Brazilian Governor Moves to Expropriate Land From Agribusiness Multinational Syngenta
by Isabella Kenfield ZNet, December 8 2006 http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=48&ItemID=11580
Curitiba, Brazil - On November 9th Roberto Requiao, Governor of the state of Parana, dealt a blow to agribusiness when he signed a decree to expropriate the experimental test site owned by the Swiss multinational corporation Syngenta, located in Santa Tereza do Oeste. The decree was made in the public interest because Syngenta illegally planted 12 hectares of genetically-modified (GM) soybeans at the site. The decree is unprecedented in Brazil and Latin America (indeed, the world), as never before has any state or the federal government moved to expropriate land from an agribusiness multinational corporation. The action is representative of the growing sentiment among Latin American politicians to resist the increasing power of agribusiness corporations, and is evidence of the increasing organization and power of civil society in the region.
Requiao's decision to expropriate the 127-hectare site is undoubtedly the result of pressure from civil society. The decree to expropriate the site came after an eight-month, non-violent occupation of the site by members of the rural social movements the Via Campesina and the Movement of the Landless Rural Workers (MST), which occupied the site on March 14th after the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA), the federal environmental agency, confirmed that Syngenta had illegally planted GM soybeans there. While GM soy is legal in Brazil, Syngenta's planting was illegal because the experimental site is located within the protective boundary zone of the IguaÃ§u National Park, which was declared the Patrimony of Humanity by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1986. The occupation stopped all of Syngenta's activities at the site, and according to statements made by Syngenta to the press, cost the corporation more than US $50 million. The occupation also pressured IBAMA to fine the corporation US $465,000 - a fine Syngenta still has not paid. Throughout the occupation and since Requiao's decree, Syngenta has denied any criminal activity.
"This is really a historic moment in the global struggle against transgenics, and it is proof that the social movements can control the actions of transnationals," says Maria Rita Reis, an attorney for Terra de Direitos, a human rights organization in Curitiba representing the legal proceedings against Syngenta.
According to Roberto Baggio, state leader of the Via Campesina and the MST, "The conquest of Syngenta was only possible through a large alliance of the rural social movements”¦in alliance with a firm and courageous position of Governor Requiao, in the defense of a diversified, national agriculture that preserves biodiversity. This action is a referential international mark in the struggle against the powerful interests of the agribusiness transnationals that want to dominate global agriculture and impose their project, but here in Parana there are strong signals of popular resistance, which should stimulate militancy to combat the transnationals all over the planet."
The legal argument for the government's decree to expropriate the site from Syngenta for the public interest is based in the Brazilian constitution. According to the statement released by the state press agency, Governor Requiao, who has a history of anti-GM politics, is drawing upon Brazilian states' sovereignty to "protect notable natural areas and the environment, to combat pollution of whatever form, and to preserve the forests, fauna and flora," emphasizing "the fragility of the biggest and most important remnant of the semideciduous forest of the country, situated in the Iguacu National Park." Additionally, Article 186 in the Brazilian constitution stipulates that private property, including land, must serve a social function. Since the early 1980s, the MST has used Article 186 to justify non-violent occupations of unproductive land owned by large landowners, in order to pressure the government to expropriate the land for the purpose of agrarian reform. More recently, with their growing economic power, control of natural resources and criminal acts in the country, multinational agribusiness corporations are becoming the targets of these occupations. Terra de Direitos argues that the land at Syngenta's experimental site was not serving its social function, and that by illegally planting GM soybeans there Syngenta committed a human rights violation by endanging Brazil's biodiversity and biosecurity, as all Brazilians depend on the country's natural resources.
According to Joao Pedro Stedile, of the national coordination of the MST, "Governor Requiao had a courageous attitude to fulfill the constitution of the state to protect natural resources, and at the same time the law of biosecurity which states that no one can make experiments with transgenics within national parks. Thus he penalized Syngenta. I hope that other state governors and the federal government will follow in [Requiao's] example, and help us to defend Brazilian biodiversity, and the struggle for food sovereignty, and against the transnationals that want to control the food and biodiversity throughout the world."
Yet just because Requiao has signed the decree does not mean the process of expropriation will be simple. There is little doubt Syngenta will appeal the decision in federal courts. This will complicate the effort to expropriate the site because the administration of President Luis Inacio 'Lula' da Silva is more disposed to yield to the interests of agribusiness. Brazil is currently experiencing an economic boom from agricultural production, especially from the production of GM soy. The planting of GM soy was legalized in 2003 during the Lula administration, and the country is now the second largest producer and exporter of soybeans in the world, second only to the U.S. Syngenta, which realized profits of over US $8.1 billion in 2005, wields considerable economic and political power in Brazil, and has a strong interest in maintaining its business in the country.
Syngenta has not publicly responded to Requiao's decree, and did not answer press inquiries into the case. Yet it is clear that its strategy to fight the decision has been to use its political and economic power to change Brazilian law in order to complicate the effort to find it guilty of criminal behavior. On October 31st, President Lula signed a measure that reduced the distance of the protective boundary zone for national parks from 10 kilometers to just 500 meters, a move which was almost certainly the result of pressure from Syngenta. This maneuver complicates the effort to find that Syngenta illegally planted GM soy within the protective boundary zone, as it planted the soy six kilometers from the park. On November 30th the Federal Public Minister of Parana, through the Municipal Prosecutor of Cascavel, annulled a public inquiry into the illegal planting of Syngenta filed by Terra de Direitos in October, and ruled that Syngenta is in accord with all of the regulatory and legal requirements at the experimental site. This decision is currently en route to Brasilia, where it must be accepted by Minister of Justice Marcio Thomaz Bastos before it is official.
Yet despite the political and juridical opposition he faces in Brazil over the decision, Requiao's effort to expropriate the site will be bolstered by other regional forces that are working to his advantage, most importantly the leftist wave currently sweeping Latin America. Leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales will undoubtedly provide Requiao with regional support. Chavez himself has ties to the MST and the Via Campesina, and is an outspoken critic of GM technology. Bolivia recently began to implement a progressive agrarian reform program that will benefit small farmers and landless workers.
Requiao's move to expropriate the site from Syngenta will, at the very least, send a message to agribusiness multinationals that they can no longer illegally exploit Brazil's natural resources as they wish, and commit crimes with impunity. It will also no doubt bolster the strength and confidence of the social movements. According to state Via Campesina and MST leader Celso Ribeiro, "for the coordination of the Via Campesina this signifies a huge victory and a grand conquest. Syngenta is the 2nd largest producer of seeds in the world, producing both transgenic corn and soy. Now the site will be used as a center for us to create native and creole seed varieties."