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A POLitical Ecology of Land-Use Change (POLELUC)

Periodic Report Summary 2 - POLELUC (A POLitical Ecology of Land-Use Change (POLELUC))

The cultivation of soybean, oil palm and sugarcane in several regions worldwide, and particularly in Latin America, has risen exponentially over the last two decades to meet a growing demand for human vegetal protein, animal feed, sugar and biofuels, to name a few. Millions of hectares of farmland or forests have been converted into plantations for these crops, resulting in evident environmental change, and in a re-configuration of economic and social relations in the countryside. The POLELUC project ( was set to review the expansion of soybean in Argentina and Paraguay, and oil palm and sugarcane in Guatemala and to investigate the governance processes facilitating their increasing cultivation and the resulting livelihood impacts. The project team involved a Principal Investigator (Dr Esteve Corbera) and two PhD candidates (Almudena García-Sastre, fully funded by POLELUC, and Sara Mingorría, only partially funded by the project), based at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB).

The project found that land tenure regulations in the three study countries had eased land rentals or acquisitions for large-scale agribusiness enterprises during the past two decades, generally against the interests of small farmers and peasant communities. The latter had not been able to benefit from land titling programs and they had been excluded from accessing land due to an inferior land purchasing power. Since the early 2000s, Argentina’s government has taxed soybean exports considerably but this has only contributed to slow down the expansion of cultivation areas from 2014 onwards, when international prices for soybean started substantially decreased. In Paraguay, land tenure governance is influenced by an unresolved conundrum of overlapping rights that reinforce a dual agrarian structure characterised by large-scale versus small-scale holdings. Both legal and illegal means are employed by agribusiness to gain access to land resources: whilst large tracks of land are usually purchased through formal rights, other more subtle mechanisms of land dispossession operate at community level. In Guatemala, oil palm and sugarcane expansion has also exacerbated the land tenure conflict between indigenous communities, private landowners and the State, who struggle over who should be entitled to land, under which conditions and for how long. In some locations, such as in the Polochic valley where the project’s fieldwork was conducted, this on-going dispute has translated into armed and civil violence.

Research developed at local level revealed that soybean (Paraguay) and oil palm and sugarcane (Guatemala) plantations were far neutral for rural people’s lives. The analysis of three peasant settlements and two indigenous communities in Paraguay’s departments of San Pedro, Canindenyú and Alto Paraná demonstrated that soybean plantations penetrate into villages through both formal and informal access mechanisms, including rent and coercion. Villagers and indigenous peoples become then divided regarding the nature of the costs and benefits of soy cultivation, who is bearing such costs and how benefits should be distributed, while they are indistinctively exposed to the environmental impacts of soy cultivation, such as careless herbicide spraying and water and soil pollution. In Guatemala, the analysis of four indigenous communities in the Polochic valley shows that some families work in plantations to increase their income and, subsequently, their access to certain goods and services, at the expense of time for leisure and social relations. However, communities collectively and symbolically resist to large-scale plantations through the reinforcement of their territories and collective institutions, for example regulating the amount of work families can supply to agribusiness.

The project has informed policy debates in the three countries and, particularly, supported the struggle of social organizations and rural communities against the land enclosures and socio-political and environmental impacts caused by the expansion of the studied crops. For example, the project has challenged “win-win” narratives that advocate for large-scale agribusiness as a development strategy to eradicate rural poverty in Latin America. Transnational NGOs like Oxfam-Intermon have used the project’s findings in Guatemala to denounce human rights violations to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Guatemala at the 2012 United Nations general assembly and to validate Oxfam’s international campaign about land tenure conflicts in the Polochic valley. Guatemalan national and local NGOs have also used the project workshops to reflect about their role in the conflict and their successes and mistakes. Through place-based research and focus groups, the project has also empowered local people by providing them with information about the impacts and trends of large scale agribusiness and stimulating their own internal debates as regards how to participate in or confront the expansion of the studied crops around or inside their territories. The participatory documentary produced in Paraguay contributes to disseminate the impacts of soybean expansion both nationally and internationally (through purposive screenings from December 2015 onwards and the You Tube web channel).