By Tex Dworkin
In a landmark decision on September 4, following intense pressure by indigenous people, trade unions, farmer’s organizations and others, the Guatemalan judiciary ruled to suspend the controversial Plant Variety Protection Law, commonly referred to as the ‘Monsanto Law’ because of the multinational biotech company’s involvement in it.
It was due to go into effect on September 26, but as bilaterals reported, the Guatemalan Peasant Indigenous Workers Movement (MSICG) presented a motion of general complete unconstitutionality against the law and the Court responded by specifically ruling on Articles 46 and 55, suspending them on the grounds that both could lead to serious impacts for the people and the country.
How did this law come to pass in the first place?
Apparently the Guatemalan Parliament passed the law without a debate all “while the population was distracted with the World Cup.” Then on August 26, MSICG went to the Guatemalan Constitutional Court and appealed it.
Leading up to this ruling, the government was under extreme pressure by the people of Guatemala to rule against it. Protestors totaling between 40 to 120 thousand briefly blocked the Inter-American Highway, and a few days later, hundreds of teachers protested in the country’s capital.
Would this legislative suspension have happened without the protests?
It doesn’t seem likely. Upsidedownworld described the scene:
When Congress convened on September 4, Mayan people were waiting outside for a response in favor of their movement, demanding a complete cancellation of the law. At first the government ignored the protests and appeared to be more interested in engaging in superficial forms of charity. But soon enough they decided to act. Even though politicians claimed not to act on social demands, it is without doubt a decision taken after enormous pressure from different social groups in society.
If passed, the Monsanto Law would have given exclusivity on patented seeds to transnational companies, but opponents claimed that the new law violated the Guatemalan Constitution and the Mayan people’s right to traditional cultivation of their land in their ancestral territories.
RTnews explains more about the Plant Variety Protection Law:
The law offers producers of transgenic seeds, often corporate behemoths like Monsanto, strict property rights in the event of possession or exchange of original or harvested seeds of protected varieties without the breeder’s authorization. A breeder’s right extends to “varieties essentially derived from the protected variety,” thus, a hybrid of a protected and unprotected seed belongs to the protected seed’s producer.
Monsanto claims that with its leading seed brands, it empowers large and small farmers to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy.
What are the implications of the Monsanto Law?
Well for one, if a Guatemalan farmer who has been tending his or her land for generations violates the law, wittingly or not, he or she could face a prison term of one to four years and fines of US $130 to $1,300 – quite the hefty fine for subsistence farmers living on the brink of poverty.
Antonio Gonzalez, member of the National Network in Defense of Food Sovereignty in Guatemala (REDSAG) and the Latin American Agroecological Movement (MAELA) described the law as, “an attack on a traditional Mayan cultivation system which is based on the corn plant but which also includes black beans and herbs; these foods are a substantial part of the staple diet of rural people.”
Upsidedownworld explains that the new legislation would have opened up the market for genetically modified seeds (GMOs) which would have threatened to displace natural seeds and end their diversity. GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. These experimental combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.
This is a dangerous notion, because it threatens food security by introducing a vicious circle to Guatemalan farming; with the introduction of modified seeds, it’s hard if not impossible to revert back to using indigenous seeds, making Guatemalan farmers dependent upon the foreign seeds. And by law once genetically modified seeds are inevitably mixed with the natural seeds, the end result would be legally owned by the property rights holder.
It would have created an imbalance between transnational companies and local producers in Guatemala where about 70 percent of the population dedicate their life to small-scale agricultural activities.
In a publication, the Rural Studies Collective (Cer-Ixim) warned about the consequences of this Monsanto Law, describing how the law promotes privatization and monopolies over seeds, endangering food sovereignty, especially that of indigenous peoples, and that Guatemala’s biodiversity will fall “under the control of domestic and foreign companies.”
If passed, opponents claim that the Monsanto Law would have made criminals of already repressed small farmers who are just trying to cultivate crops for their own consumption, which they’ve been doing for generations. The law would have prevented Guatemalans from growing and harvesting anything that originates from natural seeds, and farmers would be breaking the law if these seeds had been mixed with patented seeds from other crops as a result of pollination or wind, unless they had a license for the patented seed from a transnational corporation like Monsanto.
Another risk expressed by ecologists was the fear that the costs for the patented seeds would have caused an increase in prices and as a consequence caused a worsened food crisis for those families who could not afford to buy a license to sow.
In a press conference, Gonzalez denounced the actions by the government in favor of transnational seed companies, claiming:
This bill 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. We are speaking of privatizing ancestral knowledge and one of the risks is the disappearance of the “milpa system”. This is a small-scale self-consumption agriculture and commercialization system involving maize, pumpkin, medicinal herbs and beans, typical crops of peasant-indigenous agriculture in Mesoamerica and especially Guatemala.
Glenda de Leon, also a member of REDSAG, added that the regulation would directly affect peasant and indigenous women, deepening the dependence of the food chain on transnational corporations that unlawfully hold intellectual property rights over plant varieties.
In a statement issued in July The National Alliance for Biodiversity Protection explained: ”According to this law, the rights of plant breeders are superior to the rights of peoples to freely use seeds. It’s a direct attack on the traditional knowledge, biodiversity, life, culture, rural economy and worldview of Peoples, and food sovereignty.”
What does this victory mean?
Nim Sanik, Maya Kaqchikel from Chimaltenango stated, “We have just taken the first step on a long journey in our struggle to conquer the sovereignty of the people in Guatemala.”
Beyond the domestic repercussions of this ruling, it could also affect Guatemala’s membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the free trade agreement between the United States and a group of smaller developing countries, Guatemala included.
The Plant Variety Protection Law originated back in 2004 when Guatemala joined CAFTA, and agreeing to the Monsanto Law is part of CAFTA’s requirements.
RTnews explains that the law is an obligation for all nations that signed the 2005 CAFTA-DR free trade agreement. The agreement requires signatories to adhere to the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties.
Should Guatemala or any other nation have to listen to the demands of the U.S. by honoring their trade agreement laws? Not according to Natural Society: “Big Ag and Big Biotech would severely threaten international food sovereignty. More than 40 countries have already realized this possibility, banning GMO crops.”
So if adopting the Monsanto Law is required by all CAFTA members, then what happens to Guatemala now that its Court has ruled against it? RTnews ventures a guess:
The US would likely put pressure on the nation to pass the law, part of a global effort using trade agreements to push further corporate control over trade sectors like agriculture in the name of modernization. Upon further refusal, the US could drop Guatemala from the trade agreement.
In other words, there is much at stake for Guatemala right now, as this debate is not simply over an unpopular bill, but maybe even the future of the Central American nation’s membership within CAFTA.
So Now What?
While the Monsanto Law was suspended VOXXI explains:
Members of the governing Partido Patriota and the opposition Libertad Democrática Renovada have announced that they plan to revisit the controversial law. It is likely that the government and political movements sincerely thought that they could get away with the Monsanto Law without the population’s awareness. This plan has definitely back-fired and now President Perez Molina must walk a fine line between his responsibilities towards his people and international agreements.
Time will tell what will happen as the temporary suspension gets revisited,what ramifications if any will result for Guatemala, and whether other countries will follow suit.
While a handful of social and food justice groups and Latin American media outlets reported on this landmark ruling, it was noticeably missing from mainstream media headlines in the U.S. Danielle Huffaker, an American currently working in Guatemala, agrees there has not been enough international news coverage, comparing the Guatemalan protests to that of the Occupy movement.Φ
Tex Dworkin runs Do Good Biz, providing content and marketing support to socially responsible businesses and organizations. Dworkin previously served as the Director of Social Media for Global Exchange and before that, she was the Global Exchange Online Fair Trade Store Manager. She has over 20 years of communications and marketing experience. Tex has traveled to many parts of the world on direct buying trips, delegations, and educational speaking tours, meeting with artisans and students, vendors and producers. Her work in Fair Trade, e-commerce, and cause-based marketing continues to inspire her to work on expanding the socially responsible business movement.