Human Rights Experts Uncover Alarming Human and Environmental Costs of Agribusiness

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Experts observed high levels of agrochemical pollution, diminishing natural resources, and land grabbing, as well as significant impact on the health of traditional communities, resulting from increasing soy plantations.

A villager in northeastern Brazil holds two plastic bottles, one filled with waters polluted by agribusiness activity

The bottle on the right contains water polluted by agribusiness. Photo: Rosilene Miliotti /FASE

A delegation, comprised of 30 human rights, development and rural experts, verified the widespread environmental devastation that land grabs and expanding soy monocultures leave in their wake. Known as Caravana Matopiba, the international fact-finding mission that visited northeastern Brazil from September 6-10 points to striking human costs for communities living in the area.

Testimonies recorded by the delegation in the communities of Melancias, Baixão Fechado, Sete Lagoas, Brejo das Meninas, and Santa Fé all tell similar stories. The villagers suffer from diminishing water resources as a result of deforestation and high levels of agrochemical pollution, which causes serious health issues. This is triggered by the invasion of their traditional lands by land grabbers (locally known as grilheiros), who cut down the natural vegetation and falsify land titles to re-sell the land to agribusiness. During their visits, which took place in the south of Piaui, the team found clear indications that the environmental degradation is putting the communities’ rights to food, water and health at great risk.

Environmental impact: testimonies from the ground

Mr. Juarez, leader of the Melancias community, told the observers that pesticides used on the plantations flow directly into the river during the rainy season. This makes it impossible for them to use the water, as doing so would lead to a wide range of health problems, including nausea, vertigo, and skin irritation. Planes hover over plantations dropping pesticides, which are also picked up by wind and blown over the community. Female community members pointed out that the lower groundwater levels, resulting from the plantations, lead to the worsening of local harvests such as that of the Buriti palm.

The presence of large-scale farmers, developers, land grabbers, scouts and militias can be felt throughout the region. Community members are constantly intimidated and forced to leave their land, with some of them selling for a very low price. A high number of local families end up moving to the favelas of big cities where they are bound to live at the margins of society. On this note, the delegation came across the case of the community of Sete Lagoas, which recently reported 10 cases of intimidation against neighboring company Dahma, which arranges the “security” for the grilheiros. Despite a court order ruling in favor of the villagers, the threats continue.

The State of Brazil remains absent

The delegation saw a clear absence of the federal government in the communities. The State of Brazil fails to guarantee and protect the land and territorial rights and to ensure the application of public policies in the communities. Commenting on the visit, FIAN International’s Senior Advisor Flavio Valente, said: “The Brazilian state has not only been totally absent in protecting traditional communities against the plundering by land grabbers, but also criminal with the promotion of agro-industrial business in the area. This has led to a wave of unacceptable violence against the people with total impunity.”

Agribusiness companies operating in the area receive funding from pension funds based in the US, Canada, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany. The delegation recalls that these States must fulfill their extraterritorial obligations by ensuring activities of pension funds are not involved in human rights abuses and violations as well as the destruction of the environment in the region.

“It is very concerning that pension funds, including the US fund TIAA, are investing workers’ retirement savings in agribusinesses that pollute the water, deforest the countryside, and take land from local farmers,” said Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, Biofuels, Land Rights, and Food Security Campaigner for ActionAid USA. “In light of these outrageous findings, these pension funds need to respond to these allegations by immediately disclosing all of the details of the farmland they own, including their maps and internal reports.”

Public hearings and press conference

The testimonies by the communities, as well as observations and recommendations by the delegation, will be the subject of public hearings in Bom Jesus, Teresina, and Brasilia. A press conference for national and international media will follow on September 14 in Memorial da Procuradoria Geral da República (St. de Administração Federal Sul – Zona Cívico-Administrativa, Brasília/DF).

A preliminary report with recommendations will be shared with the Brazilian authorities, followed by a final report by the end of 2017.

For media inquiries, please contact Tristan Quinn-Thibodeau, National Campaigner for ActionAid USA, at tristan.quinn-thibodeau@actionaid.org.

Follow updates on social media via #CaravanaMatopiba and #BrazilLandGrab.

Notes to Editors:

The fact-finding mission, organized by FIAN International and Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos, FIAN Brazil and Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT) Piauí, includes the participation of: ActionAid International and Brazil, Aidenvironment; Cáritas Regional do Piauí; CPT Nacional; Escola de Formação Paulo de Tarso (EFPT – PI); Federação dos Agricultores Familiares (FAF); Federação dos Trabalhadores Rurais na Agricultura (FETAG-PI); HEKS/EPER International Institute of Social Studies; La Via Campesina International and CLOC-La Via Campesina, Maryknoll, Paróquia de Santa Filomena, Instituto Comradio do Brasil; Sindicato dos Trabalhadores Rurais de Santa Filomena; Vara e Procuradoria Agrária – PI, PROGEIA (Santa Filomena); and FIAN International’s sections in Germany, Netherlands and Sweden.