Groups of Indigenous Guatemalans where joined by social movements, trade unions and farmers’– and women’s organizations in a street protest against Monsanto’s expansion into their territory in Guatemala City today. The demonstration was held at the same time as several Mayan communities and organizations defending food sovereignty seek a court injunction to stop the Congress and the President, Otto Perez Molina, from approving a new law on protection of plant varieties, known as ”Law Monsanto”.
Law Monsanto gives exclusivity on patented seeds to a handful of transnational companies. Mayan people and social organizations claim that the new law violates the Constitution and the Mayan people’s right to traditional cultivation of their land in their ancestral territories.
Antonio González from the National Network in Defence of Food Sovereignty and Biodiversity commented in a press conference August 21:
– This law is an attack on a traditional Mayan cultivation system (”sistema de la milpa”) which is based around the corn plant but which also includes black beans and herbs, these foods are a substantial part of the staple diet of rural people.
It is a law that will open up the market for genetically modified seeds which threaten to displace natural seeds and end their diversity. It will create an imbalance between transnational companies and local producers in Guatemala where about 70 per cent of the population dedicate their life to small scale agricultural activities. This is a serious threat in a country where many people live below poverty line and in extreme poverty and where children suffer from chronic malnutrition and often starve to death.
– It is also a threat to the biodiversity of seeds, which has had its natural process for more than 6000 years in this region, explained González.
The law was approved June 10 without prior discussion, information and participation from those most effected. It was a direct consequence of the free trade agreement with the US, ratified in 2005. However, recently the protests have been growing and appeared to peak this week with a lot of discussions, statements and demonstrations. The government has so far ignored the protests. At this point they appear more interested in engaging in superficial forms of charity like provision of food aid while ignoring the wider factors that cause and perpetuate poverty in Guatemala such as unequal land distribution, deep rooted inequalities, rasism to name but a few.
Criminalizing the Mayan people – again
There is a great risk that ”Law Monsanto” will make criminals of already repressed small farmers who are just trying to make ends meet and just by doing what they have done for generations, cultivating corn and black beans for their own consumption. Because they will not be able to grow and harvest anything that originates from natural seeds or any seeds if these have been mixed with patented seeds from other crops as a result of pollination or wind, unless they have a license for the patented seed from a transnational corporation like Monsanto
Another risk expressed by ecologists is fear that the costs for the patented seeds will cause an increase in prices and as consequence cause a food crisis for those families who can not buy a license to sow.
Academics, together with the Mayan people, also fear that this law will intensify the already existing fierce social conflicts between local Mayan communities and transnational companies in a country historically torn apart by violence.
Currently international companies are very interested in gaining control of the abundant and rich natural assets that Guatemala possesses. There is just one problem: The Mayan people – or actually most people – in Guatemala do not agree with a policy of treating nature like a commodity to be sold off piece by piece, especially when they receive nothing in return. It is very difficult to argue that it is a rentable business for Guatemalan society as a whole and less the local communities, when it is a rather small but powerful economic elite who benefits on behalf of the environment, nature and society.
So what happens when the people organize in defense of their territory? The international companies call the government and have them use whatever means necessary to remove those standing in their way so they can construct megaprojects like mines or hydroelectric dames or extend monocultures in any region they see fit without much concern of those who might be affected.
Last week three men were killed when police used violent force to evict a community whose population had organized to protest against a hydroelectric megaproject in their community in Alta Verapaz. One thousand police officers were sent to the area on orders from the Ministry of Home Affairs, Mauricio López Bonilla. It was by no means not an exceptional case.
Controversy sees no end
As for ”Law Monsanto”, for a chilling reminder of where this is most likely headed, on need look no further than then the USA; according to information from Food Democracy Now, a grassroots community for sustainable food system, Monsanto’s GMO Roundup Ready soybeans, the world’s leading chemical and biotech seed company, admits to filing 150 lawsuits against America’s family farmers, while settling another 700 out of court for undisclosed amounts. This has caused fear and resentment in rural America and driven dozens of farmers into bankruptcy.
It is impossible to foresee the future, but the reality in Guatemala today is that of an ongoing controversy between the government and the Mayan people, who constitute over half of the population.
On August 15, the Mayan People’s Council (CPO) made a statement calling for a truce, demanding for an immediate withdrawal of all police, military and paramilitary forces from indigenous territories. In the meantime CPO requested that the United Nations to make a decision on whether to intervene in order to stop the ongoing genocide against the Mayan people. The aim is to impulse a new plurinational political pact, as CPO wrote in their statement.
This message alarmed high-ranking officials and politicians. So far, representatives of the United Nations have met with representatives of several Mayan communities, articulated through CPO. Now it is time for the government to respond to accumulated demands from the Mayan population and show willingness to rule the country in an inclusive manner which should be in the interest of all Guatemalans. They should not let the dispute over ”Law Monsanto” be another disappointment for the people.