The conuco as a system and concept brings with it the care and multiplication of seeds of traditional and new items. Life, culture, knowledge, health, traditional agricultural systems and even the questions of the people and communities are based on native and Creole seeds, which are their common heritage.
Their free circulation is ancestral, there have been no major restrictions or external control for their production, use and dissemination over the last ten thousand years, when our species discovered agriculture and began a new relationship with the rest of nature.
People have improved and cultivated their seeds in each region, observing, selecting, cross-breeding and field testing, discussing, conserving, proposing diverse strategies for caring for the territory, community and family production systems that allowed for satisfactory structural connections and shared histories between each culture and its environment.
Germinal key of our evolution within nature
In the book Political Ecology of Agriculture. Agroecología y posdesarrollo, Omar Felipe Giraldo goes beyond the Darwinian vision that views evolution as the optimal adaptation of the human species to a pre-existing world, and instead proposes “a satisfactory process of more or less satisfactory co-determination in which cultures, animals and domestic crops co-evolved”.
He asserts, based on Maturana and Varela’s proposals, that the co-evolution between societies and nature exists due to a common history in which a “structural connection” between both has brought stability to the relationship.
Human nature depends on culture and this in turn has been formed, created and recreated in a permanent link with nature, with successes and failures. That is why our species domesticated some seeds and animals and why agriculture is a co-evolutionary and eco-cultural process dependent on popular memory, and a structural link.
The cornfield in Mexico and Central America, an ancestral system of cultivation like the conuco, is also a strategy of resistance that defends the diversity of what is sown
While living in a nature transformed by agriculture, native populations developed a deep understanding of ecosystems and a knowledge that allowed them to contribute to the planet’s biodiversity by domesticating 5,000 crops, 1.9 million varieties of vegetables and 40 species of livestock without any owner dominating or controlling the patterns or processes involved.
Agriculture made that co-creation process dynamic: environments have been modified by cultures and cultures modified by environments. The technique used to transform ecosystems facilitates the continuity and integrity of the agro-ecosystem; in the case of the conuco, agricultural intervention and ecological cycles are coupled with success that is demonstrated by the resistance of our peoples to a history of more than 500 years of siege, persecution and historical dispossession.
The globalization of capitalism and its technology focused on absolute plunder interrupts the structural coupling, so the systemic continuity is lost.
How is life and biocultural memory privatized?
The “structural reforms” imposed by the United States through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) at the end of the 1980s demanded that countries standardize their different ways of proceeding with various issues and abandon many of their regulations to adopt others, supposedly equivalent for all.
This process of “globalization”, which was called the Washington Consensus and had as its slogan “There is no alternative”, sought to “facilitate commercial exchange” by blurring the borders only to standardize trade in terms of the “developed” countries and the corporations established there.
As far as they could, they began to control production, food, health, the development of science, the care of common goods, work, and individual and collective capacities through free trade agreements (FTAs): “trade”, “investment” and “technical assistance” agreements, which commit signatory countries (always peripheral) to comply with the requirements of the countries that set the rules for such agreements together with international organizations.
Many of its articles impose intellectual property rights (IPRs) on all countries, “legal” means that oblige peoples, communities and individuals in general to cede control over access to and exploitation of their domesticated biological wealth (such as conuquera seeds), wild (such as uncultivated products from forests, lakes and seas), associated knowledge and know-how, as well as cultural traditions coupled with the concept of “folklore”.
Attempts were made to impose the aforementioned covenants, agreements, regulations and policies derived from the FTAs into national seed laws in order to “register” and “certify” them, thus violating the acquired and traditional right to the free circulation of seeds in the hands of the indigenous and peasant peoples who have produced, sold or exchanged them for centuries.
Seeds have exposed a dispute between rights that are assumed to be customary, collective, inalienable, unseizable, imprescriptible and even transboundary, and those of intellectual property that are individual, territorial and temporary, that is, they are terminated in a few years.
The registration, cataloguing or certification, privatization and patenting of seeds and cultivars breaks with centuries of co-creation between cultures and crops given by ever-changing techniques of custody, selection, crossing, exchange and sowing.
The wave of the Green Revolution imposed on agriculture in the middle of the 20th century by governments, companies and international organizations privileged technified monoculture, focusing on the mass production of few food species and raw materials.
In several countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, laws have been imposed that allow companies to charge royalties each time a producer re-uses PBR seeds that they themselves have harvested (Photo: Archive)
This deepened the loss of agrobiodiversity in the world and stripped indigenous and peasant communities, especially in tropical and subtropical regions of Latin America, Africa and Asia, of traditional forms of livelihood to make them dependent on centralized, cartelized and controlled techniques and technologies.
A minority associated with the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV ) and supported by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) led to the deployment of laws, decrees and regulations including patents on biotechnology events, health standards, marketing standards, certification laws, various registers, tax rules, misnamed “good agricultural practices”, research programmes, seed market policies and other legal devices that underpinned the recognition and enforcement of intellectual property on seeds.
In addition, other laws, of registration and certification, that promote the control of production and trade of “uniform” seeds while marginalizing and penalizing peasant seeds seeking to restrict the ancestral, free and responsible use of seeds to consolidate industrial agriculture and its modes of production and expansion through hybrid seeds, of the Green Revolution and, in the last twenty years, with the genetically modified (or transgenic) organisms of the Biotechnology Revolution.
The laws imposed on several countries allow the privatization of “discovered” varieties by companies or research centers, which in reality have appropriated the peasant seeds that circulate through local peasant circuits, defining them as “new”.
These same laws expand ownership by granting all “similar” varieties, no matter how long they have existed, and establish sanctions against those who do not obey the legal framework. This has led to the confiscation not only of seeds considered “illegal”, but also of the crops, plantations, harvests and processed products that came from such seeds with summary legal proceedings.
All these arbitrary actions have unleashed socio-environmental conflicts with protests and popular mobilizations in which communities and movements have achieved relative success.
More than monopolies, political control and cultural hegemony
If nature determines the culture and the culture is defined by it, by controlling nature the elites determine the course of human decisions, so behind the control of the seeds there is a political plan. Corporations have advanced in their process of accumulation not only by controlling seed markets globally, but by standardizing biocultural diversity.
Monopoly control, based on property rights, replaced the exchange and was assumed as a new system of seed distribution, making them a global commodity at the service of industrial agriculture and large corporations. Its standardizing hegemony overshadows local adaptation to the different methods, ecosystems and specific needs of family farms, not to mention any form of structural coupling.
Over the past 40 years, the world’s largest agrochemical companies have used patent laws, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and new technologies to take control of the commercial seed sector.
The different sectors of the global food system now account for more than $8 trillion, according to World Bank analysts. The ETC group reports, with data from the agribusiness consulting firm Phillips McDougall, that the value of the world market for seeds of commercialized crops increased by 1.3% in 2018 to reach 41,670 million dollars.
The 3 largest companies represented 49% of the world market for commercial seeds.
The 4 largest companies accounted for 53%.
The 6 largest companies represented 58%.
The 4 largest seed companies in the world controlled two thirds.
The 6 largest companies controlled 72% of the world seed market
With all the exclusion of farmer-saved seed and seed supplied by governments/institutions, most farmers in the world are self-sustaining and farmer-controlled seed networks still account for 80 to 90% of the world’s seed and planting material.
The term “food chain” is increasingly unrealistic; it has never been so in nature where food webs exist. The ETC report says that in the food market, intersectoral strategies are working that take advantage of genomic and mass data technologies (Big Data) and blur the boundaries of the sectors because the interests of the companies coincide.
The owners of fertilizers invest in seeds and agrochemicals; agricultural machinery companies are allied with large seed-pesticide-fertilizer cartels, and in turn they all seek to dominate the Big Data digital agriculture platforms.
In 2016, the five largest asset management firms in the world collectively held between 12.4% and 32.7% of the shares of the major seed/agrochemical companies (Bayer, Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow, before the recent mergers).
Asset management firms not only invest in individual companies, but also acquire equity stakes in all the largest companies in a market sector, a practice known as “horizontal (or common) shareholding”, which means that competing companies are held by the same institutional shareholders with little desire to compete with each other.
On average, 14.6% of soybean, corn, and cotton seed prices over that 20-year period can be attributed to the horizontal stock ownership of five asset management firms that most of us have never heard of, such as BlackRock, Vanguard Group, State Street Corporation, Fidelity, and Capital Group, almost all from the United States.
The Venezuelan route to free seed
Hybrid or transgenic seeds work in industrial monocultures and depend on external inputs (pesticides and fertilizers) that cause negative environmental impacts; and although they present higher yields per area in controlled environments, they are much more susceptible to changing and extreme weather conditions such as those we begin to experience as climate change advances.
The so-called “genetic improvement” and centralized that produces them also homogenizes them and causes them to lose their nutritional value, as well as being susceptible to weakening and diminishing their genetic and biodiverse base. They are seeds that work in systems that cause climatic alterations, increase deforestation, desertification and water consumption, which deepens the global environmental crisis.
The rentier model already described stimulated the importation of agricultural inputs, machinery and implements, making us dependent since the 1950s. Addressing the history of seed laws and modernity in agriculture, in the book Seeds of the People. Ana Felicién describes how the economic, political, and technical elites, in search of technification, planned an agriculture characterized by a high level of government investment.
In addition, they configured an operational structure that defined patterns of land occupation and seed management free of the peasantry decreed from above. This structure was formed by a technical elite with knowledge that responded to interests more oriented to agro-extraction than to food sovereignty, the creation of agricultural colonies oriented to agro-industrial activity and the permanence of the latifundia with its consequent disappearance of villages and displacement of thousands of landless workers.
The programs for the production of certified seeds to expand the area cultivated under the model of agricultural modernization were accompanied by an institutional framework that followed the principles of US agencies. Until 1999, when the Bolivarian Constitution prohibited patents on the genome of living beings, the latifundia was declared to be contrary to the social interest, the right to food security through sustainable agriculture was recognized, and intellectual property rights over the knowledge and practices of indigenous peoples were prohibited.
In 2004, President Hugo Chávez declared that transgenic seeds are a threat to the health and sovereignty of the peoples and the National Seed Plan was created, which promoted other laws, plans, and public policies aimed at promoting a new sustainable production model towards agroecology.
In this sense, it establishes the fight against latifundia, the principle of precaution, control by the State of Genetically Modified Organisms, the conservation of local varieties and traditional knowledge, the recognition of conuco as a source of agrobiodiversity and the promotion of the use of biological inputs.
Uncertified seed, which is invisible to the agrifood sector, constitutes an important part of the country’s agricultural systems and, therefore, a key element for food sovereignty. A robust legal framework has allowed for the recognition of farmers’ rights and promotes the conservation of agrobiodiversity and agroecology based on the Chavista position of defending sovereignty and the rights of peoples.
The popular debate about the Seed Law was based on the rejection of GMOs and the defense of the sovereignty and right to the protection and use of the seed
The Seed Law, which emerged from a broad popular debate, was constructed and approved in 2015 and Felicien summarizes its central elements:
The differentiation of two systems: the system of seeds subject to the certification regime; and the system of local, peasant, indigenous and Afro-descendant seeds.
Recognition of the People’s Power organized in different instances such as the People’s Council for the Reservation and Protection of Local, Peasant, Indigenous and Afro-descendant Seeds, participatory quality assurance systems, seed collection and protection centers, as well as teachers and traditional forms of popular organization.
Creation of free seed licenses as a legal mechanism that protects knowledge and innovations associated with the seed from patents and intellectual property rights The free licenses created in the new Seed Law are intended to protect seeds from private appropriation that restricts the rights to improve, use and share them through a non-exclusive rights contract, i.e. these free seed licenses guarantee the anti-patent character of the Draft Seed Law.
The prohibition and sanction of the production, import, commercialization, distribution, liberation, use and multiplication of transgenic seeds, recognized as a threat to agrobiodiversity, to the health of the peoples and to the sovereignty of the State.
The recognition and revitalization of traditional knowledge associated with indigenous, campesino, and Afro-descendant seeds as the heritage of the peoples and the nation.
The promotion of systems of production, distribution, circulation, exchange, and consumption of indigenous, campesino, and afro-descendant seeds, under the principle of co-responsibility.
The recognition of the seed subject to the certification regime, as well as the creation of an institute that watches over the quality of certified and imported seed.
Initiatives for an abundant life
Since the implementation of the Seed Law, the popular movement that built it has been active in the protection and care of seeds. Last October, the Virtual Meeting of Seed Producers was held in Cayapa 2020 with the participation of peasants from Lara, La Guaira, Mérida, Apure, Monagas, Anzoátegui, Trujillo, Miranda, Aragua, Distrito Capital, Táchira and Yaracuy, who shared their experiences with each other in spite of the connectivity problems imposed by the blockade against the country.
The drive for “abundant life” serves as an engine for finding a path that is not based on the exploitation of bodies and nature. To this end, they focused on three areas of work: 1) experiences in safeguarding and protecting biodiversity; 2) exchange of seeds and free knowledge; and 3) implementation of the law.
The various proposals are based on the organization of seed exchange events and the constitution of Popular Councils for the Protection of Local, Peasant, Indigenous and Afro-descendant Seeds, among other organizational initiatives and the systematization of the various experiences.The conuquera activity in the country has always been linked to the encounter, the conversation and the demercantilization of life through the free exchange of seeds
In this meeting, members of the “Without corn there is no country” Seeding Plan participated. This plan seeks to promote the planting of the Guanape and Cariaco varieties of corn as a “fundamental strategy for the unity and organization of the people for the structural transformation of the socio-productive system and the State”.
This synergetic experience between the platform “Vida Comunal” (formed by the Empresa de Producción Social Comuna de San Juan, Banco de la Mujer and the Universidad Bolivariana de Trabajadores) and the community of Guanape, Anzoátegui state, has as its principles: 1) Not to sell the seed, the seed is not a commodity; 2) The working relationship is based on political unity with the most humble (workers, peasants); and 3) To build trust and loyalty.
The plan is based on seed production, scaling up and the linking of production to satisfy the national demand for the new system of food production. The initial goal is to sow 2 thousand hectares (Ha) of corn in the May-August rainy cycle with the intention of producing seeds for 200 thousand Ha needed for the scaling up.
It is present in 20 states of the country, showing different degrees of development and around it are generating processes of articulation, research, training and organization of the People’s Power.
These initiatives understand the seed as an instrument to contribute to the popular organization necessary to liberate life from the globalizing hijacking that the elites are trying to perpetuate. Venezuela, besieged and attacked by the hungry powers of the world, has the challenge of achieving its food sovereignty by means of the unremitting struggle.
Translation by Internationalist 360°