In Guatemala, indigenous communities prevail against Monsanto

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In Sololá, hundreds of campesinos mobilized to oppose the “Monsanto Law,” which would have opened Guatemala to the privatization of seed. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Late in the afternoon of September 4, after nearly 10 days of protests by a coalition of labor, indigenous rights groups and farmers, the indigenous peoples and campesinos of Guatemala won are rare victory. Under the pressure of massive mobilizations, the Guatemala legislature repealed Decree 19-2014, commonly referred to as the “Monsanto Law,” which would have given the transnational chemical and seed producer a foot hold into the country’s seed market.

“The law would have affected all indigenous people of Guatemala,” said Edgar René Cojtín Acetún of the indigenous municipality of the department of Sololá. “The law would have privatized the seed to benefit only the multinational corporations. If we didn’t do anything now, then our children and grandchildren would suffer the consequences.”

Originally passed on June 26, the Monsanto Law was written to protect the intellectual property rights of multinational companies in their investments within Guatemala. The law also allowed Monsanto an entrance into the Guatemalan seed market and set in place stiff penalties for any farmer that was caught selling seed to another farmer without the proper permits. The response was a massive mobilization of a coalition of labor, indigenous groups and campesinos.

For 10 days, the streets in front of the legislature of the capital Guatemala City were clogged with thousands of protesters demanding the repeal of the law. Demonstrators also gathered in the rural departments of Guatemala to protest the law and the congressmen who had voted in favor of the law.

The changes to the seed market would have heavily hit the campesinos of the department of Sololá, which is a major production area for seed corn for the rest of the country. On September 2, 25,000 to 30,000 people from the around the communities of the department of Sololá shut down the Inter-American Highway in protest of the Monsanto Law. Protesters set up blockades along the highway in three places and shut down all traffic for nearly nine hours.

“The communities are organized against any law that privatizes their seed,” said Griselda Pocop of the Association of Women Moving Sololá. “They are also demanding the respect of the traditions and of their livelihoods.”

Sacred crops

Sololá is one of the agriculture centers of Guatemala, with a majority of the population relying on the growing of maize, beans, coffee and other crops. The department also has one of the highest indigenous populations in the country, with 96 percent of the population identifying as Kaqchikel, T’zutujil, or Kiche Maya. Maize is sacred to the Maya; their cultures and societies revolve around it. According to the Kiche Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh, the gods made humans by grinding the different colors of maize.

As is written in the Popol Vuh, “There was a consensus (among the gods), and it was decided what would come of the red, yellow, black, and white maize; it is from these that they made our bones, our blood, and our flesh.”

The protection of seed is thus of the utmost importance for the indigenous peoples of Guatemala and across Mesoamerica. “We cannot live without our corn,” said Acetún of the indigenous municipality. “It makes up all of our lives. We consume it for our food, we sell it, it is us.”

Rafael, a campesino from the Kaqchikel Maya community of Pixabaj, Sololá, explained, “The people here are Maize … We are not French. We are not anything else. We are Maize; we are Maya.”

As the protests mounted, women took the lead in organizing for the defense of maize. In Sololá, women created a seed bank to archive and protect the various varieties of heirloom corn for future generations. “The women of Sololá have taken the lead in organizing to save and protect our heirloom seeds,” said Pocop. “It is our responsibility to preserve our traditional seed, and to pass along the traditional ways of doing things.”

Transnational interests

Decree 19-2014 was written to comply with the requirements of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Like the North American Fair Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, the agreement opens up the economies of Central American countries and the Dominican Republic to cheap imports from the United States.

From the moment the trade agreement was proposed, the indigenous and farmer communities protested the law. They argued that since NAFTA had ravaged rural Mexico, CAFTA would have the same affect in the Central American countries. Despite the protests, CAFTA was ratified by Guatemala in 2006.

These trade agreements have opened up the Guatemala corn market to the importation of corn from the United States and tied the internal market to the global pricing. The results have been devastating. In the years since the agreement was signed, the price of corn has steadily increased. For years, one quetzal (roughly 12 cents) could purchase eight large tortillas. But today, for the same price, one can only purchase four smaller tortillas.

Many farmers have not been able to benefit from the increased prices of corn, because they have had to compete with cheaper imports from El Salvador, Mexico and the United States. “The trade agreement opened up Guatemala to the importation of corn and the prices went up,” said Pocop. “But the imported corn is still cheaper than that produced here.”

On the heels of this trade agreement, Decree 19-2014 would have opened up the Guatemala seed market to allow Monsanto’s modified and proprietary seeds into the country. Guatemala is not alone in the region in having to combat the privatization of seed by multinationals; campesinos in El Salvador too have had to defend their livelihoods from the privatizing effects of the trade agreement.

A rare victory

A week prior to the protest against the Monsanto law the Guatemalan Constitutional Court declared that articles 46 and 50 of the legislation, the two that most violated the rights of farmers, were unconstitutional.

Then, in a landslide vote of 117 in favor, 3 against, and 38 abstaining, the Guatemala legislature repealed Decree 19-2014. Soon after learning about the repeal, communities rejoiced. In Sololá alone, more than 5,000 people celebrated the elimination of the law.

Yet, just because the law has been repealed does not mean that the indigenous communities and campesinos of Guatemala are in the clear. According to Congressman Amlicar Pop, one of the few indigenous members of the legislature, legal loopholes exist in the bill that allow similar legislation to resurface under a different name.

“For the moment, there are legal loopholes that need to be resolved,” Pop told to the Guatemalan newspaper La Hora.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department declined to comment on any steps that might be taken to bring Guatemala in line with requirements of the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

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