California Refinery Pivot to Soy-based Diesel Threatens Forests and Communities in Paraguay

Listen to From Beyond The Redwood Curtain, Episode 5: Soy-Based Diesel Threatens Paraguay – unique public affairs radio programming from Biofuelwatch and KMUD.

As California looks to soy-based ‘renewable diesel’ and ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ as a climate solution, Dr. Miguel Lovera, the featured guest in this special KMUD Redwood Community Radio public affairs collaboration with Biofuelwatch, describes the public health and environmental threats arising from the expansion of soy monoculture agriculture in Paraguay — and why Californians should be alert to the dangers of refiners like Phillips 66 and Marathon converting to soy-based liquid fuels.

Dr. Lovera is an agronomist based in Asunción, Paraguay, who works with the civil society organization Iniciativa Amotocodie.

Learn about Iniciativa Amotocodie and their work with the indigenous Ayoreo people at their website here.

Listen to the show here.

TRANSCRIPT from KMUD From Beyond The Redwood Curtain Episode 5 with Dr Miguel Lovera

This transcript has been edited for continuity and flow. The transcript may contain errors; the definitive source for quotes is the audio file.

HOST GH: Gary Hughes       GUEST ML: Dr Miguel Lovera

HOST GH NARRATION: Whether it be for the pickup truck, the generator or the excavator, diesel fuel runs in the veins of the North Coast, even as the Redwood Region is largely shielded from the impacts of the extraction and processing that allows for the manufacturing of these liquid fuels.

Hello KMUD listeners, welcome to the fifth episode of the unique series of From Beyond The Redwood Curtain, a special KMUD public affairs programming collaboration exploring the realities of the liquid fuel energy system that is so deeply ingrained in the lifestyles and economy of the North Coast of California.

My name is Gary Hughes, and I work as the California Policy Monitor with the organization Biofuelwatch, and I am the host and producer of this unique radio programming. Central to our series has been an exploration of the proposed conversion of refineries in the San Francisco Bay Area to manufacturing what is called ‘renewable diesel,’ a drop-in diesel biofuel that requires no blending with petroleum based diesel, as does typical biodiesel – and that requires no modification of the diesel engine for the biofuel to function.

The proposed pivot of Bay Area refineries is being politically supported by the Newsom Administration, and other state officials, as being a climate solution. Yet a closer look at the hard realities of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils such as soy quickly reveals the unsustainable nature of these supposedly low carbon fuels.

To understand the risks of California refineries converting to manufacturing diesel fuel from high deforestation risk commodities like soy, we have an amazing interview to share with you today. Earlier this month, I was able to connect with Dr. Miguel Lovera, who works and resides in Asunción, Paraguay.

Paraguay is a landlocked South American nation that is bordered by Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina. The land area of Paraguay is approximately equal to that of California, but the population of the country is only 1/4 as large. Confronting some of the world’s highest levels of deforestation. Paraguay has been ground zero in the expansion of the global soy agriculture model.

Our guest, Miguel Lovera, is an agronomist who has decades of experience in studying the impacts of soy monoculture, and advocating for the rights of affected communities. Miguel worked for a time as the president of the National Seed and Phytosanitary Service of Paraguay with a high level focus on the risk of transgenic organisms. He was a member of the cabinet of the government of Fernando Lugo and, during that time, was a lead negotiator at United Nations climate deliberations on behalf of the Paraguayan government.

This episode of From Beyond the Redwood Curtain has been produced and edited for KMUD from a long ranging conversation that I had with Miguel about soy agriculture impacts in Paraguay, and the prospects of California pivoting to become a world leader in the production of diesel fuel from soy. Let’s turn to the interview now.

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: I’m Miguel Lovera. I’m an agronomist by training and I’m at the moment working as the coordinator, general coordinator of Iniciativa Amotocodie.

Iniciativa Amotocodie is an NGO that works with the Ayoreo people who live in the north of the Paraguayan Chaco.

The Chaco is a region which is about a bit over 60% of the Paraguayan territory, territory that is covered by the Chaco. And it’s a mosaic of several ecosystems. And the most important and the largest in terms of area in the Chaco is the dry forest. And this is where the Ayoreo people live.

The Ayoreo people are still…some of them are still living in voluntary isolation.

They’ve been living like that for the last 3000 years. And these guy’s don’t want to have anything to do with these, uh, modern lifestyles and modern development and modern countries even, you know, they want to prefer it, to live in, the way they lived and the way they had adapted to the Chaco and to the dry conditions of the territory, the fauna, the flora, nature and the spirits of this area.

So they don’t want to do anything with us, but cannot be said the same from the other side, the side of the government and the private sector is encroaching more and more into these territories and is transforming it by deforesting by just stripping the area, transforming it, fragmenting it with roads and other infrastructure and urbanization.

And of course, a lot of the infrastructure is there to allow for cattle ranchers, and also soybean production.

Most of Paraguay, especially the agribusiness in Paraguay, is dedicated to the production of soybeans and this is done in the eastern region of Paraguay. Paraguay is divided into regions, the Eastern and the Western, which is the Chaco, by the Paraguay River. And whatever is to the east of the Paraguay River is where the soybeans are being grown.

But traditionally, this was also cattle area, ranching area. So, the activity had to be moved, was relocated in the Chaco, and most of it has gone to the Ayoreo territory.

The deforestation there in the Chaco is really high.

It went, it’s, actually, in 2014, according to the University of Maryland, it reached the highest deforestation rate in the world, followed by deforestation in Malaysia. So anyway, this is the setup in which the Ayoreo, who live in voluntary isolation, have to survive.

And to make things a little bit more difficult, and that is to say really much more difficult, soybeans are being started to be planted in this area.

HOST GH NARRATION: You are listening to From Beyond the Redwood Curtain, a special public affairs series on KMUD. My name is Gary Hughes, and I am your host. Today’s show is focused on the impacts of soy agriculture in Paraguay, featuring our guest Miguel Lovera. Let’s turn back to the interview.

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: Now, this development model is taking more and more land. And what the situation is with the global demand is that if you produce a liter of soy oil or of grain, they’ll find something to do with that.

So the demand is so elastic, and it’s increasing in such a way that if you can produce something – in this case soybeans or any other oil – which has industrial applications, it’ll be claimed by the development model, by the industry, which is transforming it into food, feed and fuel.

And this is this is the problem with soybeans that they are so much in demand that they’ll cover the whole country if it was up to them. If it was up to the agribusiness sector, there’s basically no regulations, although they exist, but they’re not complied with by these producers, they are just interested in the money and they have all the support necessary from a corrupt government that allows basically everything, allows for the expansion, never ending, never ending expansion of soybean cultivation.

And all kinds of spraying of dangerous chemicals, including glyphosate, Roundup. Roundup Ready technologies are the basis for this production.

So the impacts are completely, let’s say, are very, very hard and, and unpredictable. And they’re very persistent. We have the whole population of Paraguay has reached the levels of cancer, the highest levels of cancer in its history. And most of those patients actually come from the soy production area; we call it the soy belt.

So, this is the scenario in which these increases in soy production and productivity is taking place, a scenario in which no human rights are observed.

There are no…not even property rights are being respected. There are so many of these land feuds even between people working in the same sector, who are belonging to the same agribusiness sector.

And of course, there’s basically no respect whatsoever to indigenous peoples rights, to those land rights that have never been fully respected, even by the state. It’s really difficult to believe but the Paraguayan constitution enshrines these rights to land and territory for the indigenous peoples but the Paraguayan government has never actually, very seldom, moved in the right direction to fulfill this constitutional demand.

HOST GH NARRATION: You are listening to KMUD and hearing from Dr. Miguel Lovera, who works and resides in Asunción, Paraguay. My name is Gary Hughes and I am the host of this special public affairs series From Beyond the Redwood Curtain. We had to edit the interview for brevity, continuity and to manage some technical glitches. Let’s return for the conclusion of the interview now.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: Now, I’d like to look a little bit more at the public health issues with the monoculture soy model, Miguel, I think the issues of deforestation in the Chaco are really important, and I have another question for you there. But what you were saying to me about the public health issues once the plantations are established, I think is really crucial. Can you tell us a little bit more about the history of how people in Paraguay and the people that you work with came to understand the public health risks from soy? When did it first become really apparent that there were these risks of cancer that you could directly associate to the monoculture model?

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: Let’s say from the onset of this soy Bonanza, many, many people started showing signs of health problems of all sorts and during the first years it was really difficult to identify or to claim that there was a relationship with this Bonanza, but but very soon the medical establishment started raising the issue.

For instance, I’ve heard university professors saying, well, during my training as a physician, I’ve only seen one case of lymphoma, lymphatic cancer. And now we have – this is about five years ago – and now we see 50% of the beds in the University Hospital, the main University Hospital in Asunción, have been taken by these patients that have lymphatic cancer.

So this has been really drastic, a very drastic move upwards of these cases.

And people were already seeing this for the last, let’s say 15 to 20 years, they’ve been identifying these illnesses that were completely uncontrollable for their traditional medicine, for the conventional way of dealing with ailments.

So most of the of the population had already, it’s already convinced that they’ve been exposed to these cancer agents, by the only new comers in the area, the newcomers would be the soy growers, or the shift to soy cultivation in these areas that were mainly devoted to cattle ranching.

So if you talk to anyone in the countryside at this moment, they’ll recognize that they are exposed to these cancer agents and that some of them, if someone in the family is either already sick with cancer, or they can, they are very sure that one of them will fall ill at some point with these ailments.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: This sounds like a total public health crisis.


HOST GH INTERVIEW: Directly related then to the transgenic soy, the Roundup Ready soy? And this is something that’s in Paraguay, but also it’s also a major issue in Argentina and Bolivia and Brazil as well with the entire sector of soy?

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: Absolutely. Yes, yes, absolutely. This is, there is a definition of this area of the world that you just mentioned, especially in the temperate to the subtropical area of this countries, which is the largest and the most intensive soy production territory, is called the United Republic of Soybeans. I think the Syngenta company created this as a slogan, part of one of their slogans to promote the use of their pesticides and their seeds in this area, but it’s indeed these territories that have very fertile soils and good rainfall and that are mostly occupied by soy growing activities.

And they are, and those are the areas where we have these health problems, that we have identified as the most intensely affected by this, mainly by cancer.

The model is very similar. Of course the model is the Roundup Ready model.

It encroached everywhere. It encroached on the small groups, small farmers territories, in the Indigenous People’s territories, and also, as I said, took over much of these traditional cattle ranching areas.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: There is so much, I think, that we in California should be aware of when it comes to what the real implications are of the expansion of an industrial transgenic based monoculture, soy agriculture model.

Miguel, when you hear about proposals in California, which often introduces itself to the world as though it, you know, really is a state that provides leadership on environmental and climate issues. But when you hear that there are major refineries here in the state of California that are proposing to shift to soy oils for processing liquid fuels like diesel and jet fuel, what does that make you think? And what do you most want Californians to take into consideration when they’re hearing about these kinds of proposals?

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: Well, the first thing I can assure you is that any increase in demand of soybeans will mean more pressure on the Ayoreo and other indigenous peoples in this part of the world.

That is, it’s a fact, we’ve seen it happening with a lot less ambitious projects, and we’ve seen it happening with just very slight increases in protein demand. And this is actually…what a fuel plant of the dimensions, I’ve read a little bit of what you’re facing there, that would be actually equivalent, the demand for soybeans would be the equivalent of a whole, of almost 100 million pigs a year, that’s the kind of soy you will need to fuel all those vehicles and to provide all these fuels, for vehicles or for electric, for electricity generation.

That is a huge amount of soy, it is a huge amount of land that will be required. And you say, well, no, well, this will be sourced from different sources, that you’re not going to go to Paraguay, or to Brazil to get this. But remember that the US is a consumer, and it’s also an exporter, the US is an exporting country. The US exports an awful lot of soybeans as well. So the demand is there, in countries, in continents, like Asia and countries like China, Europe.

So you will end up using part of the, of whatever is under the line of the status quo at the moment, and you will move that line beyond this threshold that took us to where we are now, not that we want to be here. But I’m saying that any variation upwards mainly of this line, will mean that they’ll try to get to replace those soybeans that are being devoted to the production of fuels in California, or anywhere else. Right?

So this is this is, we know it, we’re so sure about it because we’ve seen it happening, as I said, with much less ambitious processes.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: Miguel, thank you so much for being with me on this, you know, journey that we’ve taken to learn from you about the realities on the ground in Paraguay and impacts on this really, culturally and ecologically biodiverse region, in Southern South America. It’s been so great to have you with us.

Do you have any more last words for listeners in California and elsewhere about what we really need to be keeping in mind to support efforts like yours and the communities that you’re working with to, you know, secure some protections from, from this, this predatory system? That we seem to be, you know, having to, you know, yes, yeah, survive, or stop, or whatever it is that we’re doing?

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: Yes, well, indeed, just be conscious that the, that in, as consumers, you have a lot of say in this whole equation.

I can only urge you again to look at the side effects of anything you consume.

In the case of soy, there’s a lot of, it’s actually such an, such an ugly repertoire. There is cancer associated, there is water and soil depletion and contamination, there is ethnic cleansing, there is murder, there is land grabbing, land grabbing, you know, it is really horrible, it is a horrible scenario.

And this is why we have to be extremely conscious of our actions and our decisions as consumers in northern countries. And also here, of course, but mainly in northern countries, because the 1% of demand that will, that this plan will require it will require there in California will, it has the potential of finishing up the whole culture in countries like Paraguay, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, you know, it’s so, it’s a very small move on your side, that has the potential to be a tremendous blow on this end of the, of the equation.

So I will just warn you that those things work that way, and that you have a lot to do against it, to avoid it.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: Thank you so much.

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: And thank you for listening.

HOST GH INTERVIEW: Oh yeah, no, thank you so much for joining us. And thank you for all of your wisdom and knowledge. Thank you.

GUEST ML INTERVIEW: I’m glad to be with you and ready to answer your calls again whenever, whenever you decide.

HOST GH NARRATION: That brings us to the end of another episode of From Beyond The Redwood Curtain, a special public affairs programming collaboration between KMUD Redwood Community Radio and the international organization Biofuelwatch. My name is Gary Hughes, and I am the host and producer of this series. Thank you to everyone for listening and a special thanks to Miguel Lovera for joining us for this episode. Be sure to tune in again in one month for the final episode of this special series exploring the proposed conversion of refineries in California to biofuels. Until then, be sure to keep your radio tuned to People Powered KMUD.

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