This steak doesn’t make sense

Author: Álvaro Porro

The global agri-food model leaves a trail. For example, if we follow the trail of soya we run into a poverty factory in Paraguay. But it doesn’t only leave a trail in the South; rural livestock owners in the Northern hemisphere use concentrated feed and the rich diet of city dwellers is packed with cholesterol. Nevertheless, there are people who are leaving a different trail. In this article we travel from the countryside in Paraguay to farms in Spain.

They came at night and put my grandchildren, my husband and me in a truck. My chickens and the pig were running around… My son got excited and started shouting. They hit him in the chest with the butt of a rifle. In the truck there were a lot of children. I was crying. They took us to the third area of Tekojoja; a lot of people got hit. I saw smoke in the distance and asked my husband if it was our house. He said no, it was further away. Afterwards they took us to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Vaquería and there we learnt that Ángel and Leoncio had been shot dead. I still remember their mother crying, she was quite old… Rafaela tells me what she remembers about the third eviction of over fifty families in her rural community in the centre of Paraguay, on 24 June 2005. On this occasion 150 people were arrested, 56 homes were burnt down, several hectares of crops were destroyed and two unarmed peasants were shot dead by a soya grower called Opperman. Rafaela is about 60. She’s a peasant who has no land, or at least has no legal title to land, like some 400,000 peasants in a country where 2% of the population own 75% of the land, a heritage of the country’s colonial past and the more recent dictatorship of General Stroessner.

Rafaela and her family lived for five years on a plot in a community in Tekojoja which they occupied with the Popular Agrarian Movement (MAP). The land had been allocated to peasant families without land under the agrarian reform scheme, but it was sold illegally to businessmen engaged in large-scale soya production. The sellers are public institutions and even peasants who took over the land at the time of the agrarian reform. Brazilian businessmen arrived with a few million guaraníes in their briefcases.[1] The peasant, who feels abandoned by the authorities and has never seen so much money, sells his plot and moves to the city. But there are no jobs there and the money from the sale runs out after a year and it’s not like Tekojoja: if you don’t have money, there’s no food, no house, no water, no firewood. Then people become hawkers or turn to prostitution. You can see how round Asunción more and more peasants are collecting in shanty towns and the only way they can live is by begging or stealing. Meanwhile, the lands they sold in Tekojoja have been planted with soya and sprayed with toxic chemicals. The same thing happens on the plot someone else sold a bit further along and another family who is in the middle has little choice but to leave: these men put the cash on their table, their cow is poisoned by the toxic chemicals and their house is fumigated. Gradually the community disintegrates. The speaker is Jorge Galeano, also from Tekojoja, and one of the leaders of the MAP. He tells us about the ‘poverty factory’, the relationship between the growth of the soya production industry and the growth of marginalised areas on the outskirts of cities.

Clash between development models

Soya entered Paraguay and other South American countries like a bull in a china shop, but it’s not plates that get broken: it’s people, families, communities, ways of life and ecosystems. Intensive livestock farming is the main force behind the rapidly growing world demand for soya. In six years, soya cultivation in Paraguay has risen by 83.7% and today it occupies half of the country’s agricultural land. The government and local authorities are promoting this growth because they see soya as a star export product that can rescue the stagnating Paraguayan GDP, making this forgotten Latin American country a soya-producing enclave. In this process of expansion, peasant communities, in a country where the rural population accounts for nearly 50%, are seen as an obstacle to progress, and this translates into an image of them as ‘idle layabouts who are holding up development’. However, certain facts and figures, and cases like that of Tekojoja raise questions about the type of development often associated with the agricultural exporting model: the five departments where the greatest development of soya has taken place are those with the highest levels of poverty and population displacement and the greatest concentration of income. In Tekojoja, the MAP is aware of this situation and is denouncing the illegal sale of public agrarian reform land to large- and medium-scale soya producers, normally Brazilian. Given the slow, tortuous course of Paraguayan justice, peasant families like Rafaela’s belonging to the organisation are occupying the ‘stolen’ lands. So far the courts have found in their favour but the soya industry’s legal power and media influence have succeeded in delaying a final sentence by repeated appeals. Meanwhile, there have been three illegal evictions of families from occupied plots, like the case described by Rafaela. They have been carried out by parapolice forces, soya growers with their own armed men and corrupt lawyers who try to give the process a legal appearance.

Tekojoja consists of three parallel dirt tracks along which, at 150-metre intervals, there are family plots with a house at the front and a garden at the back for growing the family’s food. If you cross the little stream at the end of these tracks, the change is radical: miles and miles of soya plantations, in what has come to be called the ‘green desert’. Between the rows of soya there is nothing, not even weeds, thanks to the use of glyphosate, the best and only friend of Monsanto’s genetically modified soya.[2] This ‘desert’ feeds two grain silos (one belonging to the local political boss, Arcadio, and the other to the multinational Cargill). From these, thousands of tonnes of soya start their journey round the world. The twenty metres on either side of the stream provide an almost insulting illustration of the contrast between the two models: on one side, agricultural exports and the global market, on the other, peasant agriculture and subsistence farming. The first model wants to take over the land and water of the second. To resist this pressure over the long term, the MAP proposes communal ownership and management of land, working hard to train people and raise awareness, supporting ecological models for agricultural production that give priority to self-supply and provide a balanced diet without importing seeds, chemicals, machinery, etc. What producers do not consume themselves can be sold collectively at local markets.

Access to local markets is vital for peasants but it has become increasingly difficult with the arrival of industrial agriculture and large distributors. I travel on to Ciudad del Este, in the far east of Paraguay, hundreds of kilometres from Tekojoja. There we visit a peasant market which has been restored by various organisations that are aware of the importance of local trade as opposed to the agricultural export model. This market is intended to offer wholesome, cheap and varied produce from peasant communities in the department to urban consumers who are sceptical about the supermarket culture now established in Paraguay. José and his fellow workers from the Alto Paraná Producers’ Centre tell us how this provides an outlet for their produce (carrots, different types of beans, cheese, etc.) and allows them to buy oil, salt, school supplies, soap, light bulbs, etc.

Josep, Alí and Jeorge: Three stories, one message

After my trip to Paraguay, Jorge Galeano, director of the MAP, visited Catalonia to attend the Popular Tribunal on the Soya Monoculture.[3] Spain is the fourth-largest importer of soya in the world: 5.5 million tonnes in 2004,[4] 92% of which is used to produce feed for livestock, especially pigs.

We travel to the Vic Plain (Barcelona). Building on its traditional livestock activity, it has become a key area for fattening pigs for the world market. There we visit Josep’s farm. He and his son have invested a lot in modernising their holding (400 pigs being fattened and 80 dairy cattle) so that they can keep the farm going. There are few such ‘small’ family businesses left. Josep tells us that many of his neighbours have given up farming: There used to be fifty of us with cows and now there are only three. They know that if they do not grow and modernise they have no future. Josep wonders sceptically if he should be pleased that his son wants to carry on with the farm. Jorge and I are surprised to see how the industrial feed (it has a high soya content) comes out of tanks and is carried along tubes to the feeding troughs. Press a button and you can feed as many pigs as you like, comments Josep. He has asked for another loan to build the slurry tank the Catalan Government obliges him to have. The concentration of animals on industrial farms on the Vic Plain has led to very high levels of soil and water pollution.

The following day we visit La Gleva, an agro-ecological cooperative in Barcelona’s Gràcia district, to take part in a debate. After Jorge has described the situation brought about by soya cultivation in Paraguay, we hear a speech by Alí, from the Afro-Colombian community in Cacarica. He tells us how his people have been displaced and repressed by paramilitaries for three years, following the introduction of African palm crops for export.[5] The parallels between Alí’s story and Jorge’s experience are almost obscene. Two stories of agricultural exploitation and global marketing closely linked to our cholesterol-rich diet and its attendant health problems: on the one hand, palm oil, which is rich in bad cholesterol, an ingredient in industrial pastry and fried food, and on the other hand, meat and cured meat packed with saturated fats. A chain from the seed to the consumer, which can hardly be said to promote life.

Beyond victims and guilty parties: agents for transformation

Now Jorge and Alí want to know how consumer cooperatives work. Àlex explains: We’ve organised ourselves to have access to wholesome, tasty food in line with certain social and ecological criteria we agree on. We look for local, agro-ecological products, from family holdings, and try to establish direct relations with the farmers. The cooperative’s daily activity could hardly be less like the soya and palm oil production chains. It favours the consumption of fresh, locally produced vegetables and a reduction in the consumption of meat, dairy products and industrial fried food. The supplier of dairy products (Mas Claperol) produces its own fodder and does not use industrial feed containing soya, while the cows belonging to meat supplier (Assumpta Codinachs) migrate seasonally to pasture in El Pallars in the Pyrenees. Moreover, the cooperative’s premises are not only a food store. It is also a cultural centre supported by the cooperative, which hosts talks like the one we are attending today, video sessions, parties, concerts, etc. They have organised a popular quarterly exchange market in the street and take part in activities aimed at bringing about social change. Jorge comments: What attracts me about this initiative of yours is that it goes beyond consumption. It’s about building a different kind of society.

[1] One million guaraníes are worth 145 euros.

[2] Information from the documentary Tres historias y un vaso de leche [Three stories and a glass of milk]

[4] No te comas el mundo campaign: Cuando la ganadería española se come el mundo. La soja mata. [When Spanish Livestock Farming Eats the World. Soya Kills], 2005. Available at:

[5] See the section on ‘Trampas’ in issue No. 13 of Opcions.