Latin America

How Indigenous communities in Paraguay are fighting big soy

aljazeera  Gazing out upon an expanse of razed forest, Tupa Nevanga recalls a time when his native village in Paraguay’s eastern plains teemed with wild honey, bush meat and ancestral plants.

“There was no road into this community. Wild pigs, jaguars and peccaries were everywhere,” the 65-year-old spiritual leader told Al Jazeera. “But it’s all been destroyed.”

The ceremonial dance houses and maize for kagui, a liquor he once used to anoint the tribe’s newborns, are also gone, supplanted by a yawning stretch of soybean plantations. Tribal leaders said what is left of the Ava Guarani’s territory is laced with toxic agrochemicals that are killing crops, livestock and even villagers.

“My prayer for this community is that we rise from this crisis,” Nevanga said.

The Ava Guarani are one of 19 Indigenous groups in Paraguay who have sustained cultural, spiritual and territorial dispossession for decades by the country’s land-owning elites aligned with agribusiness. But after more than a decade of sustained pesticide fumigations at soy plantations near Campo Aguae, a village of approximately 400 people, there is a glimmer of hope that residents’ appeals for help might finally have been heard.

A recent decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee accused Paraguay of violating the rights of the Ava Guarani by failing to monitor fumigation and prevent the use of banned pesticides in neighbouring soy plantations, resulting in health problems and deterioration of the tribe’s land and culture.

“Paraguay’s failure to prevent and control the toxic contamination of traditional lands, due to the intensive use of pesticides by nearby commercial farms, violates the indigenous community’s rights and sense of ‘home,’” the committee noted in a statement.

Toxic herbicides

Public records reveal Paraguay imported 58,568 tonnes of agrochemicals in 2019, including toxic herbicides glyphosate, 2,4D and paraquat, which is banned in more than two dozen countries.

“Our kids are suffering from respiratory illnesses, diarrhoea, vomiting,” Lucio Sosa, a 48-year-old teacher in Campo Aguae, told Al Jazeera.

In 2009, Sosa levied a criminal complaint against the regional government for failing to halt fumigations. This ultimately led the state to launch an official environmental investigation, but according to the UN, there was no meaningful progress in the ensuing years.

Several years after Sosa’s complaint, the community brought its case to the UN Human Rights Committee, which subsequently launched a probe. The ruling issued in October, which recommended criminal investigations and reparations for the victims, refers to the use of illegal pesticides and the absence of protective hedges required by law to mitigate contamination.

The agribusinesses named in the ruling could not be reached by Al Jazeera, and representatives with Paraguay’s Public Ministry declined to comment.

Despite the UN denunciation, a visit to Campo Aguae about a week after the ruling revealed two fumigation tractors operating within a short distance of the community. Residents said the spraying had been continuing unabated.

Surge in evictions

Paraguay is the world’s sixth-largest soy producer, generating $1.58bn through exports in 2019. Yet, while creating windfall profits for the South American nation, the cash crop has driven some of the highest deforestation rates in the world, inflamed a national drought, and provoked a surge in land evictions of Indigenous communities.

This month, dozens of riot police forcibly evicted 70 Mbya Guarani families from the community of Hugua Po’i in the soy-producing department of Caaguazu. Video of the eviction revealed a low-flying helicopter and officers dragging an elderly man from his home.

“They didn’t even give us time to grab our belongings. They destroyed our houses, our temple, and then burned the rest,” community leader Manuel Ramos told Al Jazeera.

Caaguazu’s police commissioner, Daniel Careaga, said allegations that his officers destroyed homes were false, telling Al Jazeera they were sent to enforce a judicial warrant to vacate the land, which is claimed by Mennonite soy farmers. Indigenous community members “were armed with bows, spears and other blunt weapons … We allowed them to take everything they needed to relocate,” Careaga added.

Land distribution in Paraguay is among the most unequal in the world, according to the World Bank. Ninety percent of the country’s territory is in the hands of just 12,000 property owners, many with ties to the dictatorial government of Alfredo Stroessner, who was in power between 1954 and 1989, which gifted public lands and Indigenous territory to allies.

A controversial private property law ratified this past September applies stiff prison sentences to parties found guilty of occupying private land. Critics have said the law, which has drawn fiery protests, targets the country’s Indigenous communities and campesinos.

At the same time, the government body tasked with advocating for Indigenous people, the Indigenous Institute of Paraguay, has been widely seen as under-resourced and aligned with government interests.

“We work hard to relocate communities and fight for land claims,” Basilio Franco, the institute’s legal director, told Al Jazeera. “But we also work for the president and our duty is to respect private property.”

The battle ahead

In Campo Aguae, which is surrounded by approximately 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of soy monocultures, villagers say soy farmers have pressured them to rent out what remains of their territory, so that the soy fields can be further expanded.

“Soy brought all these problems on us,” resident Irma Aquino told Al Jazeera as she assessed the ruins of her clapboard and thatched-roof home, destroyed the previous night by a fierce windstorm – a common occurrence in the village, aggravated by a lack of tree cover.

Aquino said her son, Claudio, died two years ago from health problems that she attributes to agrochemicals, “He was only eight months old. He had breathing problems.”

Yet, without state testing or epidemiological studies, it is impossible to determine what caused the boy’s death, said Stella Benitez, a doctor who researches the effects of pesticides in humans. “The state doesn’t exist. Corruption permeates our culture and these companies have all the political and economic power,” Benitez told Al Jazeera.

Up against powerful agribusiness, Sosa said he would continue to defend his family and students, noting that the UN ruling was a start. “If you love your people, you fight for them,” he said. “We hope our case is a signal to our Indigenous brothers, not just in Paraguay, but all over the continent.”

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