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Argentina's Bad Seeds

The country's soya industry is booming, but what is the impact on Argentinians and their land?

Last Modified: 14 Mar 2013 12:54
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Filmmakers: Glenn Ellis and Guido Bilbao

For much of the past decade Argentina has seen a commodities-driven export boom, built largely on genetically-modified soy bean crops and the aggressive use of pesticides.

Argentina's leaders say it has turned the country's economy around, while others say the consequences are a dramatic surge in cancer rates, birth defects and land theft.

People & Power investigates if Argentina's booming soy industry is a disaster in the making.

Filmmaker's view: Bad seeds

By Glenn Ellis

As I flew in to Buenos Aires to make this film, all the talk was of President Cristina Kirchner’s latest gambit. Her foreign minister had pulled out of a meeting with the British foreign secretary to discuss the Falklands (or the Malvinas depending on your outlook). And for the people I rubbed up against in Argentina’s smart and chic capital, on discovering I was English, this, along with Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ moment, was the topic on everybody’s lips. "We won the war", they would say. "After the fighting we got rid of our dictators but you had another 10 years of Thatcher."

When I explained I was in the country to cover the soya boom, which has given Argentina the fastest growth rate in South America, but also allegedly caused devastating malformations in children, there was a look of disbelief. "Here, in Argentina? Why haven’t we heard about it?"

A good question: why had not anyone heard about it? And when I ventured a little further explaining I also wanted to cover what is best described as a dirty war in the North of the country where campesinos are being driven off their land, and sometimes killed, to make way for soya plantations - the bemusement increased. “That’s historical" people would say, "it’s been going on since the time of the conquistadores." So when I arrived with my crew at Argentina’s second city, Cordoba, 700 kilometres North West of the capital, to meet Alternative Nobel Laureate Professor Raul Montenegro, I was not quite sure what to expect.

Montenegro, a world-renowned biologist, looked the part of a pioneer, in khaki shirt and jungle boots. "I have pesticide in me", he said, almost as soon as he opened the door. "Here we all have pesticide in our bodies because the land is saturated with it. And it is a huge problem. In Argentina biodiversity is diminishing. Even in national parks, because pesticides don’t recognise the limit of the park." Montenegro is a man in a hurry. "You must see for yourself", he said pointing to his Land Rover and taking us a short drive out of Cordoba to a slight rise in the vast plain which surrounds the city. Here, as far as the eye can see, endless acres of soya stretched to the horizon. "More than 18 million hectares are covered by this GMO soya but it’s not solely a matter of soya because over this plant on this huge surface more than 300 million litres of pesticide are used."

A soy republic

Not so long ago Argentina topped the world for meat production, but here there was not a cow in sight. It is a picture replicated across the country. The transformation has taken little more than a decade and the vast majority of soya seed in Argentina is provided by US chemical giant Monsanto.

The company’s genetically-modified seed was designed to withstand their glyphosate-based pesticide, Round-up, which is routinely used in huge quantities across the country. But - according to numerous medical experts - in the process of using such pesticides everything else is being poisoned, including people. The doctors and scientists claim that babies are being born with crippling birth malformations and that in recent years the incidence of childhood cancer has soared. It is a phenomenon, they say, that has coincided with the introduction of Monsanto's seed.

Our next appointment was to see the man in charge of the Children’s Hospital in Cordoba, Doctor Medardo Vasquez. "I'm a neonatal specialist," he told me as we stood in a busy corridor of the hospital. "I see new-born infants, many of who are malformed. I have to tell parents that their children are dying because of these agricultural methods. In some areas in Argentina the primary cause of death for children less than one year old are malformations."

The doctor suggested we head north to see his colleague Doctor Seveso in Saenz Pena, Chaco Province, but not before visiting the village of Malvinas Argentinas, some 20 miles away. Malvinas Argentinas is surrounded by soya plantations and Medardo told me that here during the spraying season rainwater was often contaminated with Glyphosate, one reason for a rate of miscarriage 100 times the national average. To make matters worse, he says, Monsanto had chosen the village for the site of a new factory.

We met Matias Mazzei, a teacher at a school a stone’s throw from where the factory is planned. He and many others are desperate to stop it. "There'll be 240 silos full of corn that has been chemically treated," he says. "The corn rubs together and produces dust. We know the silos are ventilated, despite Monsanto’s denials, because the planning application says that, if there's no ventilation, the silos will explode. When the fans are switched on, a cloud of chemical dust from 240 silos will swamp the village."

But Matias and his friends know they have a real battle on their hands: Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina, is one of Monsanto’s strongest advocates. Last year, in an unguarded moment, she was caught on live television with a Monsanto brochure in her hand extolling the company’s virtues. "I want to show you Monsanto's prospectus." she said, "It makes me very proud. Their commitment to investing here is enshrined in this prospectus."

As we left Malvinas Argentinas a torrential thunderstorm dumped acres of water on the inhabitants. I watched some children playing in the puddles and wondered what the future held for them.

'An epidemic of birth malformations’

Next morning we set off at daybreak on the punishing 12-hour drive to Chaco where a diminutive but fiery lady in her sixties, Doctor Maria Del Carmen Seveso, had agreed to take us to see just a few of the children she believes have been affected by the soya boom.  

Adolfo Luque, a delightful and inquisitive five year old boy, lives with his family in the village of Avia Terai which is surrounded by soya fields. He is tiny for a boy of his age, partially paralysed and will never walk. One of many children similarly afflicted in the neighbourhood. His mother, Zulema, has no doubt as to what is behind her son’s illness. "I spent all my pregnancy here. After the plane fumigated the crops with pesticide everything was covered white with poison," she told us. "When Adolfo was three, we went to Resistencia and the doctors told me that the fumigation was the problem. It's what I expected to hear, when he was born, the local doctor already told me."

Then we met Nadia Perez, a delightful little girl with a winning smile, who is confined to a wheel chair. She suffers from adversely evolving encephalopathy. Sadly her condition is progressive. Viviana, her mother is desperate. "There's no treatment, but the doctor says, 'Don't give up hope.' Maybe they'll develop a new treatment, if not in Argentina, then abroad. I don't care if it's abroad, I just want a treatment: A treatment, a drug, anything."

We were to meet many such children before returning to the doctor’s surgery that evening. Here she showed me a computer chart containing two steeply climbing graphs. One represented the increase in soya plantations over the last 15 years while the other illustrated the rise in the number of birth malformations across the province during the same time. It was startling; virtually a mirror image. "I have practiced medicine here for 30 years," she told me, "20 years ago we never saw malformations."

Doctor Seveso’s assertion that glyphosate based pesticide was responsible for what she referred to as ‘an epidemic of birth malformations’ is supported by Argentina’s leading embryologist, Professor Andres Carrasco, who runs the Molecular Embryology Laboratory at the University of Buenos Aires. Carrasco observed a link between glyphosate and malformations under laboratory conditions some two years ago.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Monsanto completely disagrees – or at least as far as their chemicals are concerned. Although the company declined to be interviewed on camera, it did give us a written statement in which it said:

“Roundup® brand agricultural herbicides have a long history of safe use when used according to label directions in more than 100 countries around the world. Comprehensive toxicological studies have demonstrated that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup® branded agricultural herbicides, does not cause birth defects or reproductive problems.”

Perhaps a conclusive answer to these competing arguments might one day emerge but one thing is clear, the soya boom continues unabated and the number of people whose lives have been changed by it grows year on year. And they are not all medical victims. The vast amounts of money that can be made by growing soya are attracting a new breed of land-grabbers, wanting to displace villages with plantations. We spent the next few days driving deeper into the interior where we heard a succession of horror stories of how campesinos and Amerindians were being violently driven from their land.

We met torture victims, saw various stretches of farmland set ablaze and visited a small village whose only water source had been poisoned. In one community we interviewed Mirta, the mother of Cristian Ferreira who was murdered for refusing to move – shot point blank in the leg by gunmen working for a local land owner. His mother heard the news from Ferreira’s wife. "I went with her, and found my son. His leg had been severed. There was a pool of blood. My son was dying," she told us, fighting back the tears. "They shot him as a warning, to tell him to stop making trouble, and to show him that they and the investors had guns and meant business."

With no help from the state, villagers have no choice but to defend the land themselves. Mocase is an organisation made up of thousands of peasants and Amerindians that have come together to support communities under attack. Maria de los Angeles Gonçalves, a spokesperson for Mocase agreed to meet us. "They pay private security firms who burn down huge areas, and if there are farms or houses in the way, they destroy them too. And then they sow soya, and then the planes arrive spraying agrochemicals and the cycle starts again."

Maria painted a bleak picture of the situation in Northern Argentina. But there was steel in her voice and I could not help being impressed. "Our movement's first task was to make the peasants aware of their rights and dignity, and to persuade them that they have every right to fight for justice. That has been our most important task. Next, we fought to stop the evictions, recover the land and organise its defence. That means protecting biodiversity - flora, fauna, soil, water - and defending the way of life of the people who live there."

Unquestioning the government

When I arrived back in the capital the carnival was in full swing and the mood upbeat. The soya boom has helped Argentina buck the trend of the global downturn and through the economy still takes the occasional dip, the prevalent feeling here is one of optimism. Buenos Aires is hundreds of miles from the suffering in the north of the country and the national media, based in the capitol, have remained silent on the issue, for once, unquestioning of the government, whose assertion that there are no health problems arising from soya goes unchallenged.

It was time to talk to Norberto Yahuar, the minister of agriculture, at his grand colonial headquarters in downtown Buenos Aires. We were ushered into an enormous wood panelled boardroom replete with Argentinian flag and standard issue presidential photograph. The minister’s press secretary came in asked where the minister would sit for the interview and then immediately put the photograph of President Cristina Kirchner in the most prominent position. The minister arrived and then on tip toes, balanced precariously on his swivel seat, he spent some time straightening the photograph before I could explain that it would probably not appear in shot anyway.

"We do not place our own population at risk," the minister assured me, "Argentina has some of the world's most stringent environmental safeguards thanks to strict restrictions on fertilizers and pesticides." And as for the killings and torture in the north of the country, "We are making great efforts to issue title deeds for as much land as possible to the original inhabitants. Misunderstandings have occurred in some provinces where soya or maize production has increased the value of the land and a number of indigenous people have been displaced."

It was nearly time to leave Argentina but the minister’s office had arranged for us to meet the man regarded as the brains behind the soya boom: Gustavo Grobocopatel, the chief executive of Los Grobo, and the largest soya farmer in the world. Dubbed the Soyabean King, he is an advocate of genetically modified food. "We call this century, the genetic century,” he said. “Because we think the plants will be factories that will produce grains but not only for food but for fuels."

He went on, "A soya bean plant is like a factory, a new factory, that uses the solar energy and don’t produce CO2, it consumes CO2. This is a new paradigm for me; it’s a new industrial revolution, green." And as for pesticides: "People that are against pesticides are against poor people. The agricultural need a lot of pesticides to produce more. When you produce more you reduce the cost, you reduce the food price, and then a lot of poor people can eat."

From the viewpoint of his impressive apartment block in one of Buenos Aires most luxurious gated communities, it is easy to see how all those making a fortune from the soya bonanza are able to turn a blind eye to what many Argentineans think is an unfolding tragedy. But as they would point out, the world looks a little different when your child is born with a serious disability or your doctor has just diagnosed terminal cancer.

People & Power can be seen each week at the following times GMT: Wednesday: 2230; Thursday: 0930; Friday: 0330; Saturday: 1630; Sunday: 2230; Monday: 0930.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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