Lives not buried by soybeans
Paraguay has 2.6 million hectares of soybean fields: a vast territory sprayed with toxic agrochemicals and whose expansion has caused conflicts with peasants being evicted. 17 Veces Volver is a visual essay -already a classic- by the Sub Cooperativa collective that portrays the 13 de Mayo settlement in the department of Itapuá: the scene where some 40 families try to survive and maintain their traditional crops amid this ocean of soybean that suffocates them
By Alonso Almenara
Eighty percent of Paraguay’s arable land is planted with soybeans. To an absent-minded person, this may sound harmless. Still, it is not: the consequences of the unregulated production of this plant – used in human, livestock, and poultry feed, and biodiesel – include the destruction of soils, the use of pesticides, the planting of a smaller variety of food for human consumption and severe impacts on the environment, people’s health and their livelihoods. Such devastation should force agribusiness to stop. The problem is that they are so dependent on soybeans that, once the land becomes infertile, they look for new fields to expand the business.
The 13 de Mayo settlement, in the department of Itapuá, is different. In that town, some 40 families are trying to survive and maintain their traditional crops, such as rice, corn, and wheat, amid this ocean of soybeans. The successors of Amado Cano Ortiz, the former personal physician of dictator Alfredo Stroessner claim eight hectares. The old dictator gave him the property title to reward his loyalty. The doctor’s family leases the land to plant soybeans – Paraguay’s star crop – and wants to keep that plot of land as well.
The community has been evicted by soy businessmen 17 times in recent years, but they always return. Each eviction is expected as storms used to be expected, which means starting from scratch. Again and again and again. It is the story told by 17 Veces Volver, a photographic essay by Sub Cooperativa, made in 2009: a collective work reflecting the destruction of the Paraguayan countryside and forest and highlighting the helplessness to which the peasants live in this territory are condemned.
Sub Cooperativa was born in Buenos Aires in 2004. It is a project that initially brought together six photographers: Nicolás Pousthomis, Gisela Volà, Sebastián Hacher, Gabriela Mitidieri, Olmo Calvo Rodríguez, and Gerónimo Molina. Their work has been marked by the desire to deepen the creation of a collective identity and the realization of photographic research in various territories of Latin America. It is also an experience inspired by the forms of organization from below that emerged in the popular sectors of Argentina in 2001, the year in which neighborhood assemblies sprang up in response to the social, political, economic, and representational crisis that hit the country hard.
For Argentine critic Victoria Verlichak, 17 Veces Volver presents the protagonists of “an unequal struggle in the context of the systematic destruction of the Paraguayan countryside and forest.” Such destruction would be unthinkable if soy were not in such significant global demand: an essential food in Asian countries such as China and Japan, where it is used in the preparation of products such as tōfu, nattō, and miso, soy is also a highly valued ingredient by vegans, given its high protein value.
“The world demands soybeans, but these farmers don’t know the ups and downs of soybean prices on the Rosario or Chicago exchanges or the tons of grain bought by China,” Verlichak writes. “They do know that agrarian conflicts are ancestral in their country, where there are no current land registries and few peasants have land titles. And the specialist adds, regarding the expressive impact of Sub Cooperativa’s images: “With an impeccable formal resolution, the artists managed to capture the concern and also the determination of the peasants to return to the place from which they are continuously displaced, forcing them to take refuge in the tropical forest.”
Promoting collective creation
This now classic work of recent Latin American photography is one of the models that has inspired E-CO/23], the new edition of our meeting of photographic collectives, which this year will have as its thematic axes: Ecologies, Territories, and Communities.
Through this call, we are interested in bringing together stories of sustainable development, community movements, and ways of inhabiting the land in the community to achieve new narratives built from the plurality of collective creation.
Each selected project will receive the support of 5,000 euros for its production. The projects can be presented by existing collectives or by groups of people working in collaboration for this project in an interdisciplinary way.
The selected groups will participate in a collective process of production and reflection that will be accompanied by pedagogical support from specialists in the themes.
Once the production stage is completed, the project results will be presented in one or more exhibitions that may rotate and on the digital platforms of Fundación VIST, the AECID, and the participating Spanish Cultural Centers or the institutions they designate. The aim is to consolidate networks for creating and circulating visual narratives in Ibero-America.