A court has found Syngenta Seeds, a Swiss company producing genetically modified food and pesticides, responsible for the murder of rural worker Valmir Mota de Oliveira (known as Keno) and for the attempted murder of Isabel do Nascimento de Souza. Both of them were members of Via Campesina and were victims of an armed militia attack in 2007.
The court sentence, given by Judge Pedro Ivo Moreiro, of the 1st Civil Court of Cascavel, was published in the Paraná State Official Gazette this Tuesday (17). The sentence rules that the company shall pay compensation to Keno’s family and to Isabel for the moral and material damage it caused. The case was taken to court in 2010, as an attempt to get a response from the State regarding Syngenta being responsible for the attack perpetrated by private armed militia.
The sentence has been well received by social movements and human rights organizations, since making companies accountable for human rights violations is a challenge of global dimensions. “Transnational companies currently have considerable freedom to operate on a transnational basis, but there are no national or international norms or mechanisms sufficient to oblige companies to respect human rights or to hold them accountable for cases of human rights violations. In this case, Syngenta having been found responsible is an exception to the rule”, explains Terra de Direitos’ lawyer, Fernando Prioste, who has been accompanying the case.
About the sentence
The judge found that the fact that took place on Syngenta’s property was nothing less than a massacre. In his sentence the judge states that “to refer to what happened as a confrontation is to close one’s eyes to reality, since […] there is no doubt that, in truth, it was a massacre disguised as repossession of property”. The version put forward by Syngenta was thus rejected by the Judiciary Branch. The company claimed that the attack that took place in 2007 was the result of a confrontation between militiamen and members of Via Campesina.
In its defence, Syngenta acknowledged the illegality of the action of the private militia, as well as the ideological nature of the action against Via Campesina and MST. The company stated that “more than protection of farm properties, it is clear that the militia’s objective was to defend an ideological position contrary to that of the MST [Landless Rural Workers’ Movement], so as to propagate the ideia that every action results in a reaction.” With this statement the transnational company attempted to avoid its responsibility, claiming that the attack was not made by the company it hired, but rather by militia acting on the orders of landowners.
Notwithstanding, in his sentence the judge recognized that the “bad choice in outsourcing security services, as well as the indirect funding of illicit activities, is a factor that generates civil liability”. Moreover, the judge vehemently condemned the attack by stating that “however reproachable and illegitimate the occupation of the property may have been, nothing justifies taking the law into one’s own hands, imposing the death penalty on the occupants, rather the legal means for resolving the conflict should have been sought since, after all, the legal system considers the arbitrary exercising of one’s own judgements to be a crime”. As such the court sentence not only reaffirms the ideological nature of the militia’s action, but also links Syngenta with that action.
The court sentence is not definitive. Syngenta, through its defence lawyer René Ariel Dotti, can appeal to the Paraná State Court of Appeals. In the view of Terra de Direitos’ lawyer, Fernando Prioste, the Appeal Court is expected to maintain the sentence in order to re-establish the truth about what happened in October 2007. “There is strong evidence against the company”, he notes. “If Syngenta were to be absolved this would be tantamount to the justice system acquiescing to massacres like the one that occurred in this case”.
Exception to the rule
When asked about the sentence, Isabel Nascimento dos Santos said she was pleased, much more than merely because of the financial compensation. Seriously injured during the attacked idealized by Syngenta in 2007, the rural worker highlighted the court’s recognition of the company’s guilt in the case.
“Now I can hold my head up, and try to forget a little of the suffering we’ve faced. Is the battle over? Never! We shall carry on, continuing Keno’s work as well”.
Eduardo Rodrigues, MST representative in the Cascavel region, stresses the importance of the sentence. According to him, the impunity of large companies that violate rights is common, and at the same time the movement’s members are frequently criminalized for their struggle in opposition to the agribusiness model. “The attack did not take place unbeknown to the multinational company”, the farm worker denounces. “They not only provided institutional support, but financial and logistic support as well.”
Eduardo hopes that this sentence will be extended to other cases in which companies will be held accountable for the attacks they commit. “I hope this sentence will strengthen our struggle, giving visibility to our companions”.
The many obstacles existing to ensure that companies respect human rights and are held accountable for the violations they commit, have lead the United Nations Organization (UN) to discuss the establishment of a binding international treaty creating prevention, redress and accountability mechanisms with regard to the issue of companies and human rights.
The UN working group on the establishment of an international treaty regarding companies and human rights will visit Brazil in December. It is expected that the UN representatives will use case convicting Syngenta as a reference for holding accountable large companies that commit human rights violations through outsourced companies.
About the case
On October 21st 2007 around 40 gunmen from the “NF Segurança” company attacked the Via Campesina encampment located at Syngenta’s genetically modified food experiment site at Santa Tereza do Oeste (PR). The site had been occupied once more that morning by around 150 members of Via Campesina and the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST).
The occupants were denouncing illegal experiments on genetically modified corn in a protective boundary zone of the Iguaçu National Park. Via Campesina members were also seeking to denounce biotechnology companies that work so as to impose a farming model that causes environmental harm through the use of genetically modified crops and pesticides, making it infeasible for self-employed rural workers, indigenous peoples and traditional communities to produce healthy foodstuffs.
Heavily armed NF Segurança militiamen invaded the site firing their guns towards the people who were occupying it. According to information provided by Via Campesina, the attack had been arranged by Syngenta which used NF Segurança’s services, together with the Western Region Rural Society (SRO), and the Rural Producers’ Movement (MPR), which has links with agribusiness. There are signs that the security company was going to be closed down and that it hired security guards illegally to perform attack operations. In addition to Keno, the gunmen shot and beat up Isabel and injured a further three farm workers.
With a 19% share of the agrochemical market and the third highest profits from seed sales worldwide, coming only after Monsanto and Dupont, Syngenta, along with other transnational companies, exacerbates the scenario of rural violence by imposing a farming model based on monoculture, gross exploitation of farm workers, environmental degradation, use of pesticides and private appropriate of natural and genetic resources.
The Valmir Mota de Oliveira (“Keno”) Agroecology Research Centre has been set up in the area where the facts occurred.
>> Terra de Direitos has developed guide on the issue of making companies accountable for human rights violations, to assist with assessing possibilities of taking legal action against companies on the international level.