Health

Paraguay failed to stop soy farms from poisoning Indigenous land, UN says

  • The U.N. Human Rights Committee says the Paraguayan government failed to stop the illegal use of pesticides being sprayed on the land of the Ava Guarani Indigenous community.
  • For more than a decade, the fumigation from neighboring soybean plantations killed the community’s plants and animals, while creating health issues for many residents.
  • As a result, younger generations of Ava Guarani were unable to learn the community’s cultural customs, and many moved away from the community.
  • Paraguay has the laws and institutions in place to regulate commercial agriculture but has demonstrated an unwillingness to apply them, according to the committee.

The United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has found that the Paraguayan government failed to regulate the use of harmful chemicals near an Indigenous community, resulting in severe health issues and the degradation of its culture.

The OHCHR said the government didn’t adequately respond to credible complaints made by the Ava Guarani people about two nearby properties illegally fumigating genetically modified soybeans. The chemicals leaked onto Ava Guarani land and upended traditional customs.

“Serious environmental damages have severe impacts on indigenous people’s family life, tradition, identity and even lead to the disappearance of their community,” said committee member Hélène Tigroudja. “It dramatically harms the existence of the culture of the group as a whole.”

In the complaint, the community said the runoff had killed many of its animals, including chickens and ducks, while also hurting its crops and poisoning the surrounding land and waters.

Unable to hunt, fish or forage as they once had, the Ava Guarani had no choice but to stop many of their traditional ceremonies, the decision said. They couldn’t build their jerokyha dance houses without the proper forest materials, or prepare kagüi, a special liquor, because many of the ingredients had disappeared.

Without these ceremonies, and as the years passed without government action, children in the community stopped learning Ava Guarani traditions. Other community members moved off the land in search of healthier, more sustainable places to live.

The committee also said that the commercial farming activity had violated the Ava Guarani’s sense of “home,” the definition of which includes relationships with territory, livestock, crops and other ways of life.

“‘Home’ is not only the traditional Western conception of an apartment or a house,” Tigroudja told Mongabay. “It may also include different elements of the way of living of Indigenous communities. It’s really an opening up of the definition that is more inclusive to Indigenous peoples.”

She added, “We hope that when other human rights bodies deal with the same kind of issues, they will use this definition of ‘home’ as a roadmap.”

The Ava Guarani community, located in Paraguay’s Canindeyú department on the border with Brazil, first filed a complaint with local authorities in 2009, claiming that the fumigation was causing health problems for many of its 201 residents. Officials carried out onsite visits, interviews and environmental hazard tests over the course of five years, but never took concrete action to stop the fumigation, according to the complaint.

Paraguay’s Public Ministry did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. The Curuguaty municipal government could not be reached.

It wasn’t until 2019, after several complaints had been filed and the Ava Guarani’s case had ground to a halt, that community leaders turned to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, an international body made up of 18 independent human rights experts. Although the committee doesn’t have the legal authority to compel Paraguay to act, it offered a stern reminder that the country is legally obligated to address the Ava Guarani’s situation.

Tigroudja pointed out that Paraguay is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees individuals effective legal remedies when their human rights have been violated.

“Politically speaking, it’s up to the state to decide to apply our decision or not,” she said. “I really hope they do because the extensive use of pesticides in Paraguay is dramatic. It’s not a new situation.”

Over the last 30 years, Paraguay’s economy has increasingly relied on commercial agriculture, especially soybeans and beef from cattle ranching. In 2019, the country exported $1.58 billion of soybeans and nearly $1 billion in beef, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity.

But economic gains have often come at the expense of Indigenous communities, who suffer from some of the world’s worst land distribution inequality, the result of decades of agrarian reform programs that, in some cases, gifted land to power players close to the government.

Cattle graze on deforested land in rural Paraguay. (Image via Wikimedia)

Between 1987 and 2012, Paraguay deforested nearly 40,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) of forest and grassland, while registering around 87% land use change, according to one study.

“Paraguayan commercial agriculture is capital and land intensive, characterized by heavy equipment and agrichemicals, and for these reasons, it has become a symbol of national progress for the country’s elites,” said Warren Thompson, an anthropologist who has been working with Paraguayan Indigenous communities for more than a decade. “Yet it is worth asking who wins and who loses in this ‘success.’”

President Mario Abdo has made some efforts to return land to internally displaced Indigenous communities while also ensuring his government adheres to a strict zero-deforestation law. The government last year also implemented a deforestation monitoring system.

Yet despite these efforts, and the fact that the country has many other laws and institutions in place to help regulate commercial agriculture, the U.N. committee said there’s a lack of political willingness in the Paraguayan government when economic gains start to threaten local communities.

“The domestic avenues do exist but they are not effective,” Tigroudja said, “and when the government receives these complaints, what we have seen is that it doesn’t do anything on the administrative level or on the criminal level.”

Citations:

Baumann, M., Israel, C., Piquer-Rodríguez, M., Gavier-Pizarro, G., Volante, J. N., & Kuemmerle, T. (2017). Deforestation and cattle expansion in the paraguayan chaco 1987–2012. Regional Environmental Change17(4), 1179-1

Banner image: The remains of a forest look over soy fields in the Chaco. Image by Rhett Butler

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