Paraguayan Women Fight to Change Agriculture and Patriarchy

Companies such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland and Bunge have literally invaded eastern Paraguay, buying up land bit by bit, and strong arming farmers to grow monoculture crops for export, such as soy, corn, and cotton. These often genetically-modified crops are grown with dangerous herbicides. Farmers who live next to the soy fields are driven away by the chemicals, which kill their crops, animals and cause illnesses. A local farmer’s union, ASAGRAPA, the Alto Paraná Association of Agriculturists, is fighting back.

ASAGRAPA is a regional organization of the CENOCIP, the National Center of Indigenous and Popular Organizations. While the goals of CENOCIP and ASAGRAPA have changed over time, their main focus now is the danger of the growing green desert of soy. ASAGRAPA promotes small scale organic farming of a diversity of crops for self-supply, and community ownership of land to protect farmers from isolation and land speculation.

During my time speaking with campesinos [farmers] in Alto Paraná, I had to work hard to speak with women. Otherwise, men did the talking while women stayed inside, sat far away, or silently served us tea. In one instance, I asked to speak to the woman of the house, only for her husband to tell me preemptively "She thinks the same as me." Only when we stopped at houses where men were out working was I able to talk to female farmers like Leonida Laiva.

Leonida Laiva moved to the farming community of Minga Porá in 1983. By 1995, the community had grown to over 2,000 families. Farmers had formed schools for their children, and an informal government. Today, the Laivas family is one of less than 35 left in the rural community. "Everybody has moved away," she told me. "We don’t want to leave, but we also don’t know how much longer we can stand the fumigations." Laivas house is a treed island in the sea of GM soy that was once Minga Porá.

Soy cultivation dumps more than 24,000,000 liters of toxic agro-chemicals in Paraguay every year. Red category herbicides, classified as "extremely dangerous" or "very dangerous," are common. Paraquat, for example, is a chemical with no antidote if ingested. Other chemicals include Gramoxone and Metamidofos, which has proven to reduce sperm count and health in exposed males. According to the Environmental Protection Agency of the United States (EPA), another chemical, Endosulfan, is a teratogenic, a substance which causes birth defects in the infants of repeatedly exposed mothers.

Laivas told me that she knew that the carcinogenic hormone weed killer 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxy acetic acid) was commonly used. "But they use everything," she said. "They even put illegal chemicals, like DDT, in other containers and use them. A few years ago a tractor trailer of chemicals crashed, and the owners just buried the chemicals in the ground. They spray the fields, but the chemicals go wherever the wind blows them."

The herbicides have driven local farmers out. "My animals die when there are fumigations," Laivas said. "The day after the last fumigation my cow aborted, the second time this year, then she swelled up and died. Some of chickens died, and pigs too." Animals aren’t the only ones affected. "The day of a fumigation, we get sick, we have terrible headaches, nausea and stomach cramps. We are also all having vision problems, even my children who have now moved away. My daughter might not be able to continue her studies because of her eye trouble."

Water is also a problem. "Now even our well is contaminated," Laivas protested, "we can feel it when we drink the water. We made another well, but its hard to bring the water from far away, you need money for containers and a truck and gas." According to Laivas, the soy workers also wash their machines in the river after spraying crops with pesticides. "There are no fish left in our rivers," she lamented. "The water is completely contaminated."

I asked why she doesn’t she leave? "We don’t want to, this is our house, our home, but we are going to have to, to where I don’t know." But Laivas acknowledged that her family may have more options than others. "We have an advantage: we have flat land, and can sell it to the soy-growers for good money. Our next door neighbor has steep, sloped land. They won’t be able to sell, what will they do? How could we be such bad neighbors as to leave them, alone here?"

With me at Laivas farm were neighbors who had already left: Angelica Ramirez and her father Meriton. Angelica is 23.  She grew up "in the middle of the fight," as she says.  ‘When the animals started dying, I began to understand that things weren’t going well. I started to hate the people that were making it happen. A lot of youth tried to resist, to stop the soy fields by occupying them. The Brazilians came with guns and kicked them out.”

Next to Laivas’ house, I took a picture of Angelica and Meriton in front of the soy field that once held their home. "We had beautiful fruit trees: bananas, mangos, guava, but they all died from the poison," Angelica recalled.

As a young person, Angelica also noticed that the soy industry was taking work away from her friends. "When the soy fields started," she said, "people who moved to the towns worked in the soy fields where they used to live. Now it’s all machines. For 500 hectares, the companies only have to hire one worker," she said. "Some people work in the silos, but that’s just for a few months out of the year. Others used to fumigate, but now that’s mostly done by planes and trucks."

The Ramirez family moved to ASAGRAPA community "El Triunfo" [The Triumph] in 2001 with seven other families who left Minga Porá. El Triunfo is community owned land. Community laws don’t allow farmers to sell their land, or to grow soy or use pesticides.

The green sea of soy extended monotonously in all directions. I found it almost impossible to imagine the communities, schools and farms that the Ramirezes were assuring me used to exist along the road. Trucks heaped with pale soy beans rumbled past. "It’s endless," she muttered furiously under her breath.  Her body tensed with rage, looking at the site of her former home.  "Terrible.  What a disaster." As we drove back through the soy fields, I noticed a bitter, foul smell, and our eyes began to itch and sting.  "That’s the smell of the poison," said Angelica, covering her mouth with her sleeve.  "This is what it was like at our house every day.  Unbearable." 

Angelica is now studying Environmental studies in the Agronomy department of the University of Ciudad del Este.  She is considering writing her thesis on the effects of the herbicides used in the soy industry on humans, animals and the environment. She spent the summer working with a group of university students who run the youth group at ASAGRAPA. "Later I’ll probably move in to the women’s group," she told me. "More than ever, women need to be a part of the resistance to this situation."

Nidia Fernandez is the secretary general of ASAGRAPA, and she sees her work in the organization as an opportunity to change gender relations in rural communities as well as fighting for sustainable agriculture. Fernandez is one of two women in ASAGRAPA council, and an active promoter of women’s participation within the organization. She farms with her husband, also a member of ASAGRAPA, and family in Alto Paraná, but also spends time at the ASAGRAPA office, as well as teaching workshops in various communities.

The ASAGRAPA office sits on a cobblestone street in the small town of Hernandarias. Inside there are offices, a meeting room, a kitchen and dormitories with bunk beds. When I visited, the dormitories were filled with university students working at the office during their summer vacation, and other ASAGRAPA members. The farmers woke early to drink hot mate (herbal tea) and get to work. The university students started a meeting at 5:30 am the night I slept over. Days were spent working and drinking cold terere (herbal tea). In the evenings a volleyball net was brought into the front yard and everybody played until dark at 9 pm.

Fernandez is a co-author of the ASAGRAPA women’s proposal. I saw the proposal written in marker on poster paper and posted on the wall in the entryway at the ASAGRAPA office in Hernandarias. It argues:

For the active participation of the Woman in the construction of the organization and community and her inclusion in the economic process from planning stages to administration.

For the full exercise of women’s civil and political rights.

For her participation in leadership roles.

For equal rights in decision-making and debate.

For mutual support between men and women in the fight for integral development.

For the theme of gender to be understood as a question of politics and class and not just as simple solidarity with women, and that the theme be approached and discussed in all instances of the organization. For the elaboration of a program that allows the full development of women and instigates men to understand and accept women as their equal, as subjects, not objects. For the theme of gender to be transversal in the organization.

Fernandez care-takes the office on a rotating schedule with other male and female members. When she works there, her husband stays at their farm, and she takes her adopted daughter with her.

Fernandez works with 10 other ASAGRAPA women to make women aware of gender equality. "Paraguayan culture is very macho," said Fernandez. "This means that our projects have to not only teach men to think differently, but women, too. Women are a part of machismo; they teach it to their children. If they aren’t aware of the way that machismo is limiting their lives, they can’t break away from it." According to Fernandez, rural women can be very isolated. They often stay in their houses to work and care for children and animals, while men take on more public tasks. "A woman has to work two or three times as hard in order to be able to leave her house," she told me.

I asked Fernandez to describe what machismo means to her. "Machismo means that a man has control over a woman, that his opinion is worth more than hers when the family has to make a decision." In Alto Paraná, families are facing very difficult choices about how to survive, whether to grow soy, or whether to sell out and move to cities. Fernandez wants women’s voices to be heard and empowered in these situations. "We are working to create an idea of a woman separate from machismo, a situation in which both men and women have equal input and make decisions together." I asked Fernandez how the men in ASAGRAPA responded to the women’s goals. "They think that they support us completely," she said, "But in practice we see that they only kind of get it."

In many campesina [female farming] organizations in socially conservative Latin American countries, goals are limited to increasing women’s participation, and do not include other tenets of modern feminism such as sexual liberation or reproductive rights. The ASAGRAPA women’s proposal is similar in this way. When I asked Fernandez about reproductive rights she shook her head. "Women are very ignorant in Paraguay," she said. "Some don’t have an education, so they don’t know about those things. Others are educated, but they don’t know about rural reality." It is normal for rural Paraguayan women to have 13 – 15 children.

"What about women’s health?" I asked. "We use natural remedies," said Fernandez, "I don’t use conventional medicines in my house, no aspirin, all plants. We go to the hospital in the case of an accident, but not for sicknesses." Many rural communities n Paraguay are very isolated, making the trip to the hospital difficult and dangerous for a sick person. As for who administers the plant medicine, that is one ability that lies in women’s territory. "Men leave that responsibility to the women. The women have to care for their men."

Gender equality in decision-making is a dynamic that is still playing out in her own family, Fernandez said. "My husband grumbles," she laughed. "He says that now the women are bossing him around. He’s not completely convinced that women need equality." Still, she feels that her voice is heard. "The women who are working on this project, we are some of the few women who have created equality within their families."

April Howard is an editor at Upside Down World.  April.m.howard(at)