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The agribusiness sector concentrates land, water, and income. Its production is mainly for export, creating profits for a privileged elite at a very high socio-environmental cost. The irrigation of monoculture consumes 70% of the country’s water. Its machines are substituted for manual labor in the countryside, in a country whose greatest problem is unemployment. In the states where agribusiness has expanded, privately-sponsored violence is growing, along with repression through the power of the Judiciary.


Violence and Aggression against Human Rights in the Wake of Agribusiness

Antônio Canuto

  On a daily basis, the media presents agribusiness as a synonym of progress and development. It is presented as responsible for the constant surpluses in trade balance, as a standard bearer of the economy. All other forms of farm work are seen as out of date and archaic. Any objection that can be made to it is labeled as backwardness. 

 However, in the name of “development and progress,” anything goes. Even human rights are left behind. We can say that they are simply and systematically “trounced”.

 In this paper we will try to analyze the relationship between the agribusiness sector and respect for human rights.

Workers call for work and dignity

 With frightening aggression, agribusiness touches on the right to property and to work, which is proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (articles 17 and 23) and guaranteed by the Brazilian Constitution (Art. 5 XXII and Art. 6).

 “Contrary to what it preaches, agribusiness generates few jobs, besides promoting concentration of land and expelling workers from the land.

*Secretary of the National Pastoral Commission on Land (Comissão Pastoral da Terra, CPT)

 According to P. Fearnside, professor at the National Research Institute for the Amazon Region (INPA), the cultivation of soy creates only one job for every 167-200 hectares due to its high degree of mechanization. For farms to be profitable, especially those in dense soy production, they need to be in an area of around one thousand hectares minimum, which causes an extreme concentration of land and profit. The introduction of soy cultivation in the South was responsible for a considerable decrease in family properties. Soy displaced small producers of corn, beans, other basic foods, and coffee in the southern region. For each worker that found employment in soybean farming, 11 farmers were displaced. As a result, 2.5 million people left the rural areas in Paraná in the 70’s, lowering the number of rural properties by 109 thousand in Paraná and by 300 thousand in Rio Grande do Sul.

 Today, the same process is taking place in the North and Northeast of the country with the expulsion of the native populations. In Santarem, Pará, two villages already disappeared after the arrival of rice and soy growers. In Mato Grosso state (the biggest soy producer), the area for cultivation increased from 56 thousand hectares in 1980 to 4.5 million hectares in 2002/3. Farms with more than 10 thousand hectares went from 643 in 1980 to 767 in 1996, increasing the cultivated area from 17.8 million to 20.6 million hectares. During the same period, the number of properties with fewer than 10 hectares decreased from 23,902 to 9,801.[1]

 The number of jobs in the country keeps falling, in spite of agribusiness claims that it is responsible for a growth in the number of jobs. An article in the daily Folha de São Paulo (9/12/04), “Mechanization increases the lines of the landless”, by Tiago Ornaghi shows how modernization of the agribusiness sector is generating a wave of unemployed that will swell the camps of the landless throughout the country. According to Ernani Lopes Sobrinho, manager of the Rural Agency of Goias, part of the Department of Agriculture of the State of Goias, in this year of 2004, 3,095 families left farm jobs and went to the camps. Consequently the number of families in encampments increased from 6.5 thousand to 10.5 thousand in the state.

 Wander Carlos de Souza, mayor of Acreuna, a little town in Goias, is the biggest producer of cotton in the country. In May this year he dismissed 2 thousand workers, after having acquired 18 picking machines in a farmers’ fair in Ribeirão Preto (SP). The workers, now camped on the edges of the highways, are left to pick up the leftovers that the machines leave on the ground after they go by. [2]

[1] Canuto, Antônio – Agribusiness – Exclusion for productivity – in Mutirao for a new Brazil – Topics in Debate – 4th Social Brazilian Week (2004-2006), p. 106-108.

[2] Folha de São Paulo – 12/09/04  pg B 8

Slave Labor

 The right to work is still attacked in a violent manner by subjecting the worker to conditions analogous to slave labor. Article IV of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: “Nobody shall be kept in slavery or servitude; slavery and the traffic of slaves shall be prohibited in all its forms.” The agribusiness sector has managed to wed the highest technology with the most backward labor relations.

 “Complaints about the practice of slave labor in sugar cane farms are increasing in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and in the Northeast. In Pará, manual slave labor is being used to open new areas, many of them illegally occupied. In June 2004, the mobile inspection group of the Ministry of Labor liberated 120 workers in four farms in Campo Novo do Parecis municipality, MT. According to labor attorney Eder Sivers, who accompanied the action, the members of the mobile group were surprised at the contrast seen in the properties. “We saw high technology used in the fields: modern pickers and tractors equipped with GPS, many had yet to be used; but one can’t understand the treatment dispensed to the workers. They were staying in improvised lodgings in the woods, without the minimum conditions of hygiene and safety and without the possibility of transportation”. [3]

In Mato Grosso, denunciations of slave labor continue. According to the Campaign to Combat Slave Labor of the CPT, by early August 2004, accusations were made about 16 cases of properties with exploitation of slave labor, involving 582 workers. Nine of them were inspected and 253 workers were liberated.

 Up to the end of June the Mobile Group performed very well and the press gave good coverage to its actions. According to the CPT of Mato Grosso, governor Blairo Maggi would have shown Labor Minister Ricardo Berzoini that the inspection was creating a negative image of the state and could hurt its exports. The pressure from the governor is producing results. The allegations no longer get the prompt attention they got earlier. And the press hasn’t issued any news of actions from inspections as they had been doing. The interests of agribusiness are placed before the rights of the people in a most blatant manner. Senator Jonas Pinheiro, also from Mato Grosso, met with the labor minister to ask for a reevaluation of rural properties that appear on the list of farms that have repeated incidents of slave labor. According to the senator “many of these properties are considered models in the state for their infrastructure and for the way they treat their employees; to include them in this list, which is considered by all a list of properties that utilize slave labor, was an exaggeration, as this label not only prevents their access to credit, but also denigrates their image in the national and international market, and that hurts business”. [4] Berzoini accepted the proposition, in spite of having said that the federal government is not going to tolerate crimes against workers.

[3] Canuto, Antônio –  Ibidem, pg 109

[4] Folha do Estado – Cuiabá – 27 de agosto de 2004 – Jonas pede perdão a ministro por fazendeiros escravocratas.

The right to health is in danger

Every person has the right to a standard of living that will ensure him/herself and his/her family health and well being... (Declaration of Human Rights, article XXV).

 The right to health is another human right that the agribusiness sector doesn’t recognize.

 The agribusiness sector is responsible for the use of the most varied types of pesticides at a very high level. FAO, the UN agency for food, rates Brazil as the third major consumer of pesticides in the world. The application of so many poisons in agriculture has very serious consequences in human health as well as in the environment.

 A three-years study done by doctors and students in the Health Watch Program of Populations Exposed to Pesticides, by the University of Campinas, coordinated by Prof. Angelo Trape, presents alarming data. The research concluded that around 1.5 million workers and farmers, exposed to prolonged contact with pesticides, are contaminated and present renal, dermatological, neurological, hepatic or gastrointestinal problems. The research, done in the metropolitan area of Campinas, proved that 7.5% of workers showed adverse effects related to prolonged exposition to the poisons. The coordinator says that if this is the indicator in this region where workers have more access to information, it could be higher in other regions of the country where information is not as accessible.

 Another study carried out in Pernambuco indicated hearing loss in 63% of 98 people who had contact with pesticides. Suicides might also be related to the use of pesticides, since they reach the central nervous system and cause depression. [5]

 César Augusto Sandri, a professor of Ethics at the College of Agronomy of Miners, has been observing a surprising number of premature births in that city. He suspects that the cause may be the use of poisons in the soy plantations, which begin immediately where the city streets end. In Mineiros, a city near Chapadão, the same phenomenon has been observed, with an aggravating factor: a large number of unplanned abortions. The academic researched the case and found in the newspaper Tribuna da Imprensa of Rio de Janeiro (12/5/2003), material from reporter Antonio Avellar that  mentions a study done in Ontario, Canada, that proves that Glyphosate is causing abortions and premature births in rural families of that region.

[5] Sandri, César Augusto – Efeitos dos Agrotóxicos na População de Goiás – in Fórum Articulação Soja – /forumnovo/casosrelatados.asp.