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.”
Paraguay is the fourth-largest exporter of soybeans in the world. The number of hectares dedicated to soy cultivation has more than doubled over the past decade. In 1995, 800,000 hectares of soy were cultivated; in 2003 it reached 2 million.
According to Palau, soy production in 2006-07 will occupy 2.46 million hectares. Much of the soy is cultivated by transnational agribusinesses and Brazilian immigrants, so-called “brasiguayos,” who moved to Paraguay for its inexpensive land and cheaper operating costs.
According to Palau, “The increase in soy acreage has come about by asking to buy or rent farmers’ property. When there are zones particularly resistant to soy, and the farmers refuse to sell or rent their land, the companies use ‘gangster’ tactics.” This impending monoculture represents a double-edged sword for Paraguayan farmers: Those who maintain their plots, despite the incentives and scare tactics, are subject to the health hazards of pesticide exposure, while those to sell their holdings join the inflated numbers of landless farmers currently living in Paraguay. According to Palau, the number of landless farmers is estimated to be between 250,000 to 800,000 people. These numbers, however, depend on one’s working definition of “landless,” which Palau defines as holding less than five hectares, “the minimum amount of land that can support an average-sized Paraguayan family.” “Official” statistics, Palau said, reduce these numbers by ascribing to a more literal definition of “landlessness.”
Seventy-five to 80 percent of Paraguayan-grown soy is cultivated from transgenic seeds that rely on herbicide sprays to maximize their yield per acreage. Environmentally related health problems are common among Paraguayan farmers exposed to herbicide fumigations. Silvino’s two sisters, Patricia and Sofia, also have been hospitalized for herbicide-related illnesses; and Sofia’s son Vidal, Petrona’s grandchild, was born with hydrocephalus, a brain malformation that may be attributed to agrotoxic exposure (he died when he was 5 months old).
Upon pressing charges, Petrona found herself the subject of neglect, harassment and even death threats from her neighbors in Pirapey 35. According to Petrona, a large percentage of the residents in Pirapey 35 work for Schlender and Laustenlager and received financial bonuses for threatening and intimidating Petrona and her family. “I’ve lived in Pirapey 35 for the last twenty-six years. They’ve only been living here for six years, but everyone has turned against me. I have no money or anything to offer them.”
The 2006 Supreme Court ruling was a vindication of sorts for the Petrona family and others damaged by agrochemicals. “Two years in jail feels like very little to me, given what they’ve done,” said Franco, yet the case still sets a very important legal precedent.
But months after the verdict, nothing much has changed in Pirapey 35. Schlender and Laustenlager are still living at home, less than a mile away from Petrona’s house. No one seems to be able to explain why. “They’re still in their house, they’re still spraying herbicides,” said Petrona, who’s pessimistic that the final verdict will amount to much. “They have the law in their pockets,” Petrona said. She remains resilient, and as she stares out her window at the panorama of soy enveloping her house, she recites vehemently, “I’ll fight till the day I die.”