Industrialized North drives developing countries to monoculture

Coffee tree in La Carona, Nicaragua.
(Photo: A Look Askance/Flickr)

Economic growth “at any cost” has driven many developing countries, especially in Latin America, to focus on the production of a limited variety of crops, frequently only one, driven by the demand from industrialized nations and risking their right to development and to food sovereignty and security, according to the Social Watch Report 2012, that will be launched in the middle of December in New York.

Single-crop cultivation in vast areas, extractive industries and big energy projects are some aspects of the priority given by governments to economic growth, wrote Roberto Bissio, coordinator of Social Watch and editor-in-chief of the report.

“Biofuels, often labeled as ‘green’, are a major cause of environmental disruption in Colombia, where the governmental support for agro-industrial mono-cultivation (which provides the input for biofuels) is causing the displacement of entire populations of small scale peasants,” explains Bissio in the prologue of the study, titled, as the whole Social Watch Report, “The right to a future”. “To add insult to injury, this does not even result from domestic demands but from the needs of the United States, subsidized by loans from multilateral development banks.”

“In Guatemala the monocrop is sugar cane, also a major source of biofuels, and its industrial cultivation has similarly led to population displacement, human rights violations and deforestation,” he added. “Coffee is the culprit in Nicaragua. The country depends on its exports for cash and the expansion of this crop is depleting soil fertility, polluting water resources and promoting deforestation as peasants are displaced from their traditional lands.”

The growth of this agriculture model all over the developing world is explained, by example, on the Finnish national report: “Currently there are several examples of key Finnish companies claiming to be world leaders in sustainability establishing large scale eucalyptus monocultures (Stora Enso, UPM) and palm oil plantations (Neste Oil) in the global South, contributing to displacement and large scale land grabbing,” says the study written by Otto Bruun, of the Service Centre for Development Cooperation Finland (KEPA).

Next, some abstracts of national contributions to the report related with the causes and consequences of the monocrops:


Argentina: The kingdom of soy bean and oilseed

International price increases for products from this sector have favoured agricultural production on an industrial scale, and the predominant model is the mono-cultivation of soy bean and oilseed. But today the negative consequences of this process have become more evident.

Agriculture is the second biggest source of greenhouse gases in Argentina after the energy sector. Per capita CO2 emissions in Argentina are nearly twice the average level in the region. Further, an unrestrained use of agrochemicals has had a negative impact on the environment and people’s health. The Atlas of Environmental Risk for Children has stated that in Argentina “approximately three million children are living in a situation of environmental risk caused by agrochemicals.” According to the Carrasco Report, glyphosate –the main agro-chemical used in the country– causes deformities in and poses a risk to various vegetable and animal species.

Meanwhile agricultural production has extended its frontier, encroaching into native forest lands. This encroachment has incorporated indigenous and peasant communities into work systems that are at odds with their traditional ways and for which these communities have provided neither their free, nor prior, nor informed consent. [National report by the Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, FARN.]


Brazil: Expanding the agricultural frontier

In recent years Brazil has established and expanded a development model in which income and power are increasingly concentrated in the hands of political and economic elites with links to big agro-industrial and financial capital. One of the main foundations of this model is agrarian exploitation, especially the mono-cultivation of crops like soybean and sugar cane (for producing sugar and ethanol), which use genetically modified seeds and agro-toxic products purchased from transnational enterprises. […]

There have been many attempts to make the prevailing legislation about the environment more flexible. The outstanding example of this campaign to relax environmental controls was when the Forest Code was weakened as a result of pressure from powerful interest groups representing the agriculture sector, whose overall strategy is to expand the agricultural frontier further and further into the Amazon.

Rural landowners are pressing for a range of measures and one of these, which is contained in a bill currently before the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house in Parliament) is to reduce from 80% to 50% the proportion of land that all rural holdings in the Amazon must maintain as native forest. [National report by the Institute of Socioeconomic Studies, INESC.]


Colombia: Biofuel production displaces entire populations

In Colombia, the production of biofuels […] has damaged the peasant economy, displaced entire populations and destroyed natural ecosystems. […] In recent years, the Colombian Government has increased its support for agro-industrial mono-cultivation, which is the mode of production of biofuels. The diversion of resources from small scale peasant farming to biofuels has caused the displacement of entire populations. […]

Biofuel production requires large-scale monocultivation of sugar, maize, palm oil or soybean. First, this production system erodes the soil and exhausts its nutrients. Second, water resources are compromised because the extraction and refining processes cause pollution. Third, less land is available for producing food, so food prices rise and food shortages among the poorest stratum of society are aggravated.

The use of soybean and maize to produce biofuels is pushing up the prices of these products on the food market. Since the US started promoting ethanol as a fuel, the price of maize has soared to an all-time high. [National report by the Corporación Cactus, Coordinación Nacional de la Plataforma Colombiana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo.]


Guatemala: Sugar cane industry devastates and flattens forests

Since the early 16th century, when it was conquered by Spain, Guatemala’s economy has been based in agriculture and the intensive exploitation of the land by large estates through mono-cultivation for export and by small farms where peasants engage in subsistence and infra-subsistence production. […] The sugar cane industry, which devastates and flattens forests so the land can be planted with sugar cane, is just one example of how unsustainable the current model is.

Based on the economic and political power of the big landowners, this industry has even managed to change the course of rivers so the water will be diverted to nourish their crops. The environmental result has been more frequent flooding in the winter and more droughts in the summer. Extensive sugar cane cultivation also causes higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

“As part of the industrial process around 90-95% of the cane grown on more than 200,000 hectares is burned. Each hectare put to the torch releases 50 kilos of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which adds up to around 9,000 tonnes of this gas per year.” […] As a result, the country’s native forests have been all but annihilated. The deforestation rate is around 82,000 per year. If exploitation continues at this level, all the country’s native forests will have been wiped out by 2040. [National report by the Coordinación de ONG y Cooperativas de Guatemala, CONGCOOP.]

Nicaragua: Coffee depletes soil fertility and pollutes water resources

Nicaragua has serious environmental problems, including over-exploitation of the soil, the near exhaustion of fishing resources, increasing deforestation due to indiscriminate tree cutting and unsustainable practices in agriculture, and overdependence on coffee as a cash crop, which depletes soil fertility and pollutes water resources. […] Nicaragua’s biggest environmental problem is over-dependence on coffee cultivation.

Some 26% of agricultural enterprises produce coffee, accounting for 15% of all cultivated land and 25% of the land devoted to export crops. Data from the Centre for Nicaraguan Exports (Cetrex) indicates that “in the first five months of the harvest (from October 2010 to February 2011) coffee earned USD 154 million, which was around USD 85 million more than was generated in the same months in the 2009-10 harvest.”

However, the intensive cultivation of coffee is extremely aggressive in terms of environmental degradation as it leads to deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, pollution with agro-chemicals, soil erosion, and worst of all the exhaustion of water resources, since both growing and processing coffee requires a great deal of water. Nicaragua’s natural environment was pillaged and devastated for more than a century by fruit companies and it cannot sustain the growth and expansion of the coffee industry indefinitely unless the State implements regulations on cultivation techniques so as to give the soil a chance to recover. There can be no sustainable growth if the land itself is barren and exhausted. [National report by the Coordinadora Civil.]


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