By Matt Davies (Mexico)
A few weeks ago, I received a circular email which featured the passing of legislation in Guatemala commonly known as the “Monsanto Law“, or as it is officially called, la Ley de Obtención Vegetal (Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties). As is common around the world when governments wish to bury unpopular measures, the Act was passed with little media fuss at the height of the World Cup furor in June this year and with an absence of consultation with the agricultural sector.
The Act gave producers intellectual property rights over the seeds of newly “created” species and varieties, or genetically modified existing ones, patenting their “creation”. Such “creators” are typically companies producing transgenic seeds. Whoever produces or reproduces a patented species without authorisation, would face maximum fines of US$1300 and up to four years imprisonment. This includes keeping a small part of the harvest for next year’s seed, as is traditional farming practice, which effectively ties farmers to buying all their seed from the large multinationals for whom this Act is intended. It will come as no surprise that the Act was enacted as part of the Free Trade Agreements between Guatemala and the USA signed in 2005.
The many opponents of the Act point to the fact that in a country where malnutrition is a severe problem (according to Unicef, 2 out of 3 Guatemalans do not have the means to adequately feed themselves and nearly half of under fives are chronically malnourished), the Monsanto Law is in no way intended to encourage food sovereignty and may well exacerbate food insecurity as small and medium scale farmers are left vulnerable in time to the Act’s consequences. This vulnerability takes particularly the form of debt, with farmers having to pay for seeds, and consequently for the herbicides and fertilisers upon which these new strains are reliant. Given that in Guatemala there are over a million family farmers alone, who produce nearly 50% of the total agricultural sector output, any measure that jeopardises their livelihood may have serious consequences for food security in the country as a whole.
You need only listen to families living in extreme poverty to understand the impact of food insecurity on people’s everyday lives. As part of an effort to enable participants in ATD Fourth World’s projects to voice their experiences of poverty, doña H. spoke of how she strives to provide for her children under the constant worry of never having enough to eat. She speaks of hard times when they “had nothing more than beans to eat”, of constantly looking for new ways to bring in money to “calm the throats of the children, ” who become “fed up of having only tortillas and beans to eat.”
The fear of increased hunger, as experienced by doña H. and her family and too many millions of Guatemalans, as well as the threat to the country’s biodiversity, has seen widespread mobilisation of diverse people and groups in opposition to the Act. These included scientists and academics, but also representatives from grassroots farming and indigenous communities.
On 29 August the Constitutional Court imposed a temporary suspension of enactment of the Act and on 4 September, 117 out of 158 members of the Guatemalan Congress voted to repeal the Act in its entirety. Such successful mobilisation and political pressure, a true victory for democracy in Guatemala, will hopefully be a step towards widespread public engagement, not only in the right to food and in preserving biodiversity, but also in the broader fight against extreme poverty.