The Repeal of the ‘Monsanto Law’

By José Gabriel Cubur Pirir —

Spokesman for the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC)

Amidst the repression and criminalization in 2014 of indigenous and campesino activism, we saw a major victory: the repeal of the ‘Vegetable Variety Protection Law’ (LPOV), popularly called the ‘Monsanto Law,’ silently approved by Congress on June 10, 2014.

The country-wide peaceful demonstrations that lasted over a week were undoubtedly key to convincing members of Congress to overturn the law. The repeal, achieved by social media campaigns, a strong media presence, and especially large peaceful protests with broad citizen participation in the country’s major roads, is a model for our future activism.

Our native seeds were directly threatened with privatization because they could have become the property of companies that sell genetically modified seeds, like DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and Monsanto. Article 50 of the LPOV said that any person employing crops patented by a company or individual without permission could be jailed for up to four years or fined up to Q10,000.

The privatization of our seeds would put in jeopardy our sovereignty and food security, and so our health and our lives. A foreign company could patent any part of our ancestral inheritance after making some small change, and then charge us for its use. The companies’ protected creations could also displace our ancient crops. In a country in which extreme poverty and malnutrition are commonplace, any threat to our sovereignty over our precious harvests is grave.

In 2008, Monsanto bought the Guatemalan seed megadistributor Semillas Cristiani Burkard. ‘This acquisition… solidifies Monsanto’s position as the leading corn seed provider in the Latin and Central American regions,’ said Brett Begemann, a Monsanto vice president. By buying seed distributors, Monsanto can monopolize the seed market (it won control of 80% of the US maize seed market through such acquisitions) and limit our options according to its interests.

The great majority quickly understood the threat that the LPOV represented to Guatemalan lives; this was why the response against the law was so strong from indigenous peoples, campesinos, unions, academics, vegetarians, and the rest of the organized population. Organizations including CUC launched an online campaign using the faces of Congressmen and women who voted for the law. We called them out as traitors to the country, which deprived them of the anonymity so common in Congress.

Kaqchiquel leaders and authorities in Sololá, along with grassroots groups like CUC that have a presence there, organized the massive, peaceful demonstrations of the Kaqchiquel people and allies that demanded the repeal of the law. Tens of thousands of people took the Interamericana Highway.

Meanwhile, protests surrounded Congress for a week. Delegations that included many organizations like CUC arrived from Alta Verapaz, Quiché, Totonicapán, and Sololá in the capital to knock on Congress’ doors and participate in press conferences and meetings with other sectors of organized civil society to plan new ways to pressure Congress. CUC also took part in the media campaign to argue against the law. A virtual petition of 200,000 signatures also had its effect. Other sibling organizations undertook legal campaigns against the law.

The majority of the civil actions were massive, festive, especially peaceful, and effective. The repeal of the ‘Monsanto Law’ was a triumph for the organized civil society of the country that stood up to the law and took action.

Manifestantes frente al Congreso en Ciudad de Guatemala, Agosto 2014. Foto por Ricard Busquets

Manifestantes frente al Congreso en Ciudad de Guatemala, Agosto 2014. Foto por Ricard Busquets

The LPOV was officially repealed on September 25th. But that doesn’t mean that the business sector of the country won’t look for some other way to get a similar law passed. The organized population must be ready to go back to the streets, if necessary, to defend their seeds.

In fact, the LPOV is a result of commitments made by the government of Oscar Berger when Guatemala signed a free trade agreement between the US, Central America, and the Dominican Republic (DR-CAFTA) in 2005. This treaty requires Guatemala to meet the standards of the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties. That is the source of the LPOV, and we don’t know what the consequences will be of our rejection of that law.

Logically, the approval of the LPOV was a political and economic ploy meant to benefit national and international big business that patent and profit from the seeds of native peoples. Congress approves laws in favor of those interests and against the interests of the many.

CUC was formed to stem the human rights and labor rights abuses committed against indigenous people and campesinos in the 70s, and became public in 1978. Over 37 years, CUC has fought alongside indigenous and campesino communities to help them secure their own lands. We have helped obtain thousands of land titles, benefitting thousands of rural families across the country. We’ve also contributed to the formulation of bills like the Law of Land Registry Information and Initiative 40-84 for a version of the Holistic Rural Development Law. Access to land and food security for all Guatemalans is being jeopardized by mining, hydroelectric dams, and monoculture plantations of African palms and sugarcane that use our land to export non-edible products as we suffer chronic and severe malnutrition at home. This is why CUC has alliances with indigenous and other grassroots groups to defend our land and Mother Earth from these dangers.

Among the cases of repression CUC faced in 2014 was the massive operation by over a thousand police officers against the q’eqchi’ people in Alta Verapaz. On August 15, police evicted the community of Nueve de Febrero that had settled in 2009 on a small piece of an enormous plot owned by the Ponce family, to protest the construction of the Santa Rita hydroelectric dam without consulting the local q’eqchi population. (The eviction took place just hours before the massacre at nearby Semococh.) CUC had organized the community, and its neighbor Monte Olivo, to support the q’eqchi people in the defense of their territory. Repression in this area has been constant. In 2013, for example, a hitman and employee of the dam project was looking for local leader David Chen, and when he didn’t find him, he shot and killed two of his children instead. They were nine and 13 years old.

We focus most of our efforts on pressuring Congress to pass the urgently necessary Holistic Rural Development Law (Ley de Desarrollo Rural Integral), which is absolutely essential to any meaningful future development in rural Guatemala, where our poor majority lives. We ask our whole country to join this effort. Get informed about this law, support activism around the law, and know that the propanganda from the oligarchy against the law that paints it as extreme land reform is false.

CUC fights to uproot the causes of injustice because human rights belong to us all, not just the privileged few. When CUC fights for land to cultivate and live on, we’re fighting for a better life for indigenous people and campesinos, who, in the 21st century, are still regularly exploited, excluded, and marginalized.