A Brazilian Peasant Group Goes to War Against Swiss Multinational Syngenta

    Swiss multinational Syngenta

    Swiss multinational SyngentaMarch 14 marked the one-year anniversary of the Via Campesina’s non-violent occupation of Syngenta Seeds’ experimental test site in Brazil. Last year 600 members of the Via Campesina occupied the 123-hectare site in Santa Tereza do Oeste, in the state of Paraná, after it was discovered that Syngenta had illegally planted 12 hectares of genetically modified soybeans at the site.

    Syngenta’s plantation was located within the protective boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park (the boundary distance has since been modified), which was declared Patrimony of Humanity by the United Nations in 1986.

    The occupation has become one the most powerful symbols in the world of civil society’s resistance to agribusiness, as it continues to paralyze all of Syngenta’s activities at the site, costing the corporation tens of millions of dollars.

    It also spurred Paraná state Governor Roberto Requião to sign a decree on November 9, 2006 to expropriate the site for the public interest. Yet despite Requião’s decree, the magnitude of Syngenta’s environmental crime, and continuous pressure from social movements and civil society around the world, the realization of the expropriation of the site from Syngenta is threatened due to the immense power of agribusiness in Brazilian politics.

    Syngenta

    Syngenta is a multinational agribusiness corporation headquartered in Switzerland. Syngenta has operations in over 90 countries, and employs over 19,500 people. In 2006, Syngenta’s sales totaled US$ 8.1 billion, with 80% of its revenue deriving from agrochemicals and 20% from seed production. The corporation ranks third in global seed sales.

    Syngenta is the result of more than two centuries of mergers of European chemical companies. According to Brian Tokar, author of Earth for Sale , Syngenta’s oldest predecessor was J.R. Geigy Ltd., which was founded in Switzerland in 1758, and commenced to produce industrial chemicals including paints, dyes, and other products.

    Geigy’s rise to fame and fortune began in 1939, when it discovered the insecticidal efficacy of Dicloro Difenil Tricloroetano (DDT). Syngenta also has roots in Industrial Chemical Industries (ICI), an explosives company founded in Britain in 1926 by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

    ICI would supply the Allied Forces during WWII with both explosives and chemicals for chemical warfare. In 1940, ICI discovered the selective properties of alphanapthylacetic acid, leading to the synthesis of the herbicides MCPA and 2,4-D. The herbicide Agent Orange, derived from ICI’s 2,4-D, would later be used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War to obliterate dense jungles.

    In 1970 Geigy and Ciba merged to form Ciba-Geigy, a massive corporation with operations in over 50 countries. In 1994 Zeneca Group PLC was established after ICI demerged its pharmaceutical, pesticide, and specialty chemicals. Zeneca merged with Astra AB of Sweden in 1998, becoming AstraZeneca.

    In 1996, Sandoz, another Swiss company formed in 1876, merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, the largest corporate merger in history to that date. In 2000, Novartis merged with AstraZeneca’s agribusiness to form Syngenta, the first global group to focus exclusively on agribusiness.

    Biotechnology is particularly important to Syngenta. Between 2001 and 2004, Syngenta was responsible for the largest case of genetic contamination in history, when it illegally sold unapproved genetically-modified (GM) Bt10 corn seeds to farmers in the United States, resulting in the entrance of this corn into human and animal food chains.

    Syngenta has also been at the helm of the development of "Terminator Technology," a process of genetic engineering which renders the seeds of crops sterile in an effort to force farmers to repeatedly purchase its seeds, as opposed to small farmers’ traditional practice of selecting, saving, and sharing seeds independently.

    Syngenta’s Crime and the Occupation

    Ciba-Geigy began operations in Brazil in 1971 and became Syngenta in 2001. In early March of 2006, Terra de Direitos, a non-governmental human rights organization in Curitiba that works closely with social movements, filed a grievance against the corporation with the Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA) accusing it and 12 farmers of illegally planting transgenic soy within the protective zone of the Iguaçu National Park.

    Given their threats to biodiversity, under Brazilian federal law, it is illegal to plant GM crops within the protective zones of national parks. An IBAMA investigation confirmed that Syngenta and the farms were in violation of federal environmental law and fined each one.

    Syngenta’s fine came to about US$ 465,000. However, while all of the farmers appealed the fine, lost, and subsequently paid their fines, Syngenta has refused to acknowledge that it broke the law and is the only producer to fail to pay the fine.

    Following the IBAMA investigation that found Syngenta in violation of environmental law, the Via Campesina non-violently occupied the Syngenta site. The movements and Terra de Direitos legally defend the occupation based on a constitutional clause that states that land must serve a social function.

    They argue that the Syngenta farm was not fulfilling its social function, and that the illegal cultivation of transgenic soy within the protective boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park constituted a direct threat to Brazilian society since it put at risk the nation’s biodiversity, natural resource wealth, and food system.

    In July, Terra de Direitos and Via Campesina launched an international solidarity campaign to support the occupation, garnering the support of over 75 organizations around the world. The campaign sent emails directly to Pedro Rugeroni, the head of Syngenta in Brazil, demanding that the corporation pay the fine to IBAMA, and acknowledge its wrongdoing.

    The campaign also sent emails to Requião, urging him to expropriate the site from Syngenta. In response, Syngenta bought a full-page ad in two of Brazil’s largest newspapers, and published a PR message in its defense. In its hostile response to campaign supporters, it continued to deny any crime and attacked the "illegal invasion" of its site.

    Requião’s Decree to Expropriate

    Throughout the occupation, Governor Requião has been sympathetic to the Via Campesina. Days after the occupation, a state judge ordered the "return of property" to Syngenta, whereby the state was required to evict the occupiers (with police force if necessary) and return the property to Syngenta. Requião appealed the decision.

    In October, a state judge ruled that unless Requião complied with the order of "return of property" by November 3, he would incur a daily fine of US$ 25,000. In a strategic move to avoid the fine to be levied against Requião, on November 1st the Via Campesina de-occupied the Syngenta farm and camped on the roadside just outside of the property.

    On November 9, days after Requião was re-elected as governor, he signed a decree to expropriate the site from Syngenta, and the Via Campesina reoccupied the site in anticipation of the expropriation. According to a statement released by the Paraná government, the legal basis for the expropriation decree is founded on a constitutional clause that gives Brazilian states the sovereignty to "protect notable natural areas and the environment, combat pollution of whatever form, and to preserve the forests, fauna, and flora."

    The decree also emphasizes "the significant fragility of the biggest and most important remnant of the semi-deciduous seasonal forest in the country, in the Iguaçu National Park." Requião announced his intent to turn the site into a center for research and education in sustainable agriculture for small farmers and landless workers.

    According to Maria Rita Reis, lawyer for Terra de Direitos, "The decree is totally legal because the government in Brazil has the option to expropriate anything under the concept of public interest. In Brazil, the municipality can expropriate, just as the state or the federal government can utilize expropriation." Reis notes that the state is required to pay Syngenta for the infrastructure and market value of the land.

    The implications of the expropriation decree are significant for the social movements as well as multinational and Brazilian agribusiness interests . The decision by the State of Paraná to expropriate land from a multinational agribusiness corporation is unprecedented in Brazil, and indeed worldwide.

    It has dealt a blow to agribusiness, shaking its power in the country. The decree is also an important political win for the social movements. All around the world, Via Campesina’s occupation of Syngenta has become one of the most powerful symbols of the ability of civil society to resist and challenge agribusiness.

    However, the combined power of Syngenta and Brazilian agribusiness threatens to block implementation of the expropriation decree. Syngenta has vowed to fight the decree and has formed a strategic political alliance with the rural caucus (bancada ruralista) in the Brazilian legislature, a group of federal and state politicians representing the interests of the Brazilian rural elite.

    Rural caucus members and multinational agribusiness are determined to maintain the dominant economic model of agricultural production for export, through which both groups derive their power. Since Requião’s decree would strengthen opposition to this model of agricultural production, the rural caucus has a strong interest in overturning the decree.

    Rural Caucus and the MST

    Agroexport production has dominated the Brazilian rural landscape since Portuguese colonization. The model, based on the extensive monoculture of commodity crops (historically of sugarcane), has sacrificed food production to generate capital.

    Although Brazil is one of the world’s leading agricultural producers, with the ninth largest economy in the world, according to the Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, almost 40% of Brazilians do not have enough to eat.

    The agroexport model of economic development has resulted in Brazil having one of the highest rates of land distribution inequality in the world, and one of the most unequal rates of income distribution.

    In the early 1980s, the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST) began to organize poor, rural families in southern Brazil to non-violently occupy the idle lands of large landowners to pressure the government to expropriate the land for agrarian reform. Over the past nearly 30 years, the MST has successfully organized to pressure the government to expropriate land for 370,000 families.

    The MST advocates a model of rural development in direct contrast to the agroexport model. Its model emphasizes family farmers working small and medium-sized plots of land, producing food for Brazilians, and using agro-ecological production techniques.

    As the MST’s organization and power expanded, the rural caucus formed to oppose this powerful movement, and represent and protect the interests of those few Brazilians who benefit from the agroexport model.

    According to Nilton Tubino, parliamentary assistant to Adão Pretto, a federal deputy of the Workers Party (PT) from Rio Grande do Sul, "The web of relationships of the rural caucus is very large, in diverse regions of the country. Its members have always had influence in congress, but the caucus began to organize during the discussion and vote on the constitution of 1988, when the question of ownership of land and its expropriation for agrarian reform was introduced."

    The alliance between the Brazilian rural elite and multinational agribusiness began during the military dictatorship, when the government, with pressure and financing from the United States, adopted the Green Revolution. The chemical corporations that had boomed during wartime needed to reinvent themselves to survive; industrialized, chemical-intensive agriculture was their answer.

    The Green Revolution exacerbated landlessness, rural unemployment, and food scarcity, expelling millions of Brazilians from the countryside. Within a decade, Brazil’s population changed from being primarily rural to mostly urban. Today, 82% of Brazilians live in urban areas.

    In the early 2000s, Brazil assumed strategic importance to the survival and expansion of agribusiness. Both Brazilian landowners and multinational agribusiness have greatly profited from the country’s soy production and export boom. Today, Brazil is the second largest exporter of soybeans in the world, second only to the United States.

    While Brazilian landowners control the land and cultivation of soy, multinational agribusinesses control the international grain trade and inputs, including agrotoxins, fertilizers, and transgenic seeds. Given Brazil’s vast size, natural resource wealth, and favorable climate for agricultural production, opening up Brazil to transgenic crops has been a huge boon for agribusiness.

    Soon after he was elected in 2002, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva legalized the cultivation of GM soy in Brazil. Darci Frigo, lawyer and director of Terra de Direitos, explains that the government in effect legalized transgenic soy through an illegal process of fait accompli.

    In 2001, when all transgenics were illegal in Brazil, the U.S.-based Monsanto Corporation knew that farmers in Rio Grande do Sul were illegally importing and planting its patented Roundup Ready soybeans from farmers in Argentina. Monsanto then pressured Lula into legalizing its Roundup Ready soybeans by claiming a legal right to collect royalties for ‘its’ seeds that were already being cultivated in the country.

    Under the same pretext, Monsanto, Syngenta, Du Pont, and Bayer are currently pressuring the National Technical Commission for Biodiversity (CTNBio) to legalize transgenic corn.

    In recent years, as the power and illegal activities of multinational agribusinesses have increased in Brazil, the social movements have begun targeting these corporations. In 2003, various social movements occupied Monsanto’s experimental site in Paraná, destroying its plantation of transgenic corn. The MST remained at the site for more than one year.

    The occupations of the multinationals by the Via Campesina also represent the growing force of the global, popular struggle against agribusiness. While all of the occupants of Syngenta are members of the MST, they are also members of the international La Via Campesina social movement.

    The MST is one movement of more than 150 social movements from five continents that compose La Via Campesina, which was founded in 1993. In order to highlight the global nature of the struggle against agribusiness, the organizers of the occupation of Syngenta have been careful to maintain that it is an occupation of the Via Campesina.

    Expropriation

    Because of the potential impacts of Requião’s decree, the rural caucus is racing to Syngenta’s aid in an alliance that has strengthened Syngenta’s political battle against the decree, and maintained its impunity for its violation.

    According to Reis, caucus members played a major role in reducing the distance of the protective zone for national parks from 10 kilometers to 500 meters. This change, signed into law by Lula in March, confounds the effort to hold Syngenta accountable for the environmental violation since the experimental site is located six kilometers from the Iguaçu National Park.

    Within the Rural Caucus, Federal Deputy Abelardo Lupion, of the Liberal Front Party (PFL) from western Paraná, is Syngenta’s most important ally in its political battle to overturn Requião’s decree. Lupion is a longtime caucus member, and a staunch supporter of agribusiness.

    Almost every single one of the 34 companies that contributed electoral funds to Lupion’s 2006 election is an agribusiness, including two that were found to practice slave labor. While Tubino maintains that no direct financial connection between Syngenta and Lupion has been discovered, he points out that Lupion receives money from other seed companies.

    Lupion has a personal vendetta against the social movements. He was one of the primary authors of the official report published by the CPMI da Terra, a federal investigation into the root causes of rural violence in Brazil.

    The legislative investigation that led to the report was initiated in 2005, after U.S.-born Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered by two landowners in the Amazonian state of Pará. The original report, written mostly by members of the PT, concludes that rural violence is due to Brazil’s highly unequal land distribution, and because the country has yet to realize an agrarian reform.

    Immediately following release of the first report, Lupion, along with other members of the Rural Caucus, succeeded in annulling it. They published a second report that concludes that rural violence is caused by land occupations. The second report also proposes that land occupation be considered an "Act of Terror" and a "Crime of Hedonism," which would increase the legal penalty for an occupation. According to Tubino, the caucus members used the report to "criminalize and delegitimize social movements in society." The second report was the officially accepted report of the CPMI da Terra .

    Not long after the official report of the CPMI da Terra was published, in May of 2006, journalist Solano Nascimento published an article in the Correio Braziliense that linked Lupion to Monsanto in a corrupt relationship.

    After successfully forcing Lula to legalize transgenic soy in Brazil, Monsanto sought to legalize glyphosate, a toxic herbicide sold commercially by the corporation as Roundup. In 2004, Lupion pushed through a series of federal amendments that legalized glyphosate in Brazil.

    After its legalization, Monsanto’s sales of Roundup increased by more than 30%. Nascimento reports that in the same year, Monsanto sold Lupion the Santa Rita farm in western Paraná for one-third of its market value.

    After Nascimento’s story was published, various politicians, social movements, and civil society organizations (including Terra de Direitos) opened a federal investigation into Lupion’s alleged corruption. Days before the national elections last November, when the MST camped in front of the Santa Rita farm to bring public attention to the case, Lupion publicly vowed that he would "destroy the MST."

    On June 27 Lupion proposed that the federal Commission of Agriculture, Livestock, Supply, and Rural Development (CAPADR) undertake an investigation into the Via Campesina’s occupation of Syngenta, and in December the proposal was approved. The commission "is almost entirely made up of members of the Rural Caucus, and it has the agenda to represent the interests of agribusiness," says Tubino. The CAPADR investigation is attacking Requião’s decree in several ways.

    First, the CAPADR investigation is attempting to negate Syngenta’s crime by attempting to criminalize the manner in which IBAMA found out about the crime – via the grievance filed by Terra de Direitos. "It is ridiculous to try and impede an organization of civil society from filing a grievance," says Reis.

    "The grievance filed by Terra de Direitos was totally legal. In Brazil social movements, indeed any organization or citizen, has the right to file a grievance with public bodies. IBAMA is a public body and these exist to serve the public interest. Syngenta acted illegally and IBAMA complied with the law."

    The CAPADR investigation is also an attempt to criminalize Requião’s relationship with the social movements, and his unwillingness to comply with the judicial order for the "return of property" to Syngenta. On this point, according to Tubino, CAPADR has overstepped its legal mandate because "it has limits of investigation, and cannot investigate the state. The state has autonomy."

    The Rural Caucus has also been organizing at the state level to stop Requião’s decree. In 2006, Rural Caucus members in the Legislative Assembly of Paraná proposed and won approval to form a Special Investigative Commission of Farm Invasions in the West of Paraná, which published its final report in December. Almost the entire document is focused on the occupation of Syngenta.

    The final report claims that the social movements, with Requião’s acceptance, are "creating areas without law within the territory of Paraná … as for example, the case of the invasion of Syngenta Seeds." The report makes no reference to Syngenta’s crime.

    In addition to political attacks by the Rural Caucus, Syngenta has filed several judicial actions against Requião’s decree in the courts. On April 20 the Paraná Supreme Court annulled Requião’s decree, ruling that the proposal to install an agroecological research and education center is not a valid reason for expropriation in the public interest.

    On April 27 Requião suffered yet another blow in the justice system when a judge decided once again that unless the governor complies with the court order of return of property, he will again face a personal fine of about US$ 25,000. At this moment, Requião faces enormous political and juridical pressure to expel the occupants from the Syngenta site.

    According to José Maria Tardin, of the MST’s Sector of Production and Coordinator of the Via Campesina’s Latin American School for Agroecology in Paraná, "Syngenta acts as though Brazil is its backyard and the Brazilian people its vassal. When the Judicial Power refuses to see and consider this sad reality, and decides for the return of property in favor of Syngenta, it shows once again its dominant, bourgeoisie, elitist, exclusive, anti-democratic, and violent face. Or, rather, its historic face: conservative, anti-popular, at the service of the rich. A powerful rein which impedes us from creating a sovereign nation and people."

    Much is at stake in the battle to maintain the expropriation decree. The decree questions the public benefits of Brazil’s agroexport model that enriches primarily wealthy landowners and multinational agribusiness corporations, and strengthens the hand of the movements calling for an agricultural model geared toward producing food and jobs for the majority of Brazilians. This transformation would necessarily entail a reorganization of Brazilian society, and a redistribution of land and wealth.

    What Is at Stake?

    Through its alliance with the Rural Caucus, Syngenta has managed to seriously weaken Requião’s decree to expropriate its experimental site. The group is supporting Syngenta’s fight against Requião’s decree in the political sphere because of the implications of the decree to its power. If the expropriation is realized, it will deal an enormous blow to the power of both multinational agribusiness and the interests defended by the Rural Caucus . For this reason, they are determined to stop the expropriation.

    If Requião’s decree is overturned, agribusiness’ power will gain greater influence over Brazil’s agricultural system and public politics, setting the stage for increased environmental destruction, human rights abuses, and concentration of land and wealth by these corporations.

    According to Tardin, "Agriculture occupies a strategic place in the accumulation of wealth, and biotechnology especially offers the multinationals the best techniques to gain absolute global control, and to manipulate that to their interests and necessities. It is through biotechnology that the multinationals make a concerted effort to achieve the maximum concentration of power over humanity’s food system, and biotechnology therefore offers them an instrument of geopolitical-military control as never before."

    The ability of the Rural Caucus to repress social movements will also be strengthened if Requião’s decree is overturned. Through its discourse of ‘land invasions,’ the caucus is building an image of grassroots movements as ‘violent,’ ‘lawless,’ and even ‘terrorist.’ The increased dominance of agribusiness in the Brazilian countryside through illegal activities, influence-buying, and the criminalization of social movements could lead to heightened conflicts.

    Says Reis, "If the agribusiness corporations continue to introduce GM crops illegally, without studies of their environmental impacts, I am certain that the social movements in Brazil are going to react. Agribusiness in Brazil promotes the concentration of land, concentration of wealth, and the violation of human rights, and we cannot remain paralyzed in the face of this. Brazil has strong social movements that are ready to confront this model of development."

    Alternatively, if Requião’s decree is upheld, the expropriation of Syngenta would force agribusiness to be more accountable and would weaken its hegemony in Brazil. The expropriation would also serve to expand public debate on the social function of land in Brazil to include issues of biosecurity, food sovereignty, food production, and agroecology.

    Expanded public debate on what’s good for the nation – not just the powerful elite – would set new precedents for Brazil’s agricultural policies and the world. Additionally, the expropriation of Syngenta would offer civil society worldwide a tangible, popular method to resist and attack the behemoth of agribusiness power: non-violent occupations.

    For More Information

    La Via Campesina
    (
    www.viacampesina.org)

    Movement of the Landless Rural Workers
    (
    www.mst.org.br)

    Terra de Direitos
    (
    www.terradedireitos.org.br)

    Syngenta
    (
    www.syngenta.com)

    Rennie Lee is a freelance journalist covering Brazil and collaborating with the Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org.

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