Journalism According to Monsanto

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This article was originally published last month in Spanish in Revista Anfibia

“Be careful,” a scientist said when I told her what had happened. “Monsanto’s tactics are always the same: first they try to seduce you, and if that doesn’t work they defame you and if you keep bothering them, they sue you.”

Soledad Barruti, author of Malcomidos

Soledad Barruti, author of Malcomidos (photo by Xavier Martin)

A month ago my book, ‘Malcomidos’, hit the streets: in 465 pages I named Monsanto just 27 times. I didn’t say anything about the corporation that has not been said before: that the company came to our country around 50 years ago as a plastics business and in 1996, taking advantage of the Menemist platform of public devoicing, it strengthened to install its experiments in genetically modified (GM) crops in open fields and everybody’s food. It managed to get approval for its products without even translating the studies, when no other country (except the United States) seemed willing to open the door to them. That the two selling points with which they touted their transgenic products had collapsed under the weight of reality: there were no fewer hungry people in the world (the figure stays around 800 million and one billion year on year), nor were the crops less toxic than non-GM (more and more pesticides are used to work these fields as diseases and insects build up resistance). To write this I didn’t need an interview with Monsanto. Anyway, I was sure they would not have granted me one. The company only gives interviews to journalists and media who are allies.

And yet, the message.

“Hello Soledad. I would like to get in touch and I didn’t find another way. I work for Monsanto. I would like to talk to you about GM and agrochemicals. Exchange opinions and sources. That’s all. Thank you.”

I received this message via Facebook, two days before a group of neighbours set up a camp in front of the Monsanto plant that was being built in Malvinas Argentinas in Córdoba. The business had never before faced such a situation. He signed Pancho: Francisco Do Pico, head of government relations for Monsanto. A young guy, judging by his profile picture, 30-something, and quite similar to Britain’s Prince William.

Slightly anxious, I gave him my number and waited.

He called me the following morning.

“We would like you to come for a chat in our offices.”

“I imagine that you know what I think: I don’t agree with the productive model that Monsanto promotes.”

“Yes, but if there is something that we want in Monsanto, it is to have the chance to generate an exchange.”

***

Tradition dictates different varieties of corn be collected to add genetic diversity when selectively breeding new strains (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tradition dictates different varieties of corn be collected to add genetic diversity when selectively breeding new strains (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

There are milestones in the anti-Monsanto fight that are repeated and rewritten in people’s collective conscience. In India, the organisation Via Campesina burnt three of Monsanto’s experimental fields, and in a matter of days got 10,000 signatures together, petitioning for the corporation to leave the country. In Haiti, destroyed after the 2010 earthquake, peasant organisations marched to the Ministry of Agriculture to oppose a planned Monsanto donation of 475 tonnes of hybrid seeds, alleging that it was a vile way to finish off the local farmers for good: the pressure was such that the government admitted they had no way of administering and controlling GMOs. In Hawaii, a young, beautiful woman from Molokai who lives with her two children next to a Monsanto GM corn field began a crusade when her son got sick after inhaling a cloud of toxic dust. In Peru a collective movement lead by peasants in rural areas and chefs like Gastón Acurio in the cities achieved a ten-year moratorium on planting of GM seeds. In Mexico, where GM corn was contaminating local crops, they stopped the planting of Monsanto seeds by popular force. Europe has hung on to its precautionary principle (until something – a GM seed or an agrochemical – proves itself to be safe for health and the environment, it will not be used), and on a social level a war is on to stop any more things entering the area. “Monsanto is the devil’s seed,” said HBO presenter Bill Maher in one of his most watched shows in 2012. And so on, all around the world.

There is a Global Day Against Monsanto (12th October), in which 500 cities and 52 countries participated in 2013, where people marched with skeleton costumes and death masks as they shared community meals made with different kinds of corn of a thousand colours: that corn that risks being devoured by BT corn.

Even in China, social struggles against the company have become the most rotund expression against the ever more evident disasters of capitalism. Perhaps because the problems brought about by Monsanto’s acts are felt everyday at the table: Monsanto is what we eat. The most powerful seed corporation in the world owns 90% of the GM seeds in existence. It is its GM grains that industrially raised animals (chickens, pigs, cows, salmon) eat; 80% of industrial food has GM corn or soy among its ingredients (biscuits, chocolate, vinegar, chicken nuggets, ice cream, salad dressings), and it is real food – which has ever less room to grow and ever smaller a market – that is disappearing (fruit trees, sunflowers, wheat, grass-fed herbivores).

In Argentina too. Here, if you talk about Monsanto, you have to talk about Malvinas Argentinas.

***

I thought of different ways I could go to the Monsanto meeting. With a lawyer, with a recorder, with a camera. I thought of the questions I would ask, the questions they would ask me, I noted things that I should look out for.

But a month had passed since that first phone call and no news from Monsanto.

However, there had been news from Malvinas Argentinas and the camp. News from social networks, from media based in Córdoba, and, every now and then, national newspapers. And I had news from some of those camped out, who would get in touch every now and then.

The mobilisation had started in another nearby town, in Ituzaingó, in mid-2012. After 12 years of fighting, a group of people from Córdoba had managed to take an agrochemical sprayer (Edgardo Pancello) and a soy producer (Francisco Parra) to court for illegal spraying and intentional pollution. For throwing poisonous chemicals over their houses, patios, pavements, water tanks; for making the air that hundreds of families breathe toxic. With 169 cases of cancer and 30 deaths as a result of the disease assumed by the prosecution (the claimants reported double the number of cases), in the path they followed during the decade, the Ituzaingó case became an emblem for the rest of the sprayed towns in the country: there are approximately 12 million people who live in rural areas.

The same day as the ruling – instead of sending them to prison, they disqualified the defendants for eight and ten years – Monsanto announced, by teleconference from New York accompanied by president Cristina Fernández de Kircher, their plans for Malvinas Argentinas: they would establish the largest seed plant in the world there.

This announcement was the last straw.

“I researched online as much as I could and I checked it all: with my husband we went to a smallholding that we had close by and we saw how month by month there was less life: neither animals, nor birds, nor insects. Just soy and those poisons that smell bitter and kill everything,” recalls Beba, a grandmother with blond, almost transparent eyebrows, whose eyes light up like black beams when she talks about the collective force that she felt when she got together with her neighbours to rise up against the outrage.

At first they were 300 against a $1.5bn investment. The 300 repeated the same thing: the environmental impact report that is required by the provincial constitution in order to give the project the go-ahead had not been done, and that the poisons they were going to use were banned in Europe.

Within a few days there were parents, children, grandparents, teachers, cooks, unemployed, hippies, students, vegans, meat-eaters, Trotskyists, idealists, and others that tried to give shape to the protest. At one point, on 18th September, they were in front of the Monsanto plant celebrating a Spring that didn’t seem like Spring. “A day with strong north winds that whipped you in the face and legs,” recalls Beba. “This wind that was let loose because there are not even trees left in Córdoba.” And then someone said: “And what if we just stay here?” And so they stayed.

The 'Spring Without Monsanto' protest in Malvinas Argentinas (photo: Paola Castillo, via Tierra Negra)

The ‘Spring Without Monsanto’ protest in Malvinas Argentinas (photo: Paola Castillo, via Tierra Negra)

Virginia Basualdo is a person whose slimness could be mistaken for fragility and whose hope lights everything up. Just over 30, she has two children aged four and two, whom she is bringing up on her own. “Like many in Córdoba, I am sick of them going over our heads. The provincial environment secretary is a joke:  he lets every project go ahead without a thought of the consequences. We live among fires, water crises, contamination. So when I heard about the Malvinas blockade I didn’t doubt to go there. ‘At last!’ I said. Don’t ask me why, it was a sort of premonition. And I arrived and I saw them and I said ‘I’m staying here’. If there is battle in the world that is worth fighting for, it is this one: Monsanto kills, contaminates, poisons. And I am going to stop them. I am going to stop them for me, but above all for my children.”

The camp is several months old, but the most intense events happened during this first stage. Eight days of collective rage, waiting for what they thought would happen imminently: that they would be removed. On Thursday 26th September members of UOCRA [construction workers' union] walked around the camp, but it was just that: a passive but intimidating showdown. “They sent the UOCRA to intimidate,” wrote Virginia. “We don’t know what might happen but we are waiting.” Three days later, the police suppressed the campers with batons, gas, and rubber bullets.

During the rest of September and October lots of things happened in the camp: Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel visited, media from all around the country arrived, people from neighbouring provinces came by, the campers filed lawsuits, and Monsanto tried to get around the picket but without drawing any more attention.

The fight grew stronger and reached Río Cuarto: the town’s mayor would end up aborting another project by the corporation.

***

Monsanto has a fascinating past, which begins in Missouri at the start of the 20th century with a young chemist, John Francis Queeny, married to a Olga Monsanto. John wants to sells saccharine to the world and manages to do so when he finds a perfect buyer, another incipient North American corporation: Coca Cola. From the beginning, Monsanto – the name chosen by JFQ as a gesture to his wife’s family for putting the initial capital up – was successful. So much so that they managed to locate to the epicentre of the growing chemical industry which explored plastics and the most diverse substances, until the moment of real success arrived: the world at war. Bayer, Dow Chemical, Monsanto: all the companies which are behind agroindustry have a dirty war past. Monsanto was behind the manufacturing of Agent Orange, for example. On a civilian level, it manufactured and sold the carcinogenic pollutant PCB (used to cool electric generators around the world), hiding the studies that warned it was a carcinogenic pollutant, as proven in a lawsuit started by 3,500 victims in the United States, which cost the corporation US$700m.

“Many of the bad things they say about us are related to things in the past,” Francisco Do Pico told residents of Valle del Conlara in San Luis in an ‘exchange’ meeting. “That company no longer exists. It is a shame that they didn’t change the name at the time, and that the company is still called what it was called then. And we are still connected to many of the things that for us it is difficult to explain or take responsibility for, as we weren’t even born back then.”

The Monsanto of today – which sells seeds and agrochemicals and hides this recent past – has entered the centre stage of the “war against hunger”, the one which started the Green Revolution at the end of the ’60s and finished with the GM revolution in the ’90s: when they managed to find plants which survived the agrochemicals that they wanted to sell. Monsanto was a pioneer in technology applied to agriculture, setting the planet on a course drawn by corn that exudes its own insecticide and soy plants which can be bathed in herbicide without dying: glyphosate.

With millions of dollars in advertising, political campaigns, and applied science in this industry, Monsanto advanced. With that and with a lawyers’ firm that thrust unfair contracts on the producers, both on their clients and on those who didn’t want to be clients. Thus, in all of the countries which had patenting laws, they managed to change the ways which had always ruled agriculture: the producers must buy seeds each time they want to sow, they cannot keep them or reuse them, and certainly can’t share them. Violations of the contract ended in million-dollar lawsuits. In 2003, the United States Food Security Center analysed the situation of farmers in the country and said that Monsanto “had used investigations, heavy-handedness, and ruthless persecution” against them. Not even those who were the corporation’s clients were safe. Percy Schmeiser is a Canadian producer who became famous because Monsanto took him to court and bankrupted him after they found his crops had been contaminated by neighbouring GM crops. And none of the steps the company has taken recently led anyone to think that they are going to lift the pressure: a few months ago Monsanto bought Climate Corporation, a company of 200 scientists who generate 50 terabytes of data about private fields every hour. What Monsanto will do with this information remains a mystery.

The World According to Monsanto is a 2008 documentary by Marie-Monique Robin

The World According to Monsanto is a 2008 documentary by Marie-Monique Robin

However, although there are books and documentaries (the most famous, The World According to Monsanto, by Marie-Monique Robin) dedicated to unravelling the unholy running of the business, Monsanto invests billions of dollars in lobbying and advertising, leaving the terms of the debate they find uncomfortable far from the mainstream media.

Those who want to dig deeper into the darker sides of the business (the suffocation of producers, the litigation, the scientific debates) must walk in the dark by the sharp cracks of information which pour out of spaces as uncertain as the internet.

In Google, Monsanto has almost seven million hits. Some are official information, others are independent studies, many are protest groups, and many more are myths and improbable stories which come from who-knows-where. There are those who say Monsanto is the CIA, NATO, or the GEOF. Others suggest that the business is the final plan of a family of perverse, very wealthy and very powerful Jews, which want to create a new world order: the Rothschilds. There are also those who see Monsanto throwing chemical contrails over the population to decimate it. And then there’s those who let their mind wander into space, where they see aliens drawing a reptile ruled by Monsanto on Obama’s neck.

And Monsanto hears all of this – the serious and inexplicable information – and keeps quiet. And so, guarded by this ominous silence they unravel their best strategy: to have others fight or laugh in their name.

***

“Hi Francisco, I would like to set a time for that talk you had proposed. I have a few things I would like to ask you,” I wrote, a few days before travelling to Córdoba.

“Hi Soledad, I haven’t forgotten our meeting, I have it at the front of my mind, but the blockade of our plant in Córdoba is keeping us really busy,” he replied straight away. “Next week?”

“Ok. Wednesday morning? I have a few questions. Can I bring a recorder?”

“I would prefer that you send everything in writing and we will reply in writing. We can have a relaxed chat. Off the record.”

I clarified that I would be going as a journalist, that even if it was without a recorder, I would like to use the information for potential articles.

He didn’t answer until two days later, also by email: “I’m sending you some things that will show you the other side of the story. Homework for the weekend. I really suggest you read Mark Lynas. A converted former environmentalist, he doesn’t like us, but he does like biotechnology.”

I knew of Mark Lynas, a famous activist against climate change, contributor to media such as The Observer and Ecologist and creator of the film ‘The Age of Stupid‘, who suspiciously and suddenly at the start of 2013 started to stop defending what he had always defended. “I regret having started the anti-GM movement in the mid-90s as I helped to demonise an important technological option that could be used to benefit the environment,” he said, leading you to wonder what makes a person who thinks A suddenly begins to say that A is terrible?

In front of Plaza San Martín in Retiro, wedged between a credit card and an insurance company, are the offices of Monsanto in Buenos Aires. The finance, communication, development, and legal departments. Walls of lifts plotted in green, gigantic corn graphics. A kind of agro porn which is a little frightening. Armchairs upholstered in a washed out lilac which fades into light brown. A coffee table with farm business magazines: farming problems, solutions. The receptionist -curly black hair, round eyes, ecstatic smile, and fervent friendliness—, the soft lighting, the silence of a world of offices hidden behind a glass door which shows a pale green durlock wall.

According to the Great Place to Work consultants, who have Monsanto among their clients, Monsanto is one of the ten best companies to work for in Argentina. Francisco Do Pico is tall, blonde, with light-coloured eyes and large teeth. “This is Monsanto,” he says whilst guiding me through suffocating corridors –the typical layout of large companies- towards a closed office. “We have rearranged the space and now the offices are like Google’s.” Boxes with dividers which don’t reach the ceiling. A place that starts and ends in itself like a desk capsule, where everyone can do now what they couldn’t a few months ago: see each other’s faces.

The office he invites me through to has a desk, computer, four chairs, papers. A standard office. Francisco sits down facing the computer. I sit between two girls, a blonde and a brunette, who handle internal and external communication. He studied political science and takes care of Monsanto’s government affairs, as he previously did for Siemens. They are journalists: the brunette is learning, the blonde already loves agriculture. All three are not far from 40. On the table, family photos are framed. On the wall, drawings of the aliens from ‘Despicable Me’.

Off the record, Monsanto says the same as on, and the same as in the 12 documents that Francisco had sent me as “homework for the weekend”, as well as the Lynas conference. Explanations about advanced agriculture. The method of super-production, which, they have learned to communicate, is the only way to eradicate hunger. The advantages of glyphosate over other chemicals and the agricultural problems that come not from their technological combinations but from the producers using them incorrectly. A theory that is ever more flimsy: because either the world’s producers are all useless, or nature follows the theory of evolution closely, and there is no way – as cockroaches have already proved – that chemistry will put a full stop to it.

“Monsanto doesn’t spray,” says the blonde with the red jacket and white shirt. “We cannot be responsible for the bad use of the technology.”

“And what if it is technology that is failing, by not taking into account the environment’s natural behaviour?”

“No. That never happens.”

The talk gets stuck in technicalities. It grows boring.

I ask them how it feels. When they go to an asado, in school meetings, among friends; if they don’t feel that people look at them strangely when they say they work for Monsanto.

Francisco’s half-smile, the brunette’s avoidance of eye contact, the noise of the blonde’s chair. Without speaking, each one in their own way seems to have said yes.

“There are a lot of myths about Monsanto,” says Francisco.

The office breathes the same lightness that is in all corporate offices: something that makes life seem a bit like a game or a television series. The reality – that of the countryside, of the camp, of the communities that have been sprayed – looks like the other side of the looking glass, something that you are safe from here, just like you are safe from a traffic jam or a protest when in a high rise building.

They asked why I hadn’t asked for an interview beforehand, seeing as I was interested in the subject. I answered that they don’t give interviews. They assured me that they do, and give this very meeting as an example. I remind them that I am not even allowed to record it.

None of them seems to want to understand the absurdity of what they are suggesting.

Francisco accompanies me downstairs. We take a lift covered in dirty plastic bags full of rubble. He tells me that Monsanto is growing, opening more offices in the same building and increasing its staff. Monsanto provides jobs. Monsanto shows a clear world, unlike the work of environmentalists which is not clear, says Francisco and, already in the lobby next to the turnstiles that will take me back to the street, slips into the conversation the comparison between the transparency of a formal job like the one offered there and the collective reaction of a group that dedicates its time to fighting against this company. People from the assemblies could not do that for free.

“Nobody can have all of that free time, do they live on air?” he asks. “No, someone is surely paying for those environmentalists to be there,” he hints. A someone who is much more questionable and dark. Multinational companies that drift through the underworld of green capitalism built to bring down the proper capitalism they uphold. Or worse, the competition. There is a very widely shared theory about this: that anti-Monsanto movements are sponsored by other chemical giants.

“Bear it in mind,” he says, before saying goodbye. “Find out, ask questions, research that too.”

I tell him yes, rest assured. But he insists. He insists and it reminds me that he knows that I was planning on going to the camp.

“As you are already going to meet with them, it would be good for you to do a mapping of the entire situation. There are things that are very unfair.”

“For example?”

“For example, in this country there are more than 40 similar plants, and suddenly they block this one. Why Monsanto? That is really unfair.”

An anti-Monsanto march in Córdoba in December (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

An anti-Monsanto march in Córdoba in December (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

The fight against Monsanto is highly emotional. Especially in our country, where those confronting the company are the victims of the undeniable rise in the number of illnesses that appeared in the communities which were sprayed. For them, Monsanto is, above all, a symbol. It is the 20th century poisoned by the abuse of chemistry, the weakness of the states against corporations, or their alliance. Monoculture which does not feed people but animals, and which is extending around the planet.

For the employees in charge of Monsanto’s image (who work there just as they could work for Adidas or Mac) it seems hard to understand that they are a symbol, but, especially, it seems harder to convince anyone else of the opposite.

***

My book talks about this: how our food production system is in crisis. It expels farmers and doesn’t produce healthy, good quality food within everybody’s reach. We have 57% of arable land occupied by GM soy, more than 90% of which is exported to feed animals in China and to generate biofuels. Our food is disappearing. It is enough to have a look around a greengrocers: there is less and less variety and the prices seems uncontrollable. But instead of thinking about redesigning the matrix to make access to food easier, soy is being planted right up to La Matanza, and many institutions – among them a number of universities – seem focused on encouraging this model.

A week before arriving in Córdoba, I received a new email from Francisco Do Pico.

“Soledad: I wanted to share with you what happened to me yesterday. I hope it will help you open your mind a bit, being as your book only shows one side of the reality. I am an employee, convinced of what I do, and I don’t deserve to go through what I experienced yesterday and what I am still suffering today. I hope you can use your trip to Córdoba to repudiate this.”

The mail came with a video in which you could see him giving a talk to students in the Faculty of chemical engineering in the Universidad del Litoral, when a group of students entered with Sofía Gatica, leader of the Madres de Ituzaingó, and with their chants they made them leave the room. There was no hitting or spitting. Yes, you could hear insults and see them closing in on him. It was an escrache, and like all escraches, it was an intimidating situation. I told him that just like I don’t agree with his work, I don’t agree with any kind of aggression. “I hope you’re ok,” I said.

And we never spoke again.

It is impossible to establish a correlation between what happened next and everything else, but this is how things happened.

I had just printed the tickets to Córdoba when they sent me the photo: my face with Monsanto’s logo stamped on my forehead.

The photo was linked to an article, written like a rushed denunciation, entitled: ‘Unmasking Soledad Barruti’. In it, they explained they had discovered that I was not a journalist but a kind of undercover agent for Monsanto, helping get their message into the press. In a kind of underhand way, my mission was to generate a collective confusion which it was impossible to get out of.

In just 24 hours the article had gone viral on Facebook and in chain emails.

In 48 hours, another article arrived saying the same but in other words in the same site (BWN). The first was bylined by Laura Cohen Star, the second by Diego Ignacio Mur. The insults spread in Twitter by a series of girls – with their photos showing pretty, violent girls of German origin: Celeste Fassbinder, Lessly Daecher, Violeta Amsel. “You think nobody knows?” “How much is Lord Rothschild paying you?” they asked, using similar hashtags: #BWNPatagonia #FuckMonsanto #FuckRothschild #FuckSionism (sic). Or something like that. Guys also wrote, with the same hashtags but less violence. A guy called Agustín, another called Carlos, and Diego Mur who retweeted everything.

My first reaction was to not pay attention. But the second article, plus to a call to my mother, frightened me. “Did you see what they sent me?” It ended with a call to Pablo Slonimski, lawyer for the Planeta, the publisher that published the book, so that they would do something.

“What?”

“Something. The things that you do when people are defamed. Send an official letter, or something.”

“It’s not as easy as that”

“Why not?”

“Firstly because you have to find a name, an address to send it to, and finally, make them pay attention. Bear in mind you don’t know who is doing this, or why.”

“What do I do then?”

“Find out.”

Behind all of these names I only found one real person: Diego Ignacio Mur. The others seemed to be fake profiles managed by him, with photos taken from photologs or porn sites. I couldn’t find out much about Mur: he was a computer technician who was a little over 40, lived in El Bolsón, and kept a blog (BWN or Bondwana Argentina). There he published the most diverse articles: anti vaccine, anti Greenpeace, anti marijuana, and, above all, anti Jew. Among the “information” he assured that HIV was an illness caused by antibiotics and vaccines, cancer was a fungus, or the only device that was left to the body for its survival, and GM was a master plan to silently poison the world’s population and create a New World Order.

“Monsanto is a murderous, genocidal, carcinogenic, Jewish corporation,” each one of Mur’s alleged avatars (all of those girls on Twitter) wrote each day, whilst they encouraged time and again the public escrache of anybody who worked there, starting with the CEO.

Despite the anti-semitic propaganda, the blog was not banned, but it became the newspaper El Bolsón Web – and, among articles on tourism and ads looking for promoters, it has advertising and (according to Mur) more than 100,000 daily visits.

Suddenly finding oneself facing this universe awakens a feeling of impotence, above all. There are no tools against the absurd, just as there are no weapons you can use against ghosts.

“Let’s put out a press release,” suggested the publisher.

But in the face of stories such as: “CFK forces pregnant women to use a vaccine that could lead to abortions”, or “Vaccinated children suffer 500% more illnesses than those who are not”, or “adolescents prove that the Holocaust didn’t happen and get a ten in school”, any response seemed ridiculous.

Without a legal address to send it to, the thing that worried me most was how those in the camp would respond to me. Because the BWN page, among all these crazy stories, had videos about and from the camp: interviews with Sofía Gatica, workshops about ‘alternative medicine’, articles in support, in alliance. BWN was, to its readers, just another activist. And, to those who supported Monsanto, utter proof that its detractors where badly informed, violent people.

***

A roadblock close to the camp in October (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

A roadblock close to the camp in October (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

The Malvinas Argentinas camp starts on the roadside, on a wide verge. There are five stands covering the 36 hectare perimeter. In each tent, the protestors have been sleeping on the floor for months, in the heat, the cold, the rain, holding onto the hope that this will work. The first stand – the school – is the only one that is not on the road. The second stand, the gate – has music and people with dreadlocks taking up the whole space, face up to the raging and dry sun that reflects off the road. The third –Amaranto– is a few metres away and is a kind of eco-village: an adobe house with a kitchen, a pantry to keep donations – of food, clothes, water – and an organic garden: tyres that double as pots for growing corn, tomatoes, peppers, and amaranth plants: a plant that soy producers consider a weed, but some of its species are actually nutritious grains. The fourth post – the Che Guevara – displays a donation as useful as it is symbolic: the tent that the Famatina assembly used during all its years of struggle, before they managed to drive out Barrick Gold mining corporation. Finally, the fifth is just one tent on Monsanto’s property, called Vaca Muerta, in honour of the animal that lies rotting among flies just a few metres away.

The camp has an assembly – Malvinas Lucha por la Vida – which works along with the Madres de Ituzaingó. But they also receive support from those are new to the world of activism, leaders who have become symbols of social struggle, doctors, biologists, universities such as Córdoba’s National University, the Río Cuarto National University, Córdoba’s Catholic University. Daily life is festive but also somewhat tense. Among the locals, everything is more diffuse: of the hundreds who were there in the beginning, fewer are still there, because when the intimidation began, many left never to return. Some through fear, others because they began to view the problems on a negative light and at the same time to heed Monsanto’s promises (work, prosperity, security) and those of the council (social plans, food baskets, security). In the assembly there had also been various disagreements that made it onto the social networks: incidents that nobody could say how they started, but which generated hard to fix cracks.

“We will resist everything, we are not leaving here other than in a coffin,” says Sofía Gatica.

She doesn’t sleep in the camp because she has an admin job in the city, but she attends every meeting, each march, whenever she can. A few weeks after the camp started, she received death threats when she was taking the bus to work, and a few days later she was beaten up in a corner. She is sure that the guy who hit her had been in marches against Monsanto, walking alongside her, like just another activist.

“Has Sofía seen the BWN thing?” I asked Virginia when we were alone.

“What they are saying about you and Monsanto? I don’t know if she has seen it, with everything that has been going on lately. I saw what they had written, many of us had seen it, but I read your book and I told them that they shouldn’t believe it. They are kind of crazy, right?”

Virginia told me that in recent days the people of Malvinas had begun to receive calls inviting them to participate in a telephone survey. “The questions they asked were incredible: ‘Who do you see as being the leader of the encampment?’ or ‘Do you think that the encampment should be supressed?’ We are fighting against this all the time.”

Manu Chao visited the camp in December to show his support (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

Manu Chao visited the camp in December to show his support (photo courtesy of Malvinas Lucha por la Vida facebook)

Fortunately, she says, they have received thousands of support messages from all around the world. Left-wing parties such as MST and the Partido Obrero, intellectuals like Maristella Svampa, Norma Giarracca, and Miguel Teubal. Doctors and scientists who are already an emblem of these movements: Andrés Carrasco, a molecular biologist, Medardo Ávila Vázquez, a neonatal doctor, and biologist Raúl Montenegro. As well as Pérez Esquivel, Manu Chao, the singer Axel who tweets to his 1.5m followers why it is necessary to unite against this corporation. Or Botafago, who gave a live concert for them for news channel C5N.

A big international display which leaves Monsanto, which finally publically admitted to having image problems, in an awkward position (“We have not done enough to talk to consumers and media” [who oppose biotechnology] said Robert Fraley, vice-president of the company). In recent months, Monsanto relaunched its website, including Q&As, hiring experts in PR and making changes in its staff, to include younger people, like Do Pico, in the local office. The aim: to make it clear that it is not a business to be feared, but a group of intelligent and friendly people, destined to feed the world, and open to speaking to the press, communicating their projects to society, listening and debating with their detractors.

What is Monsanto really?

“Soledad: I don’t mean to offend you, but I don’t think you are acting like a journalist, more like an activist. Take care,” wrote Francisco the morning after I visited the camp. In the email, he said it was a shame I had had my picture taken with Sofía Gatica.

The same morning BWN published a new article saying that I had emerged from a casting call by the company. Next to my photo with Gatica there was a caption: on the left, Soledad Barruti, from Monsanto, on the right, Sofía Gatica.

Was there a way for me to make sense of all these things?

According to the most recent report by the Center for Corporate Policy (CCP) in Washington, one in every four activists in any movement is actually infiltrated to spy (a spy, like in a film, with wires and operations and government agents included). Among the corporations which undertake intelligence operations on their detractors – be they activists, journalists or scientists – is Monsanto. The security service previously known as Blackwater and know called Academi is, according to the report “Monsanto’s ‘intel arm’, providing infiltrators.”

I say this to Beba when I am back in Buenos Aires, and I ask her if she believes there are infiltrators among them, and if they are not afraid.

“I have no doubt at all, my dear. We have already uncovered more than one, and they always try to create fights. At the same time, Monsanto takes advantage and is already wanting to conquer the locals so that, when there is a popular assembly, they vote in favour of the installation of the plant. But in the assembly, the struggle for life is strong. They are not going to win.”

Translated by Kristie Robinson

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- who has written 2074 posts on The Argentina Independent.


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3 Responses to “Journalism According to Monsanto”

  1. Werner Almesberger says:

    I’m not one to exclaim “tl;dr” [1] easily and anything that goes against Monsanto – I agree with the MON-SATAN sentiment though I’m afraid we’ll have to wait until they’re shown to have screwed up really badly, think Radium Girls [2], Asbestos [3], Contergan [4], and similar horrors, before the world can hope for some serious exorcism – ought to be a treat to read, but at about 100+ paragraphs and 6000+ words it’ll probably take me a week to finish reading it.

    How about an executive summary ?

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Too_long;_didn't_read
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radium_Girls
    [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos#History_of_health_concerns_and_regulation
    [4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thalidomide#Birth_defects_crisis

    - Werner

  2. Werner Almesberger says:

    One quick comment (I’m at around 20% of the text … I wasn’t kidding about this probably taking a week):

    “Here, if you talk about Monsanto, you have to talk about Malvinas Argentinas.”

    If there’s an award for ambiguity in journalism, I think this won it :)

    I was wondering what on earth the islands could possibly have to do with whatever Monsanto is doing to Argentina. Only after reading the next paragraph I began to realize that his isn’t the beginning of the weirdest conspiracy this side of JFK being an Area 51 [1] escapee who was killed by time-traveling Elvis, but that these “Malvinas Argentina” are simply a suburb/village near Cordoba. [2]

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Area_51#In_popular_culture
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malvinas_Argentinas,_C%C3%B3rdoba

    - Werner

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