Activists prompt Guatemala U-turn on GM crops

Guatemalan lawmakers throw out a law concerning the property rights of GM crops, after widespread protests against what many saw as a guarantor of corporate interests over local small farmers.

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Guatemalans at a protest against the proposed “Monsanto Law”, which has now been repealed, in Guatemala City. Photo courtesy of Hoy (Nicaragua).

Activists in Guatemala are celebrating the scrapping of a controversial new law that threatened the livelihoods of the Central American country’s many small farmers. The “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties”, dubbed the “Monsanto Law” for its alleged bias in favour of giant transnational companies specialising in transgenic or genetically modified (GM) seeds, had been passed by Guatemala’s Congress in June, but after a backlash by national farming and indigenous groups the government agreed to repeal the law on September 4th.

The law, which was a provision of Guatemala’s participation in a free trade agreement between the US and other Central American countries, established intellectual property rights over ‘newly discovered’ species and varieties of plants. Copyright patents would be awarded to new varieties, lasting for 20 to 25 years, and the use of these plant varieties without ‘owning’ a licence to them – knowingly or otherwise – would be a crime subject to punishments of up to four years in prison and fines of up to US$1,300, well above what many Guatemalan rural workers earn each month and above even what some manage to earn in a whole year.

The terms of the law was considered to overwhelmingly favour the economic interests of transnational GM giants such as the US-based Monsanto, to the detriment of ordinary Guatemalan farmers. This is because companies such as Monsanto could develop a new strain of a traditional crop, such as wheat or corn, and have it patented, requiring farmers to purchase the seeds of the crop whenever they used it on their farms.

However, most small farmers use seeds that have been carefully conditioned using traditional methods over hundreds or thousands of years, often being passed down through the generations of a farming family or community. If, however, a small farmer’s crop were to be cross-contaminated by a nearby farm using patented GM crops – as can often happen with crops with airborne seeds such as many types of grain – they would be liable to either pay for the right to use that crop, something that is almost always beyond the reach of a small farmer’s budget, or be subjected to the fines and prison sentences as stipulated by the law.

A woman carries vegetables on a farm in rural Guatemala. Farmers who have developed their own seeds using traditional methods over hundreds or thousands of years would see their livelihoods threatened by the provisions in the Monsanto Law. Photo courtesy of Reuters via RT.

The passing of the law caused a huge backlash as rural, farming and indigenous communities began to realise the implications of the legislation. Critics claim that the government had rushed the bill through Congress without proper debate, while most of the media and public’s attention was on the World Cup, being held in Brazil throughout June and early July. The law was supposed to come into force at the end of September but, after fierce opposition from activists and local groups continued to build through August, the government of President Otto Pérez Molina began to appear willing to listen to the grievances of its opponents.

“Instead of promoting development, this law will only promote poverty”, argued Mario Itzep, coordinator of the national Indigenous Peoples’ Observatory, in an interview with Spanish news agency Efe. The Rural Studies Collective (Cer-Ixim), meanwhile, warned that the law would monopolise agriculture processes, severely threaten rural and indigenous communities’ food sovereignty, and sacrifice national biodiversity “under the control of domestic and foreign companies”, according to RT. Antonio Gonzalez of the National Network in Defence of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala, meanwhile, said that the law “risks biodiversity, native seed varieties that are over 7,000 years old and that never required patents or labs, but have been able to sustain the lives of the Guatemalan people”.

By the end of August a major civil society group, the Movimiento Sindical Indígena y Campesino Guatemalteco (Indigenous and Peasant Union Movement of Guatemala) had approached the country’s Constitutional Court and appealed the law, arguing that the law would prove harmful to a majority of the nation’s population. The court upheld this appeal shortly afterwards, and by this time President Pérez Molina had already asked Congress to reconsider the law, or at least certain aspects of it. Finally, in a narrow vote of 117-111, Congress voted to repeal the law on September 4th, sealing victory for the considerable movement that had mobilised behind the campaign to have the law scrapped. Local media has said that it is now unclear what will happen to Guatemala’s membership of the free trade agreement that had obliged it to pass the law in the first place.

The GM debate has been going on for some time in Latin America, as indeed it has done across the world. While some of the benefits of genetically engineered crops are hard to argue against, including increased yields and improved resilience against climate change or disease, the aforementioned arguments over the clash that intellectual property rights cause with traditional farming methods are ultimately, in the eyes of many across rural parts of Latin America, too strong to pass over. In what have typically come to represent new incarnations of the classic David-vs-Goliath battle, individual farmers and giant corporations have gone head to head in local and national courts across the region from Mexico to Argentina, as local farmers have sought to defend their land and historic seed banks against corporate interests.

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An anti-Monsanto crop circle created by farmers in the Philippines. Worldwide opposition to GM corporations and their impact on local farmers has grown in recent years. Photo courtesy of AP via Vanity Fair.
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