Argentina’s soy industry saved the nation from the 2001 economic crisis. But the impact of soy production on Argentinians and the environment in nearby regions has been devastating - and yet the state turns a blind eye.
The case of the Supreme Court in the Cordoba province was supposed to be a unique and somewhat historic moment in Argentina's judicial system. It was the first time ever that an Argentine judiciary dealt with the use of pesticides in agriculture. Two soybean producers and a pilot who sprayed the chemicals onto the fields were accused of violating safety regulations that prohibited the use of chemicals near residential areas. They were on trial for endangering the health of the residents of Itunzaingo, a suburb of the provincial capital Cordoba.
Yet, at the end of the three-month trial in August, the judge's verdict was considerably mild: a three-year suspended sentence and community service order for soy producer Francisco Parra and pilot Jorge Pancello. The third defendant was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The 'green poison'
"They're making us sick, they're killing our children, but they're not going to jail for it," Silvia Gatica said.Disappointment and anger are written all over her face. In 1989, just three days after she gave birth, Gatica lost her daughter to kidney failure. There were five similar cases in her neighborhood Ituzaingo alone, a community where deformities in newborns are mounting, and the number of people with cancer is double the national average. Silvia Gatica was sure this was no coincidence.
Ituzaingo is situated much like a small island in the middle of soy plantations. Aircraft and high-tech tractors regularly spray herbicides and insecticides such as glyphosate and endosulfan onto the fields. In 2004, Silvia Gatica and other mothers and residents pressed charges against the farmers. Now, a medical report confirmed that the poison does not only end up on crop fields, but can also be found within the residents' bodies - especially in children. “It was an achievement that the matter even went to court, but the judgment was a slap in the face,” Gatica said.
The case of Ituzaingo, however, is by no means an isolated case. About 340 million liters (90 million gallons) of pesticides are used in Argentina annually on 19 million hectares (73,400 square miles) of land where around 12 million residents reside. In 2009, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner appointed a commission of scientists and experts to examine the effects of agro-chemicals. Three years on, there has been no outcome.
The 'green gold'
"We know that a lot of pressure was put on the court," says doctor and co-plaintiff Medardo Avila Vazquez. The international agricultural company Monsanto wants to establish itself in the area around Cordoba, and its endeavors are supported by the government. "So it's a battle of us citizens against national and economic interests," he says. But last year's agricultural development plans reveal that soy and wheat cultivation will be expanded even further.
Argentinais the world's third-largest soy producer. Apart from meat, soy is the country's most important export commodity. The biggest purchases come from China, and in particular the European Union, where the oily bean is processed into bio-fuel and livestock feed. Its strong market price, globally, enabled soy to rescue Argentina from the severe economic crisis that hit in 2001, and the crop continues to play an important part of the country's revenue. In 2011, Argentina converted around 25 billion euros ($32 billion) from soy cultivation alone. Today, soy production is expanding more and more, even in the northern parts of Argentina, areas once considered too dry and uneconomical to produce soy. But with genetically modified seeds, which were introduced to Argentina in 1996, it's now deemed possible. The "green gold" soybean can be produced using virtually no water. However, the consequences for people and the environment are devastating.
From forest to desert
Argentina has lost 70 percent of its natural forest, much of it in the last 20 years, with increased soy production. Aerial photographs taken by Greenpeace Argentina reveal the extent of deforestation. One area especially affected is the ‘El Impermeable' or ‘impenetrable' savanna forest in the northern Chaco region. Provincial governments have welcomed the agricultural development ignoring those who have always lived in the forest - Argentina's indigenous communities.
The pastoral and livestock industry has meant indigenous people are increasingly being driven off their ancestral lands - even though the Argentine Constitution protects them and the Forests Act imposes clear limitations on deforestation. Although their rights are written in law, in practice, the situation is different, says Dario Aranda, freelance journalist and expert on the plight of indigenous Argentines, in an interview with an online TV station of a social organization. The mainstream media rarely reports on the issue and implications of soy cultivation. The agricultural lobbyists also have a great deal of influence on politicians as well as private media groups.
As much as the current government presents itself as progressive and against the interests of large corporations, it has shown little interest in setting itself up against the powerful agrarian lobby groups. Soy, for the state, represents money or the green gold. For Silvia Gatica, the mother from Ituzaingo, however, soy is a green poison that has that turned Argentina into a desert. Earlier this year, she received the "Goldman Environmental Prize," for her courageous battle against agricultural pesticides. She'll continue her fight, even if she knows: It is a fight of David against Goliath.