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Two killed in shoot-out at Syngenta GM farm

Syngenta says 60% of its corn and soybean seed has genetically modified traits

(Keystone)

Two men have been killed after guards working for the Swiss biotech company Syngenta clashed with activists invading a genetically modified (GM) seed farm in Brazil.

This is the latest in several such protests by the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Brazil targeting multinationals in the agribusiness sector and what it sees as the "evil effects of genetically modified products".

Police said a peasant leader and a guard were killed at the Swiss-owned Syngenta research farm at Cascavel in the southern state of Parana after it was occupied by 200 landless activists on Sunday. Six protesters and three security guards were also wounded during the clashes, police said.

Syngenta is the world's largest agrochemical company, with a heavy focus on GM seeds. The 143-hectare property near the Iguaçu waterfalls has been at the heart of controversy and a legal battle over its testing of GM soya bean and corn.

Details of the clash were still unclear. Syngenta spokesman Medard Schoenmaeckers told swissinfo he was surprised by the attack and the aggressiveness of the activists.

"We still don't know anything about the motives," he said, while describing the clash as a "quite dramatic and violent confrontation where we understand that indeed there were some deadly injuries".

Local police commander Celso Borges told Reuters that a few hours after the invasion on Sunday some of the guards "returned, armed, to retake the farm". The Parana state government added that seven guards were arrested, facing possible homicide charges.

Valmir Mota de Oliveira, one of the regional MST leaders, was killed with two gunshots in the chest. The MST described the killing as an "execution" and demanded a full investigation.

The MST accused Syngenta of hiring security services that were used to form armed militias to evict and attack landless settlers.

Targeted action

In a statement, Syngenta denied claims by the MST it had ordered the use of force, adding that its guards work unarmed by contract.

Schoenmaeckers said the local authorities were investigating whether the shots had been fired by the guards or a second group of activists.

While Brazil's national government allows use of GM seeds for some crops, Parana's state government recently outlawed GM corn and has tried repeatedly to shut down the Syngenta farm.

MST spokeswoman Maria Mello said the Syngenta invasion was part of a push to target "multinationals in the agribusiness sector whose presence in Brazil delays the swift implementation of agrarian reform".

The group also wants "to bring an end to the evil effects of genetically modified products and their growing presence in Brazil", Mello said.

The landless group, a strong political force in Brazil, uses invasions of private property to pressure the government to redistribute land to the poor.

Controversial history

About 300 activists first invaded the farm in March 2006, breaking down the gates and setting up tents to publicise their claim that research there into GM soy and corn is illegal.

They stayed until July, when Syngenta won a court order to expel them.

The Swiss agrochemicals giant has also been fined for planting transgenic seeds close to a protected nature reserve and has been involved in a legal fight to prevent the seizure of the farm by the state government.

Schoenmaeckers said Syngenta "never did anything wrong or illegal in Brazil". He added that no Syngenta workers were at the farm when the clash erupted.

He told swissinfo that Syngenta was still in the process of deciding the farm's future. Apart from looking at a resumption of GM trials, it is also considering selling the property.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Syngenta is the world leader in crop protection and ranks third in the high-value commercial seeds market.
Last year it increased net profit by 12% to a record $872 million (SFr1.05 billion).
Syngenta was formed in 2000 by the merger of the agrochemicals divisions of British-Swedish concern, AstraZeneca, and Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Novartis.
It employs about 21,000 people in more than 90 countries.

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Landless protests in Brazil

The recent protest against the Syngenta farm is part of a broader campaign by landless peasants "in defence of agrarian reform and against imperialism".

They frequently occupy farms, block highways, torch crops and stage rallies to pressure the government to redistribute more land to the poor.

The MST, probably the world's largest land reform group, says it has settled more than 350,000 families during its 23-year existence. Now, some 150,000 families occupy land they want the government to expropriate and redistribute.

On October 18 at least 1,000 activists blocked a railway used to export iron ore from a massive mine complex. The blockade shut down Companhia Vale do Rio Doca SA's daily shipments of some 250,000 tons of iron ore from the Amazon to Atlantic ports for shipment overseas.

The activists unblocked the railway after federal authorities agreed to meet them this week to discuss demands ranging from quicker land reform to public works.

On October 16 landless militants briefly invaded tree plantations of Votorantim and Stora Enso paper companies, destroying saplings as part of a protest against multinational agricultural companies.

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