Rural Women Protest Use of Toxic Agrochemicals [3-3-11]

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Mar 3 (IPS) - Thousands of women farmers in Brazil demonstrated this week against the use of toxic weedkillers and International Womens Daypesticides on crops and in favour of agricultural techniques that protect their families' health.

Under the slogan "Women Against the Violence of Agribusiness and Agrotoxins; For Land Reform and Food Sovereignty", members of the international peasant movement Via Campesina, together with other organisations working for the rights of women and the rural population, demonstrated Tuesday and Wednesday in six Brazilian states.

According to the Brazilian Crop Protection Association (AENDA), which represents producers of farm chemicals, Brazil uses more than one billion litres of agricultural chemicals a year, making it the top consumer country since 2009 of weedkillers and insecticides that have toxic effects on living organisms, including human beings.

Amanda Matheus, a national coordinator for the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), told IPS that the use of agrochemicals that harm the environment is the result of an agricultural production model biased towards agribusiness, or large-scale export-oriented agricultural production.

The model "is driven by an alliance between large landowners and transnational corporations that gain control of the land and invest in monoculture plantations, such as sugarcane and eucalyptus," she said.

"The system produces primarily for export, while it degrades the environment and land ownership becomes ever more concentrated," said the MST leader, who was taking part in a protest in front of the National Development Bank (BNDES) in Rio de Janeiro.

The state-run bank was targeted because small-farmer organisations complain that the bulk of its lending goes to "transnational corporations that grow monocultures of sugarcane and eucalyptus."

The bank's policy means that less credit is available for loans to finance education and health projects, they complain.

The BNDES made no comment about the protest, but in response to constant criticism on those grounds, its website states that its financial support for agricultural and livestock projects "is conditional on environmental impact assessment."

The bank argues that it finances agribusiness projects because the sector boosts production, as well as playing another extremely important role in the Brazilian economy: "It is the principal source of the country's trade surplus."

The protests were held in the states of Bahia, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, Rio Grande do Sul and Sao Paulo. The organisers said they are part of the actions to mark International Women's Day, which will be celebrated Mar. 8.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 peasant women were estimated to have participated in the protests, according to different sources.

The aim of the demonstrations, they said, is to change the agricultural production model to one based on "agroecology, biodiversity, family agriculture organised in cooperatives, and the production of healthy food."

The goal of the model they seek, said Matheus, is "an agrarian reform that not only redistributes the land, but also creates the conditions for providing a livelihood" for small farmers, as well as protecting "biodiversity and food sovereignty."

"We have to produce high-quality food to feed our people in the countryside and in the cities," the MST leader said.

The Agriculture Ministry says the Brazilian government is a guarantor of the quality of food.

In a communiqué issued in late 2010, the ministry highlighted a study conducted by its experts who analysed substances that could be harmful to health, like agrochemicals and veterinary products.

The study was based on 19,235 samples of animal origin, including beef, pork, horsemeat, poultry, milk, eggs, honey and fish, and found that "99.83 percent were within the guidelines established by the National Residues and Contaminants Monitoring Plan," the ministry said.

However, the report does not specifically mention levels of toxic chemicals in farm products.

The demonstrators protested against these arguments in a number of ways.

In the northeastern state of Bahia, for example, they occupied the Cedro estate belonging to Veracel, a Brazilian-Swedish transnational pulp and paper company, to protest its allegedly illegal planting of eucalyptus plantations to supply its mills.

In the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul they condemned so-called "bioplastics," made from sugarcane, for being "as harmful and polluting" as plastic derived from petroleum. (END/2011

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