Pandemic Reads 13 & 14

The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops (Kregg Hetherington, 2020)

This is an in-depth study of large-scale soy farming, and its impact on Paraguayan government and several social groups. I’d compare this book to an NPR story that comes out of the blue and you listen for an hour — some facts and figures, some historical context, some personal narrative as the author moves around and meets sources. I heard about this book through the small network of liberal farming Twitter threads which had also led me to read Uncertain Harvest months ago.

What emerges is a wicked problem, where soy is so profitable that it expands to the limits and influences government wherever it can grow, where the soy only grows in eastern parts of the country where wealth concentrates in brasiguaio communities, and government reformers must shuffle people around and install loyalists in bureaucracies to get their work done. The particular development of Paraguay leaves the government and its decision-makers physically concentrated in the inner rings of the capital. The socialist land policies of decades ago led to small campesino farms which have complex relationships and land claims around the new soy farms.

As someone who hasn’t been to Paraguay or been involved in agriculture, this was all new information, but mostly academic and not practical. The author has an aside about how people ask him at presentations, should they eat less tofu to stop big soy? And he explains that soybeans are mostly used for animal feed or oil, so this isn’t even a consumer choice. The book did convince me not to continue interviewing with a major agrochemical company, so maybe that’s something.
About halfway through, the LinkedIn convo long forgotten, I felt reluctant to pick up the book and finally skimmed the rest of the text. So I probably can’t give a full review, but this was my experience.

The author works at the Concordia Ethnography Lab in Montréal, which I’ve been following on social media for more of these deep dives into human-focused politics.

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (Behrouz Boochani, 2018)

A poet and journalist, Boochani texted this personal account out of Australia’s Manus Island prison, then it was translated to English from Persian/Farsi. If you look at Wikipedia, you can read that he was a Kurdish journalist who had to flee Iran. He chooses to begin the book as he left Indonesia, on a perilous sea crossing with other refugees he has come to know in his travels. He is lucky to survive a sinking boat. On his second trip he arrives on Christmas Island in July 2013, just days after the Australian Prime Minister’s announcement that “any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees.”

From then on he is imprisoned, paraded past media to discourage other refugees from coming, then flown to a prison camp on Manus to sit and wait without hope of an appeal.

I reflect, reflect on The Insomniac, reflect on the time he sat on the tip of the boat, on the way he gazed ahead, […] how he used to ask, ‘How many kilometres left to Australia?’
Now all the agony that he has endured comes down to this scene. A scene in which he is more like a dangerous criminal who requires two solidly built giants to contain and relocate him. These incidents occur on Australian soil.

In the boat section Boochani tells the stories of families. After reaching Manus he is reporting on the monotony, indignity, and senselessness of Australia’s prison system and (speaking as an American reader) any indefinite detention plan. He writes about queues, ever-changing policies, oppressive heat and mosquitos, and the cruel ‘Kyriarchal’ policies of Australian and local guards. The refugees often divide themselves by nationality, though arriving on the same boat is also a lasting bond.
There are characters who make themselves known in the prison, and Boochani tells vignettes about them (such as The Insomniac above). I got the sense that he mostly kept to himself or, like other details of his life or phone calls outside the prison, he decided not to include them in the book and risk taking too much of the reader’s attention.

I read on Wikipedia that Boochani obtained asylum in New Zealand this year.

Bonus: Throwback to Pandemic Read 1!

Last month, former CDC director Dr. William Foege wrote a letter to the current director about the national response to COVID-19. I continue to recommend his book on eradicating smallpox.



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Nick Doiron

Nick Doiron

Web->ML developer and mapmaker.