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Paraguayan Mennonites hit back at criticism of environmental record

John Vidal, Guardian
How did this Christian sect go from Biblical exhortations for stewardship of the Earth to outright exploitation and dominion?

What is it with Mennonites? Two weeks ago I wrote a piece from Paraguay on how the vast dry forest known as the Gran Chaco was being felled at an alarming rate mainly by people from this Christian fundamentalist sect.

Having fled from persecution in eastern Europe 80 years ago, they went to one of the most inhospitable places on earth and by the sweat of their brow – and a lot of help from the indigenous peoples on whom they depended – they have survived in the wilderness. But now, it seems they have moved from Biblical exhortations for stewardship of the Earth to outright exploitation and dominion. They have bought up nearly 2m hectares, worth, these days, in the region of $600m (£382m), made themselves fabulously wealthy from a $100m-a-year meat and dairy business, and are now in danger of totally destroying an unique ecosystem, indigenous peoples and all.

The piece I wrote went down like a lead balloon in parts of Paraguay where the Mennonites are powerful industrialists. Here’s a declaration by the Mennonite community, from a full-page advertisement placed in one newspaper:

We don’t understand why foreigners make such a big deal about some situations in Paraguay, that to the Paraguayans are really not that important. Livestock production and rearing have been attacked in a totally incomprehensible way …

Now, not all Mennonites are the same, indeed I know of some in Canada who appear to be fully aware of the environment and “creation care”. But the Paraguayan group behind this appear be insular, over-defensive and obsessed with physical expansion and capitalism. Moreover, they seem ignorant of their impact on the environment and unable to accept criticism.
(22 October 2010)

Food Security as If Women Mattered: A Story from Kerala

Ananya Mukherjee-Reed, OneWorld/Asia
Kerala, hailed as God’s own country, attributes its high development indices to the local women. Through their group Kudumbashree, these women have not only rejuvenated the local agrarian economy but also brought about a social transformation in the way women are perceived. Ananya Mukherjee-Reed explores the myriad achievements of Kusumbashree as she travels across the state.

Kerala, a state of approximately 32 million people in southern India, is well-known for its human development successes. In terms of every major human development index, Kerala has consistently ranked the highest in comparison to other Indian states as well as other countries in the developing world. What is most notable about these successes, however, are the social processes through which they have come about. A history of mobilisations from above and below and synergies between ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ have resulted in a culture of collective social experimentation which is quite unique, although, obviously not free of complexity or contradictions.

One aspect of this dynamic has been the role of women. While Kerala’s women have historically enjoyed remarkably better levels of literacy, healthcare, maternal health and so on, their social positioning or public participation had not improved commensurately. But that is about to undergo a dramatic change. In fact, by the time you finish reading the piece, a new chapter in Kerala’s social history may well have begun.

For the first time, 50% of the seats in Kerala’s local body elections are reserved for women, with some 40,000 women aiming for political office.

… Kudumbashree has many different activities, but the one I observed is an innovative approach to solving the crisis of food security.

Some 250,000 Kudumbashree women throughout Kerala have come together to form farming collectives which jointly lease land, cultivate it, use the produce to meet their consumption needs and sell the surplus to local markets. Currently, these collectives are farming on an approximate area of 25000 hectares, spread throughout the 14 districts of Kerala. The idea is to increase the participation of women in agriculture, and in particular, to ensure that women, as producers, have control over the production, distribution and consumption of food.

This strategy for involving women in agriculture comes at a very crucial time for Kerala. As in most parts of the world, vast quantities of Kerala’s agricultural land has been diverted towards residential and commercial development. At the same time, fall in agricultural prices and rising wages have made farming an unprofitable activity – leading to a continuous fall in food production in the state. It is in this context that Kerala has developed its food security strategy. Unlike the standard approaches to food security; it goes beyond the question of food distribution to the realm of food production. Indeed, as global movements like the Via Campesina have been trying to assert, unless the production of food is enhanced and the real producers of food have control over the food economy, there can be no food security.
(24 October 2010)

Venezuela: From Agribusiness to Agroecology?

Juan Reardom,
An Analysis of Venezuela’s Nationalization of AgroIsleña

On Sunday, October 3rd, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez made public another remarkable opportunity for agroecology and food sovereignty advocates worldwide as he announced the effective nationalization of AgroIsleña, the transnational agribusiness firm that was – before Chavez signed Decree Number 7.700 – Venezuela’s main distributor of agrochemical inputs. Now under state control, the company has been re-named AgroPatria, meaning “AgroHomeland.”

From an agroecological perspective, the question to ask is: Will the newly born AgroPatria serve to advance an agroecological conversion of Venezuela’s agroecosystems, or will it make state policy the distribution of destructive Green Revolution inputs and technologies, with their pervasive social, economic and environmental consequences?

… President Chávez went on to discuss comments made by Venezuelan agroecologist Miguel Ángel Nuñez, reaffirming the agroecologist’s position that, “AgroIsleña has numerous social, labor and environmental debts [with society]. In fact, in reality, by nationalizing the firm we are beginning to cancel a historic debt with the Venezuelan countryside.” Chávez insisted that the decision to act was made “to make sure, at all costs, that AgroIsleña would not keep using extortion against our campesinos – with their high prices and exaggerated interests on loans and credits, not to mention the imposition of an agrotoxic package and transnational ecocide that deteriorates our soils with products that provoke long-term damage to the environment.”

In the original piece cited by Chávez, agroecologist Nuñez laid out AgroIsleña’s debts to Venezuelan society in the following ways: 53 years as the main promoter, source and supplier of toxic agrochemicals; Monopolistic practices that tricked many small- and medium-sized producers into indebting themselves to the firm; Purchasing their own products abroad at preferential exchange rates, while speculating with prices paid by producers within Venezuela; Elevated costs of technical support and assistance, and ever-increasing farmer dependency as a result of the high chemical-input strategies the firm promoted.[9]

… Days after the creation of AgroPatria, the government announced 50% reductions in the price of agrochemical inputs such as glyphosate, the basis of Monsanto’s infamous RoundUp herbicide, arguing smallholder farmers would finally find fair prices for said inputs.

… From Agribusiness to Agroecology?

As AgroPatria takes on its new role in Venezuelan society – a role that has yet to be clearly defined – it is vital that Green Revolution technologies and ideologies of the past not limit the development of a truly just, sustainable rural economy in Venezuela. As has now been experienced for decades by rural people of the Global South, the so-called “Green Revolution” may increase crop productivity for some time (so long as costly chemical inputs are available), but its destructive effects on human health and the environment, the resulting loss of agrobiodiversity, rural traditions, cultures and knowledge associated with sustainable agroecosystem management, as well as the mass rural to urban migrations tied to these exclusionary technologies are all part of the ever-so-costly technological package sold, until recently, by AgroIsleña and its affiliates.

… While there are clear contradictions in the development of Venezuela’s socialist national food system, there are two important factors to consider.

First, as a result of the aforementioned nationalizations, the Venezuelan government now plays a decisive role in national food production, distribution and consumption. It can now influence strongly the nature of loans to farmers (both big and small, individual and cooperative). It can also design and implement national plans for the production, storage and distribution of seeds as well as transportation networks in general, storage of production, processing, distribution, commercialization, and yes, the use (or removal from the market) of a large array of synthetic chemical inputs. As an example, the Venezuelan government now controls 51% of the nation’s grain storage capacity, ensuring a more just relationship between producer and storage silo operators – because private operators will be forced to adapt to state-established prices.

… Second, as La Vía Campesina has pointed out for years and as was ratified by agroecologist Miguel Altieri in his Monthly Review article of 2009,[19] smallholder farmers are actually more productive and resource conserving than their larger counterparts. In the struggle to establish a truly sovereign, socially just and environmentally balanced food system model that can meet the needs of the Venezuelan people (today, and for generations to come), the role of the small farmer must be recognized, respected, rescued (where it has faced attacks by the likes of AgroIsleña) and encouraged (through agrarian reform and government support for smallholder farmers). Altieri provides interesting figures as they relate to the productivity of the smallholder farmer who uses polyculture systems: …
(19 October 2010)
About is an independent website produced by individuals who are dedicated to disseminating news and analysis about the current political situation in Venezuela.

The site’s aim is to provide on-going news about developments in Venezuela, as well as to contextualize this news with in-depth analysis and background information. The site is targeted towards academics, journalists, intellectuals, policy makers from different countries, and the general public.


Britain is growing greener at the expense of the rest of the world

Tony Juniper, The Observer
While we comfort ourselves with our conservation and recycling, we pollute other nations through our greed

…. in the UK we are greener than ever. Our air quality has improved dramatically – “pea soup” killer smog has been consigned to the history books. We have cleaned up power stations and banned ozone-destroying chemicals. We have nature reserves and some of our most polluted rivers have enjoyed a dramatic renaissance. We are planting more trees and many toxic pesticides have been banned. We have even made progress in improving household recycling rates. So what is the problem?

Part of the trouble is that we have simply exported a lot of the environmental damage we cause. In the age of globalisation, we can live greener here because we have sent the pollution and habitat destruction somewhere else. For the past few years, it has become fashionable to close down conversations about what we need to do to protect the environment by asking: “What about China?”, the implication being that China is causing such vast environmental impact as to render our efforts pointless.

There is no doubt that China’s footprint, and those of several other fast developing economies, has increased hugely and in a short time. But a lot of the pollution and environmental damage is being done in order to supply us, and other western countries, with consumer goods, chemicals, ships, steel and other modern essentials.
(18 October 2010)