Thursday, August 29, 2013

Res. 970: Farmer, Do Not Plant Your Own Seeds

A campesino farmer in Huila Department.
reCan he plant his own seeds? (Photo: Diario de Huila)
Update: Resolution 970 has since been annuled by the government.

The protesters who have blockaded many of Colombia's highways and carried out sometimes violente marches in Bogotá and other cities blame free trade agreements for driving down crop prices and pushing peasant farmers to ruin.

The peasants' main complaint is about the importation of cheap, subsidized foods, especially potatoes
'We demand access to property rights.'
and dairy products, from wealthy nations. And it seems to me that they're correct that the questionable benefits of cheap food imports (which often become junk foods which don't exactly benefit consumers) aren't worth destroying Colombia's small farm economia and the many thousands of humble people who survive off of it. When they can't make it in the countryside, those people are forced to move to slums, where they struggle to survive in an urban environment. Other farmers may decide to plant coca leaf, the base ingredient for cocaine, which doesn't have imports to compete with.

A protester scrawled 'No on 9.70' on this storefront in downtown Bogotá.
But one of the most polemical aspects of Colombian agricultural law, and which many link to free trade agreements, is Resolution 970, issued in 2010 by the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA). Res. 970 became notorious after Telesur, the Venezuelan-run news agency, broadcast a sensational documentary about it called 9.70, now available on YouTube.

Before today's protest march, police line up on
Plaza Bolivar for instructions. The day would be
long and violent for them.
According to the documentary, the Res. 970 prohibits farmers from planting seeds from their own harvests. The documentary featured officials from ICA - backed by riot police - confiscating sacks of rice from farmers in Huila Department and then burning them.

ICA's director called the documentary mistaken and said, variously, that the seeds hadn't passed government quality controls and that the seeds weren't fit for human consumption because they'd been stored in pesticide sacks.

Unionists in today's protest march. 
But respected commentators I read in El Tiempo and El Espectator newspapers and Semana magazine say that Res. 970 does appear to impose draconian restrictions on farmers' use of their own harvests as seed grains. For example, Res. 970 requires farmers to use "only legal seeds" and bans "possessing any seed which does not comply with what's established in the resolution."

A move to require that farmers use only seeds certified by the government is rooted in the Colombian-
US Free Trade Agreement, according to Semana magazine. However, that requirement was annulled by a Colombian Supreme Court decision last year.

The resolution does permit small farmers to plant their own seeds, called criollas, according to Semana - but only on less than five hectares and only for personal consumption.

In El Tiempo, opinion columnist Jorge Orlando Melo called Res. 970 "absurd"  and "ridiculous." Res. 970 fines farmers 10,000 times the monthly minimum wage for planting 'illegal' food crops - much more than the fines for planting coca and marijuana (which should be legal, in any case), writes Melo.

Apparently embarassed by the controversy, ICA officials seem to have reinterpreted their own resolution and now claim that it doesn't actually prohibit that farmers plant seeds from their own harvests, and have introduced modifications to that end.

Whatever the resolution actually says - and it seems to be confusingly written - at least one of its critics' accusations appears to be off the mark. The certified seed requirement isn't much benefit for multinational corporations like Monsanto, since almost all of the seed sold in Colombia, including all the rice seed, is supplied by Colombian companies.

After the protests, riot police shields
painted by protesters' bombs.
Seeds that are genetically modified or improved using other methods certainly can fill a role in Colombia - but they aren't always the best. In many areas, traditional seeds developed by farmers and used by farmers for generations may do best in the climate and soil conditions. In any case, farmers should have the right to plant the seeds they think best and government bureacrats are the last ones to be telling them how to farm.

Today's massive protests turned violent, perhaps mainly because of violent, encapuchados, who attacked police. At least one policeman was seriously injured by a rock blow to his head.

Businesses closed during today's protests, which turned violent.
A cyclist rides on Ave. Septima alongside riot police. 
After the protests, walls covered with scrawled graffiti. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

I understood the issue with seeds being one of GM and a legality of sowing seeds not actually owned by farmers. Is this totally false?

Miguel said...

Hi Stuart,

That's another, related issue. As I see it, it's perfectly legit for companies which develop GM or other new varieties to control their use and replanting. That's also controversial, of course.

But preventing farmers from planting seeds from their own, traditional varieties is unfair.


Stuart Oswald said...