Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, Part 1: The colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian business

Though its influence may have waned in recent decades, dependency theory remains an indispensable prism through which to regard the bifurcated, or polarized, development of national economies within the capitalist world-system. This framework, in which the persistence of uneven development is attributable to the interrelation between the industrialised core and the underdeveloped periphery, admits both the geographic and historical scope to adequately tackle the hard problems of political economy and to accurately trace the chains of dependency which inhibit peripheral economies. Through two blog posts, I wish to explore how dependency theory can help us understand various ecologies of dependence in Latin America, including Brazilian agribusiness in Paraguayan soy (this blog post) and the role Chinese industrial demand plays in constraining Brazilian subimperial autonomy in soy cultivation (in the second blog post). In this post, the colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian agribusiness is used to demonstrate that Sub-imperialist powers can achieve relative autonomy within the periphery by making dependent weaker states in their vicinity.

From dependent nations to peripheral ecologies

A fundamental concern of dependency theory is the extent to which peripheral states are masters of their own economic destiny, or how concretely they are able to wield autonomy within the global capitalist system. Dos Santos (1970: 231) has provided perhaps the most commonly cited definition of dependence within the dependency theory cannon, describing the situation as one “in which the economy of certain countries is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subjected” (Dos Santos, 1970: 231). In short, one could somewhat accurately characterize dependency theory as a framework of relative autonomy, with the capacity for economic self-determination among peripheral economies actively curtailed by their subordinate relation to those of the industrialised core. Importantly, autonomy, in this understanding, is not merely relative but conditional, with the autonomy of core economies the direct product of peripheral dependency. In this understanding, the uneven development of core and peripheral nations can be attributed, in part, to the making dependent of the latter by the former, and the resultant loss of autonomy among the latter cohort.

Yet, as revealing as this framework is of the hierarchical ordering of national economies, by emphasizing the contrast between the national economies of the core and periphery, the nation-state centred analysis of some traditional dependency theorists (Prebisch,1962; Dos Santos, 1970; Cardoso & Faletto, 2021) potentially obscures the oppositional modalities which propagate on a national and subnational level. In other words, the relative interplay of autonomy and dependence on a global scale is somewhat obfuscated by an analytic approach which treats nation states as coherent units and which promulgates a simplistic division between core and peripheral nations, or those of the North and South, without acknowledging the myriad cores and peripheries which transcend and subvert strict national boundaries. That is to say that cores and peripheries exist both within and between so-called core and peripheral nations, with relations of autonomy and dependence thereby manifesting on both a subnational and international scale.

In the interest of better mapping the aforementioned dynamic, this two-part blog post encourages an ecological understanding of dependency in which the relative dependence, of a nation, region, or resource, is indexed not to the respective trade deficits, industrial capacities, or consumptive habits of core and peripheral states, but to the specific demands imposed on the natural world by transnational industrialised capital. Put differently, we might better comprehend the dimensions of dependence by analysing the subordination of peripheral ecologies (which might exist outside of, within, or even between core and peripheral nation states) to the enterprise of capital accumulation rather than by simply regarding, say, the subordination of various groups and structures within the Brazilian economy to Chinese industrial demand. Doing so frees us from the analytic rigidity of a nation-state focused approach and allows analysts to understand autonomy and dependence in a globalised context in which ecological concerns dominate both public and academic discourses. To illustrate this point, this post explores the relative autonomy and dependence of Latin American states, the traditional muse of dependency theory, from three sequential analytic standpoints, using the soybean supply chain as a prism through which to understand the working of dependency in the contemporary setting.  

Paraguay, Brazil, and the Colonization of Soy

Since the turn of the millennium, rising Chinese demand has stimulated a massive growth of the hectarage dedicated to soybeans across Latin America (North & Grinspun, 2016). This trend is indicative of the wider phenomena of ‘Reprimitization’, or the marked expansion of sectors such as mining and agriculture which depend primarily on the extraction and export of primary resources (Cooney, 2016). Soy’s integration into international supply-chains renders it a useful prism through which to examine relations of dependency between national economic units. If, as this blog post suggests, dependence manifests as a complex interlock of border crossing extraction and exploitation, then the Soy supply chain serves as a distinct vein which runs through its myriad and overlapping strata, allowing for a more complete and more coherent viewing of its otherwise labyrinthine structure. Accordingly, the initial argument presented herein concerns the manner in which the colonisation of Paraguayan agriculture by Brazilian agribusinesses demonstrates the intra-continental function of dependence and autonomy.

In recent decades, Brazilian agribusinesses have expanded their search for territories of capital accumulation in their undercapitalized periphery (Luxemburg, 2015), with annual Brazilian outward investments in Latin America growing by $6 billion from 2004-2010 alone (Misoczky & Imasato, 2014). Even prior to this latest wave of agricultural colonization, Marini (1977: 208) influentially described Brazil as a ‘Subimperialist’ power, able to exercise autonomy internationally through the pursuit of “a relatively autonomous expansionist policy”. Essentially, ‘Subimperialist’ nations such as Brazil are able to exert influence over weaker states in their periphery and thereby achieve a greater degree of autonomy on an international scale as a condition of the intensified dependence of these peripheral states. Crucially, Marini (1977) argued that this development does not free Brazil from structural dependency on the industrialised core, but that Brazil’s role as regional hegemon grants it limited autonomy relative to those peripheral states coerced into a condition of dependence vis-à-vis Brazilian capitalism.

This expansion of Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’ has received significant state support under both leftist and conservative governments, with the national development bank funding infrastructure projects in Bolivia to allow for further integration between the two economies (Friedman-Rudovsky, 2012), and the PT government facilitating the purchase of vast swathes of arable land in Mozambique by Brazilian corporations (Clements & Fernandes, 2013). Investments of this type in peripheral nations open novel avenues for the expansion of the agricultural frontier, and therefore for capital accumulation, in regions where environmental protection is lax, wages are low, and the often-violent dispossession of smallholders is ignored, or even assisted, by local authorities (Clements & Fernandes, 2013).

Perhaps the most significant manifestation of this Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’, at least in the agricultural space, is the colonisation of Paraguayan soy production by Brazilian agribusinesses which are estimated to control 64% of the total area under soy cultivation (Guereña, 2013), equal to around 25% of Paraguay’s arable land (Glauser, 2009). With Brazilian enterprises thereby maintaining majority control over the cultivation a crop which accounts for 40% of Paraguay’s total exports (Wesz, 2021), and with many of the remaining soy plantations controlled by Argentine agribusinesses (Ezquerro, 2016), soy production in Paraguay can fairly be described as a manifestation of agricultural imperialism, and Paraguay itself more of a dependent plantation than a sovereign nation-state. Hence a quintessential distillation of the dependent relationship is realised in the cropland of Paraguay, with the direction of the agricultural sector largely ‘conditioned’ by the development and expansion of Brazilian and Argentine agribusiness.

This ‘foreignisation’ (Galeano, 2012) of Paraguayan agriculture has fundamentally compromised national autonomy by threatening food sovereignty. Following a nation-wide campaign of ‘accumulation-by-dispossession’ (Harvey, 2003), thousands of smallholder farmers have been displaced from their lands, with their plots appropriated by Brazilian-owned soy plantations (Ezquerro-Cañete, 2016). This displacement is an overwhelmingly coercive undertaking, with smallholders convinced to abandon their plots to Brazilian soy barons through threats of violence and the active poisoning of communities via the intentional spreading of pesticides and other harmful chemicals around rural households and plots (Ezquerro-Cañete, 2016). This cohort of smallholder agriculturalists traditionally produced the majority of staple-crops consumed within the country, whilst the plantations which have replaced them yield the overwhelming majority of their soybean harvests for foreign consumption, often as protein-rich feed for livestock (Guerena, 2013). Accordingly, a nation which, with regard to staple-crops, was once largely self-sufficient, now requires constant imports from Argentina and Brazil to feed its population, further compounding Paraguay’s dependence on the very ‘Subimperialist’ powers which enacted this agricultural transformation (Elgert, 2016).

Any understanding of Paraguay as a unified and sovereign state should be questioned, therefore, given the privileging of the calorific requirements of foreign cattle over those of domestic rural populations enacted by this foreignization of agriculture and the colonisation of soy. Paraguay, therefore, is not so much an autonomous state as “an assembly plant” Guerena (2013: 19), for Brazilian agribusinesses, providing the land and labour required for cultivation before exporting much of the value produced within the nation´s agricultural sector to its ´Subimperialist´ neighbour. In fact, even the labour required for these enterprises is often more readily supplied by Brazilian migrants (Correia, 2019), rendering Paraguay a passive staging ground for an entirely foreign venture, the recipient of several negative environmental and social externalities but vanishingly few benefits.

The political and economic subordination of Paraguay to Brazilian interests was categorically demonstrated in 2008 when newly elected leftist President Fernando Lugo attempted to levy a 6% tariff on soy exports and implement preliminary land-reform measures to alleviate the suffering of dispossessed smallholders (Galeano, 2012). The Brazilian government quickly enacted a decree which threatened military reprisals in the event of Paraguayan expropriation of Brazilian-owned farms (Turzi, 2016). Such a threat must be understood in the context of the 1864-1870 Paraguayan war, in which a Brazil-led military coalition killed the Paraguayan head of state, installed a Brazil-friendly government, and forced the defeated nation to concede much of its territory to its northern neighbour (Whigham & Potthast, 2002). Up to 60% of Paraguay’s population perished during the conflict, etching deep wounds in the Paraguayan political landscape, and permanently entrenching the nation’s dependence on Brazilian ‘Subimperialism’ (Leuchars, 2002). Corrective Brazilian military action should therefore be understood as a plausible disciplinary threat which effectively compromises the autonomy of a Paraguayan state ill-equipped to resist the martial predations of its northern neighbour. Ultimately a more subtle approach was taken to the Lugo problem, with Brazilian agribusinesses collaborating with the ‘Lumpenbourgeoisie’ (Frank 1974) of Paraguay’s Colorado party to engineer the President’s impeachment (Correia, 2019). This agribusiness-led ‘State-Capture’ (Grzymala-Busse, 2008) was followed by the relaxation of all restrictions on transgenic soy production and a literal invitation from the new President to an audience of Brazilian investors to “Use and abuse Paraguay” (Martin, 2016).

To conclude

Through the erosion of food sovereignty, threats of military action, and political subterfuge, the Brazilian colonization of Paraguayan soy production has largely dissolved the state’s autonomy. In light of Dos Santos’ (1970) definition of dependence, it is clear that Paraguay’s economy is significantly ‘conditioned’ by the expansion of a Brazilian-led consortium of foreign agribusinesses. Paraguay, therefore, is largely dependent on Brazil which, as a ‘Subimperialist’ power, has been able to exercise a degree of autonomy through the subjugation of its southern neighbour.

Yet whilst Brazil is able to wield significant autonomy relative to Paraguay, Mozambique, or Bolivia, it is by no means a fully-fledged imperialist power and assumes a dependent role in relation to the industrialised core. At this juncture we must heed Marini’s warning (1997) not to overstate the autonomy of ‘Subimperialist’ powers and instead consider Brazil’s exact positioning on the hierarchical chain of dependence. Part Two of this analysis explores how Chinese industrial demand constrains Brazilian subimperial autonomy, before complicating this hierarchical state-centric understanding of dependency by exploring the ecological foundations of the economic interrelation between Paraguay, Brazil, China.  

I hope this post (and the next) serve to illustrate the shortcoming of state-centric analyses in obscuring the fluid transnational function of dependency. In so far as capital, in its expansive phase, pays little heed to national borders, neither should our analysis. Rather it should be adapted accordingly to better catalogue the dynamic interplay of capital and ecology. Hence, whilst specific states may be more autonomous or dependent, or more so belonging to the economic core or periphery, than others in relative terms, no one state can be categorised as autonomous or dependent in its entirety due to the internal contradictions which define all capitalist economies.


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George Shepherd is a politics PhD student at the University of York currently researching lithium extraction in Latin America in an attempt to understand the ecological implications of a ‘green’ energy transition predicated on intensified resource extraction in the periphery. He tweets at @_GeorgeShepherd.

Photo: Lou Gold.

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