As genetically modified soybeans take over vast tracts
in Brazil and all over South America and reports flow
in of genetic contamination of local corn in Mesoamerica,
grassroots resistance to biotech crops has also grown.
The protests form part of people's movements across the
hemisphere that tie together a rejection of neoliberalism
and agribusiness, and call for land reform, food sovereignty,
and sustainable agriculture.
Genetically Modified Crops: Myth and Reality
It is a common misconception that genetically modified
(GM) crops were created to fight world hunger. In reality,
the great majority were developed not for increased yields
or enhanced nutritional value but for herbicide resistance.
This type of agriculture destroys plant diversity - most
of the land area in the world devoted to GM crops is planted
with only one crop: soy. And this GM soy has been developed
by a single corporation, U.S.-based Monsanto, with a single
trait in mind: resistance to Monsanto's own Roundup herbicide
- hence its name, Roundup Ready.
Put another way, GM crops, which have been planted commercially
since the mid-1990's, have been developed for the most
part with the sole purpose of increasing Monsanto's sales
of its seeds and herbicide by allowing it to sell both
as an integrated package.
Most of this soy is fed not to people in poor countries
but to feedlot cattle in the United States, Western Europe,
and China, to make beef that the world's poor cannot afford.
The remainder is channeled mostly to industrial uses,
such as the manufacture of ink, soap, and glue.
The little that's left ends up as soy additives found
in over half of all processed foods, such as bread, chocolate,
and mayonnaise. Now an increasing portion of the worldwide
soy crop is being used to make biodiesel.
Monsanto has very few competitors. The global seed business
has become so concentrated in the last two decades that
less than half a dozen corporations in the world present
any substantial competition. These include the U.S.-based
DuPont and Dow Agroscience, and European corporations
Syngenta and Bayer Cropscience.
Monsanto is not only the biggest corporate player in
the GM seed business, it recently became the world's biggest
seed company, trailed closely by DuPont. In the mid 1970's
there were around 7,000 seed companies and not one of
them had even 0.5% of the world market.
Nowadays 10 corporations control 49% of the world seed
market, and all of them are in the race to develop and
commercialize GM varieties.
Nowhere in the world have the effects of GM crops been
felt as intensely as in South America. Soybeans currently
take up over 16 million hectares (61,776 square miles)
of farmland in Argentina - more than 10 times the area
of the state of Connecticut, and over 20 million hectares
(77,220 sq. mi.) in Brazil (just over one-fifth of Brazil's
total cultivated land and almost a third of the state
Bolivia and Paraguay together account for at least three
million hectares of soy (11,583 sq. mi.) . Soybeans are
also making significant inroads into Uruguayan agriculture.
Almost all of the soy grown in South America is Roundup
Ready. The reason for this has to do with the technological
and biological realities of soy farming. Massive soy monocultures
are made viable and cost-effective by no-till direct seeding
machinery. However, no-till farming creates an ideal environment
for weeds, which is why soy monocultures are herbicide-intensive.
The development of genetically engineered RR soy seeds
allows farm workers to apply Monsanto's Roundup herbicide
without worrying about it damaging the soy crop. Therefore,
the GM herbicide resistance trait makes soy monocultures
Although the biotech companies assure that herbicides
should not pose public health or environmental hazards
if used properly, researchers Miguel Altieri and Walter
Pengue state that in practice it is a different story.
In large-scale herbicide-resistant GM crops, herbicide
is sprayed from airplanes and much of what is sprayed
is wasted through drift and leaching.
Research shows that glyphosate, Roundup's active ingredient,
caused retarded development of the fetal skeleton in laboratory
rats; it also inhibits the synthesis of steroids, and
is genotoxic in mammals, fish, and frogs. Field dose exposure
of earthworms caused at least 50% mortality and significant
intestinal damage among surviving worms.
As for human health effects, Roundup has been found to
cause dysfunctional cell division that may be linked to
cancers, and children born to users of glyphosate had
elevated neurobehavioral defects.
In Ontario, Canada, epidemiological research found that
glyphosate exposure almost doubles the risk of miscarriages
in advanced pregnancies. And a French team led by Caen
University biochemist Gilles-Eric Seralini discovered
that human placental cells are very sensitive to Roundup,
and that even in very low doses glyphosate can disrupt
the endocrine system.
Social and Environmental Costs
The soy boom, lauded as a success story by landowners,
agribusiness, biotechnology corporations, and South American
governments, has come at an enormous environmental and
"Large-scale soybean monocultures have rendered
Amazonian soils unusable," according to professors
Miguel Altieri and Walter Pengue of the Universities of
California and Buenos Aires respectively. "The production
of herbicide-resistant soybean leads to environmental
problems such as deforestation, soil degradation, and
pesticide and genetic contamination."
"Soy means monoculture and huge mechanized farms,"
informs GRAIN, an international NGO that advocates the
sustainable use of biodiversity. "As a result, soy
has done enormous environmental damage, causing the destruction
of 21 million hectares of forest in Brazil, 14 million
in Argentina, and two million in Paraguay."
The effect of soy farming on soil fertility is severe.
In areas of poor soils, fertilizers and lime have to be
applied heavily within two years of soy cultivation, say
Altieri and Pengue. Throughout the continent, spreading
soy production affects land use, environment, and society.
"In Bolivia, soybean production is expanding toward
the East, and in many areas soils are already compacted
and suffering severe soil degradation. One hundred thousand
hectares of soybean-exhausted soils were abandoned for
cattle grazing, which in turn further degrades the land.
As land is abandoned, farmers move to other areas where
they again plant soybeans and repeat the vicious cycle
of soil degradation," Altieri and Pengue elaborate
in their report.
The expansion of soy in Bolivia over the past 15 years
has caused the deforestation of over one million hectares,
informs the Network for a GM-free Bolivia (Red por una
Bolivia Libre de Transgénicos). According to a
2006 document by the Network, which was endorsed by over
two dozen civil society organizations, the deforestation
rate for soybean planting in Bolivia is almost 60,000
hectares (231 sq. mi.) a year.
"If this deforestation rate continues, the forests
in the soy zones run the risk of disappearing. Such is
the case of San Julián, one of the main soy-producing
municipalities in (the department of) Santa Cruz, where
- if the current deforestation continues - its forests
will become extinct in less than nine years."
The Amazon Basin
GM soy cultivation also endangers the Amazon region,
with its wealth of planetary biodiversity. GRAIN issued
a dire warning in 2007:
"Unless the Brazilian government takes decisive
action to prevent it, soy is likely to take over most
of the Amazon basin over the next decade. Within just
a few years the relentless advance of the agricultural
frontier into the Amazon basin is likely to push the tropical
forest over the critical 'tipping point' so that it starts
to dry out and turn into savannah. Then, indeed, there
will be no stopping the farmers, who will see no reason
at all for not making economic use of the moribund forest.
The group points out that loss of the Amazon to soy deforestation
contributes heavily to global warming. "As the forest
dies, hundreds of thousands of river dwellers, peasant
families, and indigenous people will be disinherited,
and the world will lose an extraordinary biomass, which
plays a key role in regulating the global climate. Just
as serious, the destruction of the Amazon forest will
release some 90 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere,
enough by itself to increase the rate of global warming
by 50%. "
Protesters in Paraguay hold up a sign reading "Soy
Kills" in response to the huge monocultures in their
country, one of the world's biggest soy producers.
The human cost of GM soy's "success" has been
particularly extreme for the Paraguayan peasantry. Paraguay
is the world's fourth largest exporter of soy - soy production
quadruped from 1989 to 2006. Soybeans are planted on two
million hectares (almost two-thirds of the country's farmland),
and soy cultivation is expanding at an estimated annual
rate of 250,000 hectares a year (965 sq. mi.).
The Paraguay soy boom came about at the expense of around
90,000 families of peasants and indigenous peoples that
were forced off their lands. Those displaced by soy farms
end up living in shantytowns on the outer edges of major
cities, or squatting in private lands, or resisting eviction.
The country can hardly afford to displace and marginalize
more people; 85% of Paraguayans live in poverty while
80% of the land is in the hands of the richest 1% of the
The government and land owners have responded to the
social havoc caused by the expansion of soy with paramilitary
violence carried out by the so-called "citizen guard."
This extra-official force is composed of approximately
13,000 trained and armed members, and their illegal practices
include "break-ins, torture, and detention of those
who do not accept the new illegal order that they impose
through terror and violence," said the Grupo de Reflexión
Rural (GRR), an NGO that tracks and documents the impacts
of industrial agriculture, particularly GM crops.
"The citizen guard, which works with the complicity
of the interior ministry, is linked to land owners and
soy growers ... and has as its main objective the persecution
of campesino leaders."
"Given that the agrarian reform is not enforced,
many landless peasants exercise their rights through acts
of civil disobedience. The state's response has many times
been repression and violence, turning protests and grievances
into felonies and the poor into delinquents," said
Rita Zanotto of Via Campesina, an organization that represents
tens of millions of peasants and small farmers worldwide.
In Argentina, the RR soy model has been imposed since
the 1990's to generate revenue to pay the foreign debt
and to supply the demand of European countries and China
for livestock feed. The GRR reports, "With this model,
Argentina, which once claimed to be the world's granary,
today has become a forage republic and doesn't have the
capacity to feed its own population, and it cannot solve
its huge unemployment problem because its economy is designed
to favor the export of raw materials.
"The soy model has depopulated the territory, liquidated
rural populations, and destroyed the tradition, culture,
and attachment of millions of Argentines to the land.
This model has turned our cities into unsafe megalopolises
on the verge of collapse. It has razed our native forests,
polluted the main basins with toxic agrochemicals, has
deteriorated the soils, and is a grave threat to our biodiversity
and our phytogenetic heritage."
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is the only Latin
American head of state opposed to GM crops, a stance that
accompanies the Chavez government's land reform program.
Chavez has proposed the Bolivarian Alternative of the
Americas (ALBA), an anti-imperialist alternative to the
neoliberal Free Trade Area of the Americas and regional
and bilateral trade agreements pushed by the United States.
The Chavez government has consulted with internationally
renowned agroecologists such as Miguel Altieri, and fully
supports the concept of food sovereignty championed by
Via Campesina and articulated in the 2007 World Forum
on Food Sovereignty in Africa.
However, in apparent contradiction with the above, Chavez
is an avid supporter of soy monocultures. During a trip
to Paraguay in 2006 he proposed a united South American
front for the production and consumption of soy.
"In some of our countries (soy) grows with ease
and is an important oilseed from which one can produce
beef, oil, milk, and yogurt, among other foodstuffs,"
said the Venezuelan president in Asunción, Paraguay's
capital. "We must stimulate our own production because
the United States subsidizes their crop."
Argentina and Venezuela have an agreement by which Argentina
acquires Venezuelan oil in exchange for farm machinery
and agricultural technical expertise provided by Argentina's
National Institute for Agricultural Research (INTA).
The GRR has been closely watching Venezuela's flirtation
with soy, and has repeatedly warned that soybean monocultures
are incompatible with land reform, food sovereignty, and
environmental protection, and make penetration by GM seed
The organization points out that INTA was formed after
the 1955 coup that overthrew Perón to promote U.S.-style
industrial agriculture along with associated inputs such
as pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, and more recently,
GRR notes the prominent role of Argentinean soybean czar
Gustavo Grobocopatel in selling Chávez the "soy
miracle." Grobocopatel, president of Grupo Los Grobo,
Argentina's leading agribusiness corporation, frequently
travels to Venezuela and organized the Expo Barinas farm
equipment fair there in 2005.
"We are convinced that the technologies that Argentina
takes to [Venezuela] through INTA and agribusiness personalities,
are elements that will end up favoring and empowering
the sectors that are most reactionary, and antagonistic
to the agrarian revolution, and its orientation toward
local and peasant production," declared GRR in April
"That a person such as Grobocopatel proclaims his
links to the Bolivarian revolution is enough motive for
us to worry and raise our voice in defense of Venezuela
and its people and our common future." The GRR has
repeatedly tried to communicate its concerns to the Venezuelan
government but to no avail so far.
Costa Rican "GM-Free Zones"
Three cantons (municipalities) in Costa Rica have declared
themselves GM-free zones. These GM-free declarations are
the product of "the brave decision of municipal councils
and the valuable work of community organizations,"
said Fabián Pacheco of the Central American Alliance
for Biodiversity Protection. "[This] work goes beyond
resisting the introduction of GM organisms to make a profound
call for the promotion of agroecological practices, of
good nutrition, and the construction of communities truly
free of corporate conceits that try to control everything,
free to choose what's best for the inhabitants of the
Pacheco added that "The struggle against GM organisms
permits us to build the bases of the resistance against
the new agroindustrial model that destroys the food sovereignty
of local communities."
Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and
culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically
sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define
their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations
and needs of those who produce, distribute, and consume
food at the heart of food systems and policies rather
than the demands of markets and corporations.
It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation.
It offers a strategy to resist and dismantle the current
corporate trade and food regime, and directions for food,
farming, pastoral, and fisheries systems determined by
local producers and users.
Food sovereignty prioritizes local and national economies
and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven
agriculture, artisanal fishing, pastoralist-led grazing,
and food production, distribution, and consumption based
on environmental, social, and economic sustainability.
Food sovereignty promotes transparent trade that guarantees
just incomes to all peoples as well as the rights of consumers
to control their food and nutrition. It ensures that the
rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds,
livestock, and biodiversity are in the hands of those
of us who produce food. Food sovereignty implies new social
relations free of oppression and inequality between men
and women, peoples, racial groups, social and economic
classes, and generations.
Mexico: The GM Invasion
Since the 1990's many scientists had warned that GM crops
cannot be contained. Once planted in the open, they said,
these would uncontrollably spread either through pollination
or seed dispersal, with potentially unpredictable and
irreversible consequences. "Seeds will be our only
recourse if the prevailing belief in the safety of genetic
engineering proves wrong," advised the Union of Concerned
"Heedlessly allowing the contamination of traditional
plant varieties with genetically engineered sequences
amounts to a huge wager on our ability to understand a
complicated technology that manipulates life at the most
elemental level. Unless some part of our seed supply is
preserved free of genetically engineered sequences, our
ability to change course if genetic engineering goes awry
will be severely hampered." Biotech companies repeatedly
assured that such genetic contamination would never happen.
But in 2001, University of California researchers Ignacio
Chapela and David Quist reported in the scientific journal
Nature that traditional varieties of corn in rural southern
Mexico had been genetically contaminated with GM corn
The main culprit was the North America Free Trade Agreement,
which entered into effect in 1994. NAFTA turned Mexico
into a net importer of corn, with almost all imports coming
from the United States. From being self-sufficient in
corn, the country went on to become the United States'
second biggest corn importer, buying 11% of its exports
Approximately 75% of the U.S. corn harvest is genetically
modified. GM corn began to be planted commercially in
the United States soon after NAFTA came into effect. Mexican
environmentalists and scientists worried that the flood
of corn coming from across the border contained GM seeds,
which could contaminate their country's invaluable agricultural
The Mexican government responded to these concerns in
1998 by imposing a moratorium on the planting of GM corn.
The following year it formed CIBIOGEM, an interagency
committee to enforce the moratorium and investigate any
issues related to GM crops. But the ban did not prohibit
importing GM corn. In 1999 Greenpeace activists took samples
of U.S. corn shipments being unloaded in Mexican docks.
Lab tests turned out positive for GM content.
Corn covers one-fifth of U.S. crop land, far more than
any other crop. According to the U.S. Grains Council,
the United States produces about 44% of the world's corn
- more than China, the European Union, Brazil, Argentina,
and Mexico combined.
Iowa alone produces about as much as the European Union.
Corn also receives far more federal subsidies than any
other crop. One-fifth of the U.S. corn harvest is sold
abroad, and according to the Institute for Agriculture
and Trade Policy, sells internationally at 13% below the
cost of production, undercutting foreign producers.
According to Oaxacan indigenous leader Aldo González,
"The contamination of corn is a sad fact that we
cannot ignore. It is a deep wound that puts all of humanity
at risk and only benefits large transnational corporations
that want to impose on us a model of consumption that
privileges their interests ... For the indigenous peoples
of Mesoamerica, corn is our blood. Without corn we are
"The pollution was no chance act, but a well thought-out
and conscious strategy which simply took a little while
to play itself out," accused GRAIN. "None could
deny that the natural course of any seed is inevitably
to spread. That is what makes a seed a seed. Nor could
anyone deny that maize is naturally an open pollinator.
Any farmer knows that. Put a genetically-modified maize
variety into a highly diverse, maize-intensive small-farmer
area and it will be just a matter of time for the new
variety to join the pool and for contamination to occur."
In view of the genetic contamination of Mexican corn,
biotech industry consultant Don Westfall spoke perhaps
a little too candidly when he let out that "The hope
of industry is that over time the market is so flooded
that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort
The industry and its advocates engaged in a persistent
and prolonged campaign to discredit Chapela and Quist
and to pressure Nature magazine, where their study was
published, to retract it. Faced with a barrage of criticism
from pro-industry scientists, Nature published in its
April 4, 2002 issue, an editorial note on the Chapela-Quist
study stating that "evidence available is not sufficient
to justify the publication of the original paper."
Biotech advocates celebrated the editorial note but they
neglected to mention the editorial in Nature's June 27,
2002 issue, which said that the Chapela-Quist study "was
not formally retracted by its authors or by Nature."
The Mexican government moratorium on GM corn planting
has remained in place, but biotechnology corporations
and their local allies, like Agrobio, are pressuring for
the approval of plantings for "experimental purposes."
Their rationale is contained in a proposal called the
Teacher of Corn Project.
Critics allege that this project is deeply flawed and
scientifically unsound, as the proposed studies do not
cover controversial subjects like GM corn's effect on
biodiversity or local corn varieties. They point out that
the experiments in question would take place in carefully
controlled experimental settings that bear no relation
to real world situations.
The studies "do not even take into account the enormous
multiplicity of factors that exist in the real environment
of Mexico or its enormous cultural diversity," says
Silvia Ribeiro. Furthermore, they claim that the proposed
measures to prevent contamination are so complicated,
cumbersome, and hard to verify that they would not be
viable in actual corn production situations.
According to Ribeiro, the real agenda of the Teacher
of Corn Project is to accelerate and further the process
of genetic contamination and to use the "experiments"
as a stepping stone to approval for commercial GM corn
production. "There is no country in the world with
GM crops that has not been contaminated. The contamination
is inevitable and therefore intentional. It serves corporate
interests by creating de facto situations so that everyone
has to accept GM crops."
Are Bt Crops Reliable and Safe?
The GM corn in the market today is either herbicide-tolerant
(Roundup Ready), or of the insect-resistant Bt variety,
or of stacked-gene varieties that combine both Roundup
Ready and Bt genes. Bt crops, which also include cotton,
contain a gene, taken from the Bacillus thuringiensis
(Bt) bacterium, that codifies the secretion of an insecticidal
Farmers planting Bt crops are supposed to benefit, as
they would not need to spray pesticides for pests like
the corn borer. But, are these crops performing as advertised?
Are they environmentally safe? The data available are
cause for concern.
A USDA Economic Research Service study carried out in
1999 showed no statistically significant difference in
pesticide use between Bt and non-Bt crops. In fact, it
found that in the Mississippi Delta, significantly more
pesticides were sprayed on Bt crops. But the greatest
problem is the development of pest resistance to the Bt
toxin, warns UC Professor Miguel Altieri, "No serious
entomologist questions whether resistance will develop
or not. The question is, how fast?"
Bt crops can also harm beneficial insects and adversely
affect soil ecology. The harmful effects of Bt crops on
beneficial insects were documented at least as far back
as 1999, when research led by Charles Losey of Cornell
University discovered that Bt corn pollen was toxic to
monarch butterflies under laboratory conditions. Losey
came under withering attack by pro-industry scientists,
but his critics ignore that subsequent research confirmed
that Bt crops are indeed hazardous to "non-target"
"The potential of Bt toxins moving through insect
food chains poses serious implications," warns Altieri.
"Recent evidence shows that the Bt toxin can affect
beneficial insect predators that feed on insect pests
present on Bt crops ... the toxins produced by the Bt
plants may be passed on to predators and parasitoids via
pollen. No one has analyzed the consequences of such transfers
on the myriad of natural enemies that depend on pollen
for reproduction and longevity.
"Research has shown that Bt crops adversely affect
ladybugs that eat Colorado potato beetles, a major potato
pest, and lacewing larvae that fed on pests that were
fed Bt corn had a strikingly high mortality rate. Furthermore,
the Bt toxin persists in the soil for months, by binding
to clay and soil particles. It has been found to persist
for as long as 234 days."
Biotech Industry Praises Puerto Rico Governor
The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) named Puerto
Rico governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vilá "Governor
of the Year" during its 2006 annual convention, held
"Among his recent achievements, Gov. Acevedo-Vilá
signed an Executive Order making the promotion and development
of the biotechnology industry a public policy priority;
instituted an inter-agency task force to address permitting
issues for biotechnology companies on a fast-track basis;
and, signed a proclamation creating the first annual biotechnology
week," gushed the BIO in a press release.
"Acevedo-Vilá and his administration have
been champions of building a strong bioscience industry
presence in Puerto Rico," said BIO Vice President
Patrick Kelly. "Not only does Puerto Rico have the
third largest biologic manufacturing capacity in the world,
but the Commonwealth also has a significant agricultural
industry presence. (His) administration has been successful
in creating an environment that will lead Puerto Rico
into the forefront of the bioscience industry development
well into the new millennium."
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that
Puerto Rico has more open-air GM crop experiments per
square mile than any jurisdiction in the United States,
with the possible exception of Hawaii.
"These are outdoor, uncontrolled experiments,"
said Bill Freese, of Friends of the Earth USA. "These
experimental GE (genetically engineered) traits are almost
certainly contaminating conventional crops just as the
commercialized GE traits are. And the experimental GE
crops aren't even subject to the cursory rubber-stamp
'approval' process that commercialized GE crops go through
- so I think the high concentration of experimental GE
crop trials in Puerto Rico is definitely cause for concern."
Small Farmers Fight Back
In March 2005, an international multistakeholder conference
on the impacts of soy monocultures took place in the Brazilian
city of Foz do Iguaçu, near the Paraguayan and
Argentinean borders. The conference, organized by the
World Wildlife Fund (WWF), had the full participation
of agribusiness interests and sought not to counter the
expansion of soy but to establish sustainability criteria
for increased production.
Its organizers intended to put these environmental guidelines
to the test in Argentina's "100 million-ton harvest"
project, an initiative of Fundación Vida Silvestre,
WWF's local chapter in Argentina. A harvest that large
would require 10 million additional hectares (38,610 sq.
mi.) to be added to soy production.
Hundreds of protesters from Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay
convened outside the hotel where the "Sustainable
Soy Roundtable" was taking place and denounced the
initiative as a farce intended to greenwash massive soybean
production that could never be made sustainable.
Under the pretext of conserving regions high in biodiversity,
WWF seeks to "legitimize the expansion of industrial
monocultures of GM soy and the introduction of feedlot
cattle and dairy production," accused the protesters
in an open letter. The signers described the roundtable
as a strategy of "green" capitalism to satisfy
market demand abroad and service the illegitimate external
debt, while ignoring domestic food demand.
The letter goes on to denounce the "100 million-ton
harvest" for implying "war against indigenous
and campesino communities that are resisting the advance
of industrial corporate agriculture."
The Roundtable continues to meet in various locations
in the Southern Cone, although its organizers now call
their concept "Responsible Soy." They aim to
formulate a system of certification for the environmentally
and socially responsible production of soy.
Their objectives include improvement of labor conditions,
responsible use of agrochemicals, respect for the land
rights of local peoples, and to make soy production compatible
with the conservation of biodiversity, water, and soil.
But so far the Roundtable has yet to come up with concrete
"The Roundtable is one grand publicity bluff,"
said Javiera Rulli of Base Investigaciones Sociales, a
Paraguayan NGO. "They have been at it for almost
three years and they have achieved nothing."
Terminating Terminator Seed: Victory in Curitiba
The biotechnology lobby had a major setback in a series
of United Nations meetings that took place in southern
Brazil in March 2006. The first of these was the Conference
on Agrarian Reform and Local Development in Porto Alegre,
which was followed shortly by the conference of the Biodiversity
Convention and the meeting of the Biosafety Protocol,
both in the city of Curitiba.
These UN meetings addressed - directly or indirectly
- the issues of control over seeds and land. Furthermore,
Biosafety Protocol specifically addresses the liabilities
and hazards of GM organisms and products.
The biggest bone of contention at Curitiba was the use
of so-called "Terminator seeds." These seeds
produce sterile plants, leaving farmers with no recourse
but to buy seed every year. The Biodiversity Convention
had a de facto prohibition on the use of this technology
since 2000, but GM seed companies hoped to overturn the
ban at the Curitiba meeting.
"Terminator technology is an assault on the traditional
knowledge, innovation, and practices of indigenous and
local communities," said Debra Harry of the Indigenous
Peoples Council on Biocolonialism, and member of an expert
group that examined the potential impacts of Terminator
seed on indigenous peoples, smallholder farmers, and farmers'
Harry added, "Field testing or commercial use of
sterile seed technology is a fundamental violation of
the human rights of indigenous peoples, a breach of the
right of self-determination."
"Terminator poses a threat to our welfare and food
sovereignty and constitutes a violation of our human right
of self-determination," asserted Mariano Marcos Terena
of Brazil on behalf of the International Indigenous Forum
on Biodiversity in January 2006.
A month before the UN meetings in Brazil, over 300 organizations
declared their support for a global ban on Terminator
technology, asserting that sterile seeds threaten biodiversity
and will destroy the livelihoods and cultures of the 1.4
billion people who depend on farm-saved seed.
The organizations, from every region of the world, included
peasant movements and farm organizations, indigenous peoples'
organizations, civil society and environmental groups,
unions, faith communities, international development organizations,
women's movements, consumer organizations, and youth networks.
The Curitiba and Porto Alegre meetings turned into a
fiasco for the biotech lobby because both locations were
swamped by protesters. "Without asking permission,
the 'wretched of the earth,' through the voices of thousands
of Brazilian peasants, landless rural workers, people
displaced by dams, and those affected by timber and GM
soybean plantations, took to the stage at the UN conferences
held in Porto Alegre and Curitiba," said Silvia Ribeiro
of the ETC Group, a Canada-based NGO.
"With the serenity and strength of those who have
truth on their side, armed with seeds, maize, banners,
and songs, these people astounded the diplomats of the
world, reminding them that there is a real world out there
beyond the negotiating tables, and enraged the directors
and lobbyists of transnational corporations."
The days were marked by militant direct action and civil
disobedience. Women of Via Campesina celebrated March
8, International Women's Day, by destroying a laboratory
and nursery of cloned pines of the Aracruz corporation
in protest against encroaching tree plantations. Tree
plantations cause social and environmental damage similar
to those of soy monocultures.
As meetings and protests took place in Curitiba, activists
of Via Campesina and the MST, Brazil's landless people's
movement, seized a farm in Santa Tereza do Oeste, in the
state of Paraná, where Syngenta had illegally planted
GM corn and soybeans in the buffer zone of the Iguaçu
Violence Erupts in Paraná
The saga of the MST's occupation of the Syngenta illegal
GM farm in Santa Tereza do Oeste continued for many months
after the March 2006 UN meetings. MST militants and anti-GMO
activists celebrated when IBAMA, Brazil's environmental
agency, fined Syngenta US$ 500,000 for violating the country's
The law forbids planting GM crops within 10 kilometers
of a natural protected area, in this case the Foz do Iguaçu
national park. Via Campesina proposed turning the field
into a center for research and production of agroecological
seeds. Paraná governor Roberto Requião supported
the occupation and ordered the expropriation of Syngenta
to establish there an agroecology research facility.
The company turned to the courts and got a temporary
injunction against the expropriation plus an eviction
order against the squatters. Then on October 21, 2007,
armed gunmen allegedly hired by Syngenta violently evicted
them. In the process they wounded many and murdered 34-year-old
Valmir "Keno" Mota de Oliveira, father of three.
The MST, Via Campesina, and countless civil society organizations
in Brazil have condemned these deeds and are demanding
that Syngenta take responsibility for the killing, that
it be held accountable for its environmental crimes, that
it give up its experimental plot, and leave the country.
Meanwhile in Porto Alegre, protesters cut off access
to the Agrarian Reform Conference for four hours and succeeded
in getting their declaration, "Land, Territory, and
Dignity," included as an officially endorsed conference
At one point in the Biodiversity Convention a procession
of women of Via Campesina entered the plenary hall carrying
signs in different languages demanding a ban on Terminator.
An enraged Delta & Pine biotechnology company employee
called on security guards to intervene but the chairman
announced that the protesters' concerns would be taken
into account. The vast majority of the plenary session
participants rose and applauded the women.
In the end, civil society held the upper hand, as the
moratorium on Terminator technology was maintained and
upheld, much to the consternation of the biotech industry
and its lobbyists.
"The rainbow of daily protests by Via Campesina
at the entrance to the convention center, the simultaneous
events in Brazil and other countries by hundreds of civil
society organizations coordinated by the international
Ban Terminator Campaign, the speeches by youth and indigenous
leaders (including delegates sent by the Huichol people
of Mexico and the Guambiano people of Colombia specifically
to speak on the issue), the parallel events held by the
Brazilian NGO and Social Movements' Forum, all together
finally overturned [the pro-Terminator push], to the despair
of the transnational corporations and the countries committed
to ending the moratorium, the United States, Canada, Australia,
and New Zealand," said Ribeiro.
"This is a momentous day for the 1.4 billion poor
people worldwide who depend on farmer-saved seeds,"
said Chilean peasant leader Francisca Rodriguez of Via
Campesina. "Terminator seeds are a weapon of mass
destruction and an assault on our food sovereignty.
"Terminator directly threatens our life, our culture,
and our identity as indigenous peoples," said Viviana
Figueroa of the Ocumazo indigenous community in Argentina
on behalf of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.
"Today's decision is a huge step forward for the
Brazilian Campaign against GMOs," said Maria Rita
Reis from the Brazilian Forum of Social Movements and
NGOs, "This reaffirms Brazil's existing ban on Terminator.
It sends a clear message to the national government and
congress that the world supports a ban on Terminator."
The MST and the Via Campesina Seed Campaigns
Brazil's Landless People's Movement, the world's biggest
land squatters' movement, is in the vanguard of GM-free
ecological agriculture in the Americas. Its Bionatur seeds
network develops and distributes diverse GM-free seeds
and runs community seed banks that preserve agricultural
biodiversity and keep germplasm out of the hands of agribusiness
corporations. In the words of MST spokesman João
Pedro Stédile, "If we lose our seed heritage,
conquering land and capital will not serve us in any way."
Bionatur is "a fundamental instrument for the construction
of a new agricultural model, based on agroecology, reconstruction
of the landscape, promotion of peoples' food security
and food sovereignty, and recovery of the productive capacity
of soils," according to Informativo do MST, the movement's
The network was born in 1997 as an outgrowth of COOPERAL,
one of the MST's many farming co-operatives, which was
seeking alternatives to the corporate-controlled and environmentally
unsound industrial agriculture model favored by large
In its two decades of existence, the MST has provided
over 22 million hectares of land to two million poor Brazilians.
There they have established 5,000 settlements. The movement's
land seizures cannot be properly termed civil disobedience
or law-breaking, since Brazil's constitution obligates
the government to distribute land to the poor. There are
currently approximately 150,000 landless Brazilians affiliated
with the MST that are living in temporary roadside barracks
waiting to get land.
As a member of Via Campesina, an international small
farmers' movement with millions of members worldwide,
the MST is an active participant in its Seeds Campaign.
The Campaign "has deep meaning for farmers and indigenous
peoples, and it gives a prominent role to women,"
says Francisca Rodríguez of Chile, one of Via Campesina's
"It strengthens the concept of Food Sovereignty
and transforms it into a commitment to action. The campaign
helps integrate the various aspects of agriculture, but
also weaves in issues related to labor, value systems,
and campesina culture. That returns some of our humanity
to us, providing strength to face the hardship involved
in all of this."
"Agriculture has been transforming us into machines
that work harder than before, suppressing the creativity
that used to characterize the farming process. Technology
subjugates and annihilates people, and knowledge at the
service of capital dehumanizes science. How do we stop
this all-encompassing madness, which leads to extermination
instead of progress? When I look at the seed campaign,
being part of Via Campesina makes more sense: building
this alternative way. I see the campaign as part of that
great road that we are building around the world."