July 23, 2017

Killing off small farms in Brazil

Dr José Lutzenberger (often known as “Lutz”) is an agronomist living in Brazil, where he was minister for the environment. Here he tells Teddy Goldsmith about the regulatory obstacles he faces on his organic farm in Rio Grande do Sul.

Published in The Ecologist Report, June 2001.


Edward Goldsmith: Lutz, among your many activities, you produce organic food in Rio Grande do Sul? As we both know, the transnational corporations not only seek to expand horizontally by taking over new markets in other countries, but also vertically by killing off small and medium companies so that they can completely take over their domestic markets. Are they doing this to small food producers in Rio Grande do Sul?

José Lutzenberger: I am afraid so. On our farm we produce about 50 dozen eggs a week, but we could easily produce 10 times more because we feed our chickens exclusively from the produce of our own land, mostly waterplants that are extremely productive. We have the resources to do so without having to buy expensive feed.

Then why don’t you do so?

Well, we can get rid of 50 dozen eggs a week to friends locally. However, to sell more we would have to sell them on the open market and this we cannot do without being registered with the Health Ministry. Otherwise inspectors would simply destroy the eggs. They recently destroyed tens of thousands of eggs in this way, and now you see no more organic eggs even in those small markets that only sell organic food.

But why don’t you register?

Well, to begin with this would involve filling in endless forms. It could take weeks if not months of tedious work to satisfy the requirements of the Ministry of Health bureaucracy. Also, the registration fee is extremely high. Worse still, the Ministry considers that anything done on a small scale is unhygienic and that the food we produce would be unsafe to consume unless we took very special measures to comply with their preposterous hygiene requirements.

In the neighbouring state of Santa Catarina, in the region where the big chicken slaughterhouses operate, it banned free-range chickens on the family farms with the argument that they transmit diseases to the ‘chicken farm’ animals. For instance, we would have to build a special room for packaging the eggs. It would have to be of a prescribed size and the walls, to the height of four metres, would have to be tiled. Worse still, the eggs could no longer be packaged on wooden tables – the tables would have to be of stainless steel, which is extremely expensive. Then we would have to employ a vet full-time to inspect the premises regularly to make sure that we observed the rules.

Quite clearly if we did this, in a tiny enterprise that only produces 50 dozen eggs a week, the cost of each egg would be prohibitive, even more so for the small peasant farmer who only produces 10 or 20 dozen eggs a week. What chance has he got?

How do you know that it is the big companies that made the Health Ministry pass these idiotic regulations?

Of course there is no hard evidence, but there is every reason to suppose that the big chicken producers are behind it all. These regulations were passed long ago but were never really implemented, so if they are now it is that competition has become pretty fierce between the big producers. They have got to become bigger and more competitive or they cannot possibly survive within the context of the global economy. That is why they are trying to kill off all the small producers so as to take over their business.

Is the same thing happening in other areas?

Yes, it is. At the moment I am fighting a battle to protect our citrus nurseries. We have a pretty good citrus industry in our state, and 70 or so good nurseries that sell high-class seedlings, including grafter seedlings, throughout Brazil and that even export them to Argentina and Uruguay. The Ministry of Agriculture, which works closely with the big producers, uses a quite clever device for killing off our small nurseries, one that was exploited successfully in the state of Parana as far back as the 1970s and that they tried to apply in the 80s in Rio Grande del Sul.

The Ministry insisted that it was necessary to exterminate the bacterium that causes citrus canker and started a campaign of ‘eradication’ that consisted of destroying all nurseries, plantations and even single trees in gardens on which they said they had found the disease. The plants were either pulled out or felled and then burned in bonfires with used tyres.

It was a tough fight. I had practically all the agronomists against me. The latter accepted the official thesis that the problem is the bacterium, not the susceptibility of the plant. They said that I was going to be responsible for the end of citrus culture in our state. But citrus canker, like most of the diseases affecting our crops, is the consequence of modern farming methods – the application of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrogen, the destruction of soil structure and micro-life and the use of pesticides, primarily the new ones, such as the modern carbamates, that the farmers have been induced to substitute for their traditional relatively harmless fungicides. To fund this campaign, as we found out later, the big producers actually paid the Ministry so much for each box that they exported.

Well, my colleagues and I won a case against them in court. Nevertheless, in the year 2000, they tried again. They probably thought that Lutz was now old and weak. But this time I got the State Government on our side and we won once more. In the 70s, practically all citrus farming was obliterated in the State of Parana and a ban was decreed on new plantations. However, after my victory in Rio Grande do Sul, in the 80s, a new Federal Minister of Agriculture was appointed who was far more sympathetic to our views and the ban was lifted. But the campaign continues furiously in the State of Sao Paulo, where the big citrus operators have enormous plantations of thousands of hectares each, and export several billion dollars worth of juice to Europe, the US and Japan.

Of course, the Ministry only finds citrus canker on the surviving small family farms; most of the small family farms have already had their citrus trees destroyed, while on the very big plantations there is little more than a token destruction of very small areas. They have been doing this in Sao Paulo since the 70s.

The best proof that the conventional view of plant disease, whether it be caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi or insects, is wrong, is that since the ‘eradication’ has stopped, our citrus farmers have had no trouble with citrus canker, and we now have a citrus growers’ association that teaches organic farming practices.

How did you manage to prevent further outbreaks?

Well, wherever we could, we reduced mechanical aggression and left the soil in peace, usually under the cover of its natural vegetation, which included legumes. Sick trees were treated with purely ecological methods such as spraying them with whey, which we obtained where possible from organic cheese producers, and also with biogas slurry from biogas power plants or which we produced in open drums (trace elements added).

In this way we now grow healthy trees that are thereby far more resistant to diseases such as citrus canker. I have personally treated, very successfully, trees that were totally infested to the point that the fruit could not even be sold to the juice factories. The disease would disappear as if by a miracle. But the Ministry of Agriculture and the big companies, whose interests they defend, were not in the least bit impressed, and still refuse to change their tune.

Which companies are behind all this?

The campaign was originally financed by the big citrus industry in the state of San Paulo. Of course they did not want any competition from plantations in other parts of Brazil. It is they who had the brilliant idea of using the relatively high incidence of citrus canker in Parana and then in Rio Grande do Sul, as a pretext for destroying so many small plantations, knowing full well that without compensation – and there was none – they would not be able to survive.

Actually we have a much better climate for citrus farming in the southern states, and can grow better quality fruit than they can in Sao Paulo.

I have the impression that it is not just the Sao Paulo citrus growers who are now pushing for the eradication of the bacterium, it is also the biotechnology companies. As everybody knows, they have systematically bought up all the seed companies as the first step towards controlling the whole food process.

The next step is clearly to take over the nurseries. If the biotech companies can eliminate 90 percent of them, they can get the owners of the remaining ones to work for them as contract farmers. They are then tied up with very strict contracts so that they are forced to buy the inputs from these biotech companies to whom they must also sell their produce. These farmers are thereby little more than slaves who earn the pittance the biotech companies are willing to leave them with.

There is every reason to suppose that the tobacco industry is also involved. At the moment it is in trouble, having to pay billions of dollars of fines and compensation to smokers who have contracted lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Not surprisingly this industry is now diversifying and as part of their diversification plans have set up enormous citrus plantations in Rio Grande del Sul. They don’t want any competition from the small producers in our state. However, we won a law case against the Ministry before and I hope that this time round we will be able to win another one. As I said earlier, the state government is very much more sensitive to our views today than it was then, so we can only hope.

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