(Tierramérica) – Brazil could give up its dubious rank as the world’s number one consumer of agrochemicals without decreasing the amount of food it produces for its own people, according to João Pedro Stédile, leader of the Landless Workers Movement (MST).
On lands settled by small farmers as part of the agrarian reform process, a change of mentality is already underway towards food production in harmony with the environment, Stédile told Tierramérica.
For the last three consecutive years, Brazil, an agricultural giant, has occupied first place worldwide in the consumption of agricultural herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. It had risen to second place behind the United States in 2006, but took over the top spot in 2008 after a record soybean harvest.
A study by the German market research firm Kleffmann Group, commissioned by the National Association for Plant Protection, which represents agrochemical manufacturers, confirmed that Brazil is the world’s leading market for agrochemicals.
Over seven billion dollars were spent on these products in 2008, while the area of cultivated land decreased by two percent.
Nevertheless, the amount of chemical products used per farmer in Brazil is relatively small compared to other countries. In 2007, an average of 87.8 dollars per hectare were spent on agrochemicals in Brazil, compared to 196.7 dollars in France and 851 dollars in Japan.
The five biggest transnationals in this sector – BASF, Bayer, Syngenta, DuPont and Monsanto – all have manufacturing plants in Brazil.
This situation has led the MST to broaden its focus beyond its original purpose of pushing for the effective implementation of agrarian reform. The organisation currently represents some 20,000 members throughout Brazil, and works alongside 60,000 rural families in pressuring the government to distribute idle farmland and improve the conditions on those areas already settled by small family farmers. Stédile spoke with Tierramérica about the movement’s current concerns.
Q: It seems the MST is longer just a protest movement and has moved on to address other areas, like protecting the environment and opposing the use of toxic agrochemicals.
A: We have learned in the last 10 years that having land and producing food is not enough. It is important to produce healthy food. There has been a process of growing awareness within the movement itself.
We have begun to work on promoting the adoption of agro-ecological techniques to produce food in harmony with the environment.
Agronomists are trained under the model of the Green Revolution and the intensive use of poisons. We have had to start from zero and work in cooperation with universities to create agronomy courses that adopt an agro-ecological approach.
Over the last few years there has been growing alarm around the world regarding the effects of toxic agrochemicals, and this was when Brazil became the country that uses the most agricultural poisons. Aside from the global alert, the National Cancer Institute announced that there are more than 40,000 new cases of stomach cancer every year, and in half of those cases it is fatal. The cause is contaminated food.
Q: Are the rural workers’ settlements established through agrarian reform a means to reduce the use of agrochemicals?
A: There may be small farmers in some regions of the country who still use these chemicals. However, the number of farmers in agrarian reform settlements using poisons would be insignificant.
It is entirely possible to maintain the same output of food produced for consumption in Brazil without using a single kilogram of poison.
There is enough scientific knowledge to stop using these poisons, and there is plenty of land and labour to grow food in Brazil. This is one of the great contradictions of agribusiness. It is precisely on these large landholdings that it has been impossible to produce crops without poisons, because they have replaced human labour with machines, while family farms and agrarian reform settlements enjoy this advantage.
Q: Can agrarian reform settlements and small farmers help counteract the new rise in food prices?
A: Yes, because prices have risen in the supermarkets due to the monopoly held by companies that control the world agricultural market.
In Brazil, our agricultural production increases every year, and yet prices continue to rise. According to free-market logic, when production rises, prices fall. But this is not happening, because the oligopolies that control the world market manipulate prices, and the Brazilian economy is held hostage by them.
Small farmers who produce food for the local market are able to escape this control.
Q: The MST has been accused by some of being co-opted by the government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011), and criticised by others for being overly combative and violent. What is the MST’s profile today?
A: It is a dynamic social movement and within it there are many contradictions and problems regarding the ways in which it acts in each state of the country.
Everyone in society sees the MST through their own lens. We are engaged in an ongoing struggle, and a lot depends on each particular state in Brazil. We organise marches, and occupations of large landholdings and public buildings, but in different states one aspect is sometimes emphasised more than another.
We have never lost control during any of our occupations, not even when we occupied the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) or the headquarters of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES).
Today the MST needs to offer answers and organise the population around other problems, and that is why we are now involved in agro-ecology and education.
*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.