced to leave the site for the second time, Syngenta hired the NF Security company to guard the site from further occupations. While Syngenta claims that its contract with NF Security stipulates that the guards could not be armed, months before the killing, lawyers for the social movements had registered complaints with the local authorities that the guards were harassing residents on a nearby MST settlement with gunfire.
The MST reoccupied the site at dawn on October 21st when Mota was assassinated with two shots in the chest at point blank range. There is little doubt that Mota’s killing was planned: in the months preceding his murder, he had received several death threats due to his cooperation with federal and state police investigations into NF Security for illegal munitions trafficking and formation of armed militias. Before his death, Mota’s lawyers had requested protection from the national witness protection program.
Another client of NF Security was Alessandro Meneghel, president of the Rural Society of Western Paraná (SRO), an organization representing the interests of large landowners in the region. Requião’s decree to expropriate Syngenta’s site had infuriated Meneghel, who declared, “For every invasion of land that occurs in the region, there will be a similar action by the [SRO]. We are not going to permit the rural producers to be insulted by ideological political movements of any kind.”13 At the time of Mota’s murder, Meneghel— who admits that some members of the SRO are clients of Syngenta’s— was hiring NF Security guards to undertake illegal and violent evictions of land occupations in the region.
While Meneghel and the owner of NF Security have been charged for Mota’s murder, Syngenta remains unscathed. Yet by the time Mota was murdered, the occupation of Syngenta’s site had cost the corporation tens of millions of dollars, and had all but halted the company’s operations in its most strategic market. Mota’s murder highlights the increase of violent conflicts as Brazil’s organized rural social movements come up against multinational agribusinesses allied with the landowning elite and protected by a state-sanctioned veil of impunity—a deadly combination.
Full Steam Ahead with the Agrofuels Boom
With Brazil’s agrofuels boom just revving up, the Brazilian government shows no sign of holding Syngenta or Monsanto accountable, or reigning in agribusiness. With the passing of the 2007 U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act in December—in which the U.S. government mandated a fivefold increase of agrofuels consumption by 2020—the Brazilian government is poised to further industrialize Brazilian agriculture in order to meet U.S. demand for ethanol. The United States is already Brazil’s largest market for ethanol exports. In 2005, the United States imported 31 million gallons of ethanol from Brazil; in 2006, this number jumped to 434 million gallons. Monsanto’s push to legalize GM corn in Brazil was no doubt in anticipation of the agrofuels boom; because the infrastructure for ethanol in the United States is designed for corn, agribusiness is banking on ramping up Brazil’s corn exports to the United States. Syngenta and Pioneer are currently awaiting legalization of their GM corn varieties in Brazil.
The occupation of Syngenta continues, despite a ruling in December in favor of Syngenta by a federal judge. La Vía Campesina vows to continue its struggle against the biotech giants: “We will resist! Our struggle is in defense of peoples’ life and environment.”