Agribusiness in the Rainforest

Soy and palm oil plantations are expanding rapidly in countries like Paraguay, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. In addition to encroaching on important ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest, the Gran Chaco and the heart of Borneo, these crops are adversely affecting frontline communities, including small-scale family farmers and Indigenous peoples:

  • Community health is adversely affected as a result of toxic chemicals used on soy and palm oil plantations. These chemicals also damage subsistence crops, community gardens and important waterways.
  • In their quest for more land for large-scale plantations, soy and palm oil corporations have been implicated in the displacement and eviction—sometimes violent—of small-scale farmers and Indigenous communities from their lands.
  • As Indigenous communities and traditional people are continually displaced by soy and palm oil plantations, their cultural traditions are seriously threatened.

This fact sheet explores some of the struggles faced by frontline communities in the face of soy and palm oil expansion.


Intensive soy production requires large amounts of chemical inputs such as fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. The introduction of Roundup Ready soy – which has been genetically modified to withstand massive amounts of the herbicide Roundup – is increasingly being associated with herbicide-related illnesses and death in surrounding communities. Palm oil-affected communities have experienced problems both with direct contamination by toxic pesticides and herbicides and from environmental pollution.

Papua New Guinea

Cargill’s Ambogo Palm Oil Estates and processing plant dominate the landscape outside the small town of Popondetta in the Oro Province of Papua New Guinea. Pollution from the plant is contaminating the river that community members rely on for drinking water, bathing, and fishing to feed their families.

Palm oil processing produces chemical-laden runoff. This toxic sludge needs to be safely contained and highly processed before it is rendered safe. At the Ambogo plantation, this unprocessed sludge is held in an unlined holding container (which is illegal under PNG environmental law), which allows the sludge to slowly seep into the water. When the rainy seasons comes, the holding tanks overflow and pour into the water. A study done by the Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights (CELCOR) has shown that there have been daily releases of toxic sludge into the Ambogo River, and that levels of toxics have been increasing. In the area surrounding the river, community members have had skin problems and internal illnesses that they never experienced prior to the processing plant’s arrival.


Cargill, Bunge and ADM silos surround the community of Lucas do Rio Verde in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. Soy plantations have steadily taken over the surrounding landscape over the past two decades, and the municipality is the second-largest producer of grains in Brazil. In March 2006, thousands of community members fell ill when a small, single-engine plane aerially sprayed herbicide over soybean fields. The wind dispersed the herbicide over the entire city. Domestic gardens, fruit trees, ornamental plants, a community medicinal plant garden, and crops belonging to small-scale farmers were destroyed. Local people experienced diarrhea, vomiting and skin rashes [1]. Lindonésia Andrade, a biologist in charge of the medicinal garden, said that the toxic effects appeared very quickly. The day after the spraying, the damage was visible throughout the city. "Leaves looked like crushed and burned paper, while others turned full of holes, and necrosis [rot] began to set in around the holes. On the fourth day, the leaves entered total necrosis and started to fall," she said[2].


In January 2003, in the department of Itapua, Paraguay, 11-year-old Silvino Talavera was killed as the result of indiscriminate spraying of herbicides on soy plantations near his home. Riding his bicycle home, Silvino was enveloped in a cloud of chemicals as a soy producer sprayed his crop without regard for the nearby community or passers-by. Silvino was hospitalized that night. Four days later—on the day Silvino left the hospital—another soy producer fumigated crops only 15 yards away from Silvino’s home. The wind blew the toxic spray directly toward the boy’s home, resulting in severe illness of his three siblings and twenty neighbors. Within days, Silvino died [3].



In Paraguay, campesinos (small-scale peasant farmers) and Indigenous communities have been engaged in often violent struggles to maintain their lands in the face of the increasing threat of soy plantations. Paraguay has a long history of land conflict and among the most unequal land distributions in Latin America, with some 80 percent of the land controlled by one percent of the population [4]. An unsuccessful, corrupt and poorly implemented agrarian reform left most campesinos landless or occupying unused land for subsistence production. But, as massive soy plantations continue to make their way across Paraguay, peasants and Indigenous communities have been displaced or violently evicted from their lands. According to a study from BASEIS, a Paraguayan social research institute, as much as 50 percent of land conflict in Paraguay is attributable to soy expansion [5]. Since the beginning of the soy boom, the industry has evicted 100,000 small family farmers from their homes and lands and has forcibly relocated many Indigenous communities [6]. Leaders form three of Paraguay’s largest peasant organizations—Movimiento Campesino Paraguayo, CONAMURI and Movimiento Agrario y Popular—all testify that evictions never take place with prior notification, and that all occur between 2 and 3 a.m., when everybody is sleeping [7].

Campesino and Indigenous communities have responded to the repression by organizing land occupations – 118 of which occurred in 2004 alone. As a result, President Nicanor Duarte has established 18 new military bases in the country’s most conflict-heavy areas [8]. More than 600 peasants have been arrested since 2004, and 93 peasant activists have been murdered since 1990 [9].

The examples of violence experienced by campesinos in Paraguay are extreme. During a national protest in the department of San Pedro on Nov. 18, 2004, more than 2,000 peasants were violently repressed by the police. Campesinos were shot at by the police and forced into hiding in the nearby forest for 24 hours. The police destroyed the camp and confiscated all the peasants’ belongings. During a conflict in the settlement of Santani, which was established more than five decades ago, a 15-year-old girl was arrested and detained in an isolation cell for eight days. When journalists probed the district attorney as to why the girl had been detained, he replied that she was dangerous because “she is very intelligent, she knows how to speak.” [10] On Oct. 9, 2005, Esteben Hermosilla disappeared from his house. He was found dead and half-buried, with signs of having been tortured on the estate of Joaquin Fernandez Martin. As proof of having murdered Hermosilla, the assassins cut off his ear and sent it to the man who contracted them to murder him. According to Grupo de Reflexion Rural – an Argentina-based social research organization – on June 24, 2005 in Tekojoja, Paraguay, hired policemen and soy producers kicked 270 people off their land, burned down 54 homes, arrested 130 people, and killed two others. [11]

Papua New Guinea

In Papua New Guinea, the right of communities to own land is enshrined in the constitution. In fact, 97 percent of land is community-owned [12]. Therefore, in order to expand palm oil plantations, companies must find ways to claim the land for themselves. They rely heavily on long-term leases that strip people of control of their land. Companies do this through two distinct methods: 1) mini-estates, and 2) small-holder schemes. With mini-estates, community members enter into joint-venture partnerships with Cargill in which the company charges the community for all inputs, labor and transport, and then take 90 percent of the profit. The people must continue to plant oil palm until their debts are paid off.

In small-holder projects, land owners commit small amounts of their land to palm oil plantations. With this scheme, small holders become increasingly dependent on the companies for fertilizers and seeds, and they end up increasing the amount of acreage devoted to the companies’ cash crop. In practice, this means that although the farmers are the formal land owners, they have no real control of their land.


In Indonesia, all land that is not otherwise formally titled is owned by the government. While traditional land rights can be legally recognized, land owners must go through a long, expensive and bureaucratic process to get legal land title. This process is generally too expensive and arduous for small farmers, who often do not even know that the land is not legally theirs until palm oil companies arrive with bulldozers. When the small farmers complain to the government that their land has been stolen, they are shown papers that prove that the land their families had farmed for generations was now owned by Cargill or ADM/Wilmar.

Cultural Impacts

In Brazil, Indigenous territories are increasingly becoming isolated islands dotting land stripped for soy plantations. The state of Mato Grosso, home to many Indigenous communities, is located in the Cerrado biome—the world’s most biodiverse savannah. This is also the state in which most soy is grown. The Indigenous people of the Cerrado make up 70 distinct ethnicities. The Cerrado is also home to the operations of agribusiness giants ADM, Bunge and Cargill.

Mato Grosso’s government has adopted a political ideology based on “development”—defined as massive soy production as the basis for economic activity and prosperity. The government, however, has not considered the impacts of this model on local Indigenous communities.

As reported by MOPIC (Mobilization of Indigenous People of the Cerrado), the infrastructure to accommodate increased soy production and large company operations near Indigenous lands is interfering with the traditional livelihoods of Indigenous peoples. Examples of such infrastructure include hydroelectric dams and ethanol plants. Pesticide runoff from soy plantations and aerial spraying is irreversibly contaminating important rivers and aquifers and destroying headwaters. The contamination is threatening fish, a staple food of many Indigenous communities. The rates of suicide, infant mortality and malnutrition are all on the rise in these communities [13].

According to Tserezáró Xavante from the Xavante community of de Sangradouro, Matto Grosso:

“We are already contaminated. I think that we hunt the animals that eat the soy, and for this reason the hunt from Encantada Lake gives us diarrhea. When we fish in the Encantada Lake, the fish become rotten right away now. I’m very worried about this lake because we use it a lot in our rituals and for our hunting and fishing. It’s also very important for our meetings. So for us, this is a lot. The ranchers are trying to end our lives.”


[1] Machado, Paulo. 2006. “Pesticides set big farms against small farmers in Brazil.” Agencia Brazil. Brazzil Magazine. [2] Machado, Paulo. 2006. “Pesticides set big farms against small farmers in Brazil.” Agencia Brazil. Brazzil Magazine. [3] Semino, Stella, Lilian Joensen and Javiera Rulli. 2006. “Paraguay Sojero. Soy Expansion and Its Violent Attack on Local and Indigenous Communities in Paraguay.” Grupo de Reflexion Rural. Argentina. [4] Semino, Stella, Lilian Joensen and Javiera Rulli. 2006. “Paraguay Sojero. Soy Expansion and Its Violent Attack on Local and Indigenous Communities in Paraguay.” Grupo de Reflexion Rural. Argentina. [5] Ibid [6] Howard, April and Benjamin Dangl. 2007. “The Multinational Beanfield War.” In These Times. [7] Semino, Stella, Lilian Joensen and Javiera Rulli. 2006. “Paraguay Sojero. Soy Expansion and Its Violent Attack on Local and Indigenous Communities in Paraguay.” Grupo de Reflexion Rural. Argentina. [8] Ibid [9] Ibid [10] Ibid [11] Dangl, Benjamin. 2006. “The U.S. Military Descends on Paraguay.” The Nation. [12] Damien Ase, CELCOR, pers. com [13] MOPIC Report. 2007. BUNGE, CARGILL AND ADM: THE ADVANCE OF THESE CORPORATIONS AND THEIR IMPACTS ON INDIGENOUS LANDS OF THE CERRADO. [14] From Interview of Tserezáró Xavante from the Xavante community of de Sangradouro, Matto Grosso taken by Maria Lucia PhD student at University of Sao Paulo,