Days before Brazil’s October 1 national elections, about 300 members of Vía Campesina and the Landless Rural Workers' Movement (MST) camped in front of the Santa Rita farm. Located in Santo Antônio da Platina in the state of Paraná, the farm belongs to Abelardo Lupion, a federal congressman of the right-wing Liberal Front Party. Vía Campesina alleges that Lupion illegally bought the farm from the U.S.-based Monsanto Corporation in return for using his political power to legalize the pesticide glyphosate in Brazil.
The occupation sought to pressure the government into finishing two unresolved federal inquiries into the congressman’s alleged corruption and highlight the absurdity that Lupion was being permitted to run for reelection.
Lupion has built his political career in the state of Paraná by promoting the interests of large landowners. Since the early 2000s, he has increasingly worked to promote the interests of U.S. agribusiness, especially those of Monsanto. Vía Campesina, the MST, civil society groups and officials from various political parties assert that Lupion’s connections to Monsanto have fueled his corruption.
Glyphosate is the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s “Roundup” pesticide. The company also produces “Roundup Ready” genetically modified (GM) crops, which are resistant to the pesticide, allowing farmers to kill surrounding weeds but not the GM crop. When sales of Roundup dropped due to the 2000 expiration of Monsanto’s patent, the corporation became intent on opening up new markets for its pesticide. One willing buyer was the U.S. Department of Defense, which uses Roundup to spray on coca plants cultivated by Colombian campesinos. The production boom of soy for export in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay also created new markets for glyphosate.
With Brazil being the second-largest exporter of soy in the world (behind only the United States), Monsanto was especially keen on opening up the country to its products. In 2002 cultivation of GM crops in Brazil was still illegal, and Monsanto was not selling Roundup Ready or Roundup in the country. But in 2001, Monsanto began encouraging farmers in southern Brazil to illegally pirate Roundup Ready soybean seeds from farmers in Argentina, according to Darcy Frigo of Terra de Direitos, a Brazilian civil society organization based in Curitiba. The idea was to pressure the government to legalize the planting of GM crops fait accompli, or what Frigo refers to as “fato consumado.” Once Brazilian farmers were planting Roundup Ready soy illegally, Monsanto argued that Brazil had to legalize the cultivation of GM soy so the corporation could collect royalties on its seeds. Months after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva entered office in 2002, GM soy seeds were legalized for the 2003-2004 growing season and Monsanto began legally selling Roundup Ready soy seeds.
Monsanto then needed to legalize the sale of Roundup in Brazil, and congressman Lupion made it happen. In 2003 Lupion successfully presented an amendment to the Minister of Agriculture that legalized glyphosate in Brazil. On May 8, 2006, journalist Solano Nascimento published an article in the Correio Braziliense newspaper uncovering Lupion’s corruption. Nascimento reports that the congressman used his political power to legalize glyphosate in the country in return for Monsanto offering Lupion the Santa Rita farm for a third of its market value. Nascimento also found that Lupion had failed to declare electoral funds for his 1998 election campaign. There is evidence that Lupion used a caixa dois, or second account, registered in the name of the mother of one of his campaign coordinators, to illegally move and store nearly $2 million. The congressman had only declared $153,000 with electoral authorities. Members of Lupion’s campaign team have since admitted to the existence of the caixa dois.
After the sale of glyphosate was legalized in Brazil, Monsanto’s sales of Roundup increased by more than 30%. Indeed, in early 2004, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Monsanto’s headquarters are in Missouri) reported that despite a loss of $97 million for Monsanto that quarter, Brazil was “blossoming” and “becoming a bright spot” for the corporation, which had also reported first-quarter net sales of $1 billion—a 22% increase from the previous year. The windfall, according to the newspaper, was attributable to “earlier-than-usual U.S. sales of Roundup herbicide as well as improved overall performance in Brazil.”
After Nascimento published his story, various members of Lula’s Workers’ Party (PT), the Green Party, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party and the Democratic Workers’ Party requested that Brazil’s attorney general open an investigation into Lupion’s alleged corruption. The Brazilian Forum for Agrarian Reform and Justice in the Countryside, representing over 45 social movement organizations, NGOs, religious organizations and other entities, also demanded an investigation. Despite overwhelming evidence against Lupion, the investigations have dragged on for five months and remain bogged down.
When the Brazilian government opened a federal investigation into the causes of rural violence in response to the brutal murder of U.S.-born nun, Sister Dorothy Stang, Lupion proposed that land occupations be considered “acts of terrorism” by the government, despite a constitutional clause providing that private property serve a social function. Land occupations have been an important, non-violent method for rural poor people to protest the grotesque inequality in the country (Brazil has the most unequal distribution of land ownership in the world), and press for political and social inclusion. Lupion’s proposal sought to publicly criminalize social movements such as Vía Campesina and the MST.
Lupion was re-elected and President Lula now stands a chance of losing the election runoff to Geraldo Alckmin on October 29. An Alckmin victory would be good for Monsanto, Lupion, the Bush administration and agribusiness in general, but it would be devastating for the poor and Brazil’s social movements. According to Frigo of Terra de Direitos, if Alckmin wins the runoff, “It will strengthen agribusiness and the transnationals that continue destroying the environment and the forests, and it is going to leave little space for small farmers and agrarian reform.” Frigo predicts that an Alckmin win will cause a rise in violent conflicts in rural areas. In response to Vía Campesina’s occupation of the Santa Rita farm, Lupion declared he will “destroy the MST.”
Nonetheless, Brazil’s supreme court recently announced it intends to resolve the federal inquiries into Lupion’s corruption. The court’s decision testifies to the strength of Brazilian social movements. The decision also shows that Lupion, Monsanto and agribusiness have reason to be worried.
Isabella Kenfield is a freelance journalist based in Brazil and is a 2006 recipient of NACLA’s Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant. She thanks Terra de Direitos for their help on this article.