Petrona Villasboa and her husband, Juan Talavera, live with their nine children at the end of a long dirt road. The view from their front window shows a landscape dominated by soy, sowed into hundreds of tidy rows that extend to the horizon. In the town of Pirapey 35, a community of 1,600 people in the southern state of Itapua, Paraguay, “Petrona’s house” is nearly an institution. Her household bears the constant influx of neighbors and relatives; yet Petrona says that the house “feels empty inside.”
Petrona’s third-youngest son, Silvino Talavera, died four years ago at the age of 11. Silvino was walking home from school one day, taking his normal route through a neighboring soy plantation growing Monsanto RoundUp Ready hybrid seeds, which require regular doses of a potent herbicide to thrive. He was fifteen meters from his home when he was enveloped in a cloud of the Monsanto herbicide cocktail RoundUp sprayed from a cropduster. He arrived home barely able to breathe. Silvino was rushed to the nearest hospital, where he died five days later, on January 7, 2003.
On January 11, 2003, Petrona pressed charges against the plantation owners, Hermann Schlender and Alfred Laustenlager, accusing them of homicide. “It was a strange case from the beginning,” said Petrona’s lawyer, Juan Martens Molas. “By law, the procedures for Silvino’s case could last for a maximum of three years. We were running against the clock.” Under the law, if the case were still unsettled after the three-year mark, the defendants would be exempt from any form of punishment. “Without a doubt, this practice is taken advantage of by people with a lot of political or economic power, who can influence judges and prosecutors, and allows them to interfere with the law, which is exactly what they tried to do in Silvino’s case,” said Martens.
“They tried offering me and my lawyer money at first so that I wouldn’t talk to the court. They offered each of us $10,000. I told them that I didn’t care about the money, only justice. If I just accepted the money they could just continue spraying their poison,” said Petrona.
Nearly four years later, on November 29, 2006, the Paraguayan Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling, and the two landholders were sentenced to two years in prison. This decision set a fundamental precedent, as it is the first case of legal action against death caused by agrochemicals. “This is a great step forward in the fight for a clean environment, free of agrotoxins,” said Martens.
The trial was not easily won. Nine months after Petrona pressed charges, the Supreme Court of the City of Encarnación sentenced Schlender and Laustenlager to two years in prison. However, the defendants appealed the decision. According to Paraguayan law, the court had fifteen days to decide on the appeal. For Schlender and Laustenlager, this decision took more than a year.
The appeal sparked a national solidarity movement. “The case of Silvino Talavera helped to form a coalition of various institutions from all over the country and the world,” said Tomas Palau, a sociologist at BASE-IS, a center for social investigation in the capital city of Asunción. The nucleus of this coalition was a group known as CONAMURI, the National Coordinator of Rural and Indigenous Women. “CONAMURI supported Petrona from the beginning,” said Julia Franco, secretary of public relations for CONAMURI. “Also, we organized the national and international solidarity movement that paid for the lawyer and the other costs of Silvino’s case.”