Venezuela Must Raise the Flags of Campesinos Across the Globe against the Privatisation of Food

By Manuel Suarez & Rachael Boothroyd Rojas

Manuel Suarez, an activist with the ecological and human rights collective, Homo et Natura, based in the Perija mountain range catches up with Venezuelanalysis on the grassroots led campaign for groundbreaking new anti-transgenic seed legislation. 

The “New Anti-Transgenic and Anti-Patent Seed Law” is currently being debated in second discussion at the country’s National Assembly, where social movements staged a demonstration this Tuesday (November 17th) to push for the approval of the legislation. 

On October 29th-30th, Venezuelan agroecology movements held the “Tenth National Meeting for the Campesino Seed”; can you start by telling me a little bit about this event? 

For the first time we (Homo et Natura) decided to attend and support the 10th Meeting of the National Campesino Seed, promoted by different organisations and collectives alongside communards and cooperatives in the Monte Carmelo area of Sanare in Lara state. The event is an exhibition or exposition of campesinos’ way of life in Venezuela. This time it was really interesting, due to the fact that the new Seed Law is currently being debated in the National Assembly.

The new seed law in Venezuela is proposing and promoting a total and up front rejection of genetically modified seeds and commercial patents on different types of seeds. Over the past 2 years, social movements, communards and campesinos have been debating a new seed law, a new legal instrument, that will control and legislate against the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Venezuela and private patents on seeds, as well as build an alternative through a people’s seed sowing plan, proposed by communal, campesino, indigenous and Afro-descendent groups in Venezuela.

What are the main points of the law? What would be its practical implications for Venezuela?

Well, I’m not familiar with all of the clauses in the law, as it has been discussed in a more abstract way in discussions so far, let’s say, it’s ideological underpinnings which are uncompromisable. But the three main points are; the prohibition of GMOs in Venezuela, a national people’s seed sowing plan, and thirdly the protection of our native seeds.

This is why we want a clause on zero patents. The fact that a seed exists and is being used means that its origin, its type and how it is produced should all be stated, and the community which has historically protected it should be named, to give historic value to the seeds of our country’s communities.

These are the principles, the exact articles are not defined yet, that is what is being proposed in second discussion at parliament. We have been informed that there are three remaining (parliamentary debate) sessions and that in the current political climate it is difficult to discuss this. But this is what we are calling for, that the national government takes a position, that it radicalises and deepens this discussion to take a side before the (parliamentary) elections on December 6th.

Can you elaborate on the People’s Seed Sowing Plan? 

Yes, the people’s seed sowing plan addresses the different stages for planning basic harvests. It proposes that agricultural planning in the country should be carried out in conjunction with the communities involved in these productive processes (communes, indigenous, Afro-descendent and farming communities), and not just based on the criteria of the Ministry of Agriculture, but on the historic knowledge of these communities. These productive processes should be different or alternative to the logic of the marketing of official policies, as well as that imposed by private business, who make an enormous profit as intermediaries between agricultural communities and the end consumer. They should also be different to conventional agricultural production in terms of using packets of afro-toxins without taking into account the environmental and social damage which they generate. Until now, the plan has been represented principally by local alternatives in the form of eco-markets and communal food fairs, but all with the objective of generating a nation-wide agroecology movement.

And this was all the main subject of the 10th National Campesino Seed meeting? 

Yes, ten years ago the 29th of October was designated as the national day of the campesino seed and this is celebrated in Sanare, Lara. This year’s event was an event in which several agricultural communities, collectives and producers participated to exchange the seeds that they have protected and conserved. It’s extremely colourful because all the campesinos share their experiences there; the advantages of each seed, and there is a direct exchange of seeds (trueke) to share and disseminate our own native seeds between producers. The 30th was the central debate in the same community to discuss the people’s seed sowing plan.

There was also a head to head with the Minister of Eco-socialism and Water, Guillermo Barreto and one of the deputies to the National Assembly for Lara state, in which they spoke a little bit about where the debate on the project for the seed law is currently at, and told us that it is about to go to a second round of debate. Given this, social movement organisations called for a demonstration on November 17th at the National Assembly in Caracas to support the law and put pressure on the body to approve it prior to the parliamentary elections on December 6th.

You’re talking about “head to heads” etc with members of government, what has been the reaction so far to this proposed, quite radical, legislation, which aims to legislate against the use of genetically modified seeds in Venezuela and the practice of putting private patents on seeds? 

As ecologists we understand that there are significant interests involved in something like the seed law. The same day as the national seed meeting, there was a presentation by one of the legislators in the area, Julio Chavez, and the Minister for Science and Technology, Manuel Fernandez, who publicly committed to debating this with the President of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, and to propose an anti-transgenic seed law.

I should also point out that we made an extremely pointed observation with regards to the position of the Minister of Land and Agriculture, Yvan Gil, who emphasised in a letter (made public) that the prohibition of GMOs could be a barrier to accessing seeds that have already been developed by businesses and institutions (in the statement Gil argues that the prohibition could put cereal production in danger and affect the population’s access to food). Social organisations are totally against this suggestion. We do not want the introduction of GMOs into the country, we want to construct a people’s seed sowing plan free of patents, that is recognised in the draft law, which also proposes having, lets say a symbolic patent, which conserves and states the origin of every type of vegetable.

At the October meeting, legislators also brought up an issue, which is that there are apparently two pieces of legislation in the assembly, and that was part of the head to head, because social movements maintain that there is only one. In this respect, there appears to be a kind of administrative black hole, and that’s why we called for the march on November 17th, to make ourselves visible and to show our rejection of any possible law which allows the introduction of GMOs in Venezuela.

Why does Venezuela need this law?

It’s not a reality that is particular to Venezuela: the problem of agricultural dependency and agribusiness is global, there are hundreds of thousands of examples across the globe. However, as Venezuela has proposed an alternative life project it must come out as the vanguard and raise the flags of campesinos across the globe: against the privatisation of food and the privatisation of seeds which have been adapted and maintained by indigenous, afro-venezuelan and campesinos for hundreds of generations. It isn’t the birthright of any global business to come and put a patent on a kind of corn, potato or rice just to serve its economic interests.

Venezuela has to be part of this global movement for change. It should also be made known globally that there are organisations in Venezuela that are upholding the anti-GMO banner, and not necessarily from the point of view of the national government.

If this law is approved, we’re talking about big interests that will be affected… 

Yes, certain oligopolies and big businesses in the country have been identified as carrying out political lobbies for agribusinesses such as Monsanto, which have patented and appropriated 80% of the seed market. Let’s say that they have a strong lobby from the conservative rightwing in the National Assembly, but we are also worried about the majority position of the rest of government members of parliament who define themselves as revolutionary. This is the great dilemma which exists, because like I said previously the Ministry assumes a production-led (productivista) position in terms of agricultural production in the country, the criteria of agribusiness still exists.

We all know about the experience of the nationalised agriculture and livestock farming business, formerly known as Agroisleña and now known as Agropatria, which continues using transnational toxic materials and which continues to use conventional methods of agricultural production. We have been extremely critical about this, we need to turn agricultural production around for the sake of the health of the Venezuelan population, and also because of the damage that it is currently doing to our biodiversity and water supplies. In short, of course this effects big interests and of course, there are also political interests which support the use of genetically modified material in the country.

What you’re saying is that, there are no guarantees that this law will be passed by Chavismo, but it will be almost impossible under an opposition majority in the National Assembly? 

That’s exactly right. But what is much more important than the seed law for them, I think, is that they have a clearly defined and managed objective, which is a parliamentary coup, just as we have seen in Honduras and Paraguay, where the reactionary rightwing majority in the National Assembly moved to take apart the entire state apparatus.

Of course, this isn’t just about an anti-transgenics seed law, but rather about privatising agriculture throughout Venezuela and implementing a predatory neoliberal model, which would include hydrocarbons, as well as social rights, education, health etc. The truth is that the situation is extremely complex.

Bringing this interview to an end, how is this struggle in Venezuela related to mobilisations throughout the world, for example, to the recent global protests against Monsanto? 

I think that the fundamental relationship is related to consciousness about life, the human attachment to life. When farming, indigenous and Afro-descendent communities are recognising that they are no longer the owners of their own seeds, that transnational companies have appropriated them and that, beyond that, their entire family economy and environment is worsening, well, I think that can help you to grasp that global human thread.

Global concern about this is everywhere and we are simply replicating that concern and experience. Venezuela has a big responsibility, like I said, given the project or vision for a new humanity that it is proposing; but it must give clear examples of that struggle, of that multipolarity. Approving a campesino, indigenous, Afro-descendent seed law is going to be a demonstration of that. Then the commitment and struggle comes down to organisations and farming communities, to keep fighting this global struggle for a new free agriculture, free of patents and GMOs, for the life and dignity of the people.