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The deadly soyamafia

A Journey to the Fumigated
Regissør: Fernando E. Solanas

A Journey to the Fumigated Towns shows the pollution and extinction that threatens Argentina's indigenous population, caused by the soy industry.


Solanas' documentary film about the soy mafia, which was presented at the Berlin 2018, starts with images of illegal snow harvesting in an area of Salta Province in northern Argentina. This is primeval forest, and thus it is protected, but thousands of hectares of over one hundred year old forest are being harvested in just a few weeks, mainly to make room for soybean cultivation.

Solanas divides his film into ten chapters; it provides clarity and rhythmic elegance. Using two cameras – one filming the surroundings, and one filming what he does, encounters and conversations – he creates a natural transparency; nothing on the set is hidden from the audience.

mass poisoning

The film jumps right into the center of the disaster: Solanas meets the Wichians, the indigenous peoples who are the original owners of the land. Some of them now live behind fences, others had to move to nearby villages to escape the raids that bombarded the area with plant poison. Their main food source is destroyed. Faced with hunger and diseases caused by the spray, they are doomed to disappear. Their children have never seen a teacher or been examined by a doctor. Without access to drinking water and other essential necessities, it is uncertain whether they will survive. Their plea for help from the Argentine government and the new landowners has not been answered.

Fernando Solanas
Fernando Solanas.

Helplessness is also the dominant feeling of a teacher who breaks down in tears in front of Solanas camera. She had seen the planes coming back regularly and sprayed her deadly load over the soy fields right next to the school – sometimes right over it. In the villages surrounded by soy plantations, the entire population is increasingly affected by respiratory and blood disorders, including cancer. A significant change in the health of newborns has been demonstrated over the last ten years, with stillbirths and deformed infants, which is closely linked to the increasing use of herbal medicine, as pediatrician Ávila Vázquez and his team have witnessed.

Millions of hectares of soy production take on the most fertile soil.

Argentina has lost its soul, noted an expert on organic farming. Millions of hectares of soy production take on the most fertile soil. The consequences are not only destroyed ecosystems and less biodiversity, but also depopulation of the current areas.

Soy fields are sprayed with toxic pesticides. From the movie.
Soy fields are sprayed with toxic pesticides. From the movie.

During the 1990 years, the entire 200 000 farms disappeared and 700 000 jobs – the numbers also include indigenous peasants – in Argentina: Abandoned villages, schools and farms characterize the landscape. Animals, insects, butterflies; not even birds can survive here anymore. The bee culture is completely eradicated.

Monsanto (now acquired by Bayer), in collaboration with BASF, is responsible for these disasters.

Big business

In 1970, one of Monsanto's researchers, John Franz, discovered that glyphosate inhibits a vital enzyme in plants and is therefore very effective as a herbicide. Monsanto developed the pesticide Roundup, where glyphosate is the active ingredient, while working to genetically modify soy seeds – Roundup Ready Soybeans – who could survive spraying with glyphosate – and got a patent for this. When Monsanto's patent expired in 2015, they developed a new soy type that they distributed for free, with the intention of outperforming the previously patented seed type.

100 000 small producers lost their livelihoods in favor of banks, finance groups and large landowners.

The Argentine government did not intervene in this process. On the contrary; they allowed distribution of the new soy seeds to neighboring Bolivia and Paraguay. Uncontrolled growth in soy production resulted in falling prices and created a crisis in the industry. Additional 100 000 small producers lost their livelihoods in favor of banks, finance groups and large landowners.

Solanas points to the alliance between the government and the agro-industry, dominated by Monsanto. The company's sponsorship of local TV channels and radio stations bought silence. The victims were already frightened by the fear of losing their jobs and did not dare to sing. Faced with the alliance between powerful landowners, the justice system and the police, there is no possibility of change – not even escape.

From the movie.

The contamination of vegetables with pesticides and toxins is not limited to the areas sprayed: Pesticides are found in the Arctic and are found in the blood of most people today. Poison absorbed in a plant through the roots cannot simply be washed away. The result is a growing number of cancer cases, a phenomenon that occurred in the middle of the 20. century, when the increased use of chemicals began to contaminate food, workplaces and water supply.

Solanas' film commemorates the poisoned and dying, the unprotected workers and truck drivers who lose their lives for industry profits.

Scientific and medical studies on the relationship between toxins used in agriculture and the increase in disease cases – such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and cancer – are systematically consumed by the government, local political authorities, university administrations – and even the media. Today, universities are financially dependent on business assignments; this can affect the conclusions of scientific research, not to say stop ongoing research altogether.

Solanas' film commemorates the poisoned and dying, the unprotected workers and truck drivers who lose their lives for industry profits – a deepening fact in themselves.


Of course, resistance is made. 200 students and several teachers from the medical faculty of the University of Rosario conducted a survey of the health of the population of cities exposed to pesticide spraying. About 100 000 people were contacted and investigated. The head of the investigation, Damián Verzeñassi, says that when his group during the trial against Monsanto in The Hague presented their findings, the university administration had closed the doors to their offices, where all the equipment for the group was stored, with links.

A dash of hope: The construction of a new, large production facility for Monsanto's agrochemical products was abandoned as a direct result of the strong opposition from the population.

A major problem is the lack of food quality control. Some measures are ineffective and absurd because the results are only available by that food is consumed – control of food at the production site is not required in Argentina. Asking about the effectiveness of the controls carried out on food for export would require yet another documentary.

Ecological initiative

Men A Journey to the Fumigated Towns does not allow the audience to get stuck in a "no resort" perspective. Solanas visits Horizonte Sur, an initiative devoted to organic farming. The "organic garden" is a political proposition: A family with a small soil can produce most of the food they need, using their own resources and respecting ecological cycles, with one phase providing for the next. Also, argues former head of the Argentine farmer team, Pedro Peretti, economically, there is nothing that beats mixed use, since it is cheaper than buying pesticides and other spraying equipment.

Another agro-ecological initiative, Paititi, is focusing on biodiversity, without any imported seed or oilseeds. Here weeds are not destroyed. In their organic production, the use of agricultural chemicals, fertilizers and insecticides is avoided. Another project is Naturaleza Viva, a cooperative with around 700 members who produce organic food. The project focuses on the use of agro-ecological and self-sufficient energy and produces the necessary raw materials.

A significant step toward helping Salta would be to declare the areas around the city as semi-rural so that they can produce food for the urban community. Unfortunately – as dependent as all social, political and governing circles are on the soy industry – even such small steps are out of reach.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a critic living in Paris.

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