Guatemala Takes Stand Against “Monsanto Law” in Trade Agreement

One of the less well-known projects of the West is to convince developing countries that they need to convert traditional approaches to agriculture, which have functioned well for hundreds of years, into a system of intellectual monopolies for seeds — the implicit and patronizing message being that this is the “modern” way to do things. Last year we wrote about how this was happening in Africa, and an article on bilaterals.org reports on similar moves in Guatemala:

On 10 June, the Congress of Guatemala approved Decree 19-2014 or the “Law for the Protection of New Plant Varieties” which led to an outpouring of criticism from various sectors of civil society.

This law, published on 26 June, protects the intellectual property of plant breeders deemed to have “created” or “discovered” new plant varieties, or genetically modified existing ones.

This way, the beneficiaries of the law — “breeders”, which are typically companies producing transgenic seeds like the transnational corporation Monsanto — obtain property rights over the use of such varieties, in the form of plants or seeds.

Here’s how that is likely to impact Guatemalan farmers:

In a publication, the Rural Studies Collective (Cer-Ixim) warned about the consequences of this “Monsanto Law”.

They explained that under this law the possession or exchange of seeds of protected varieties without the breeder’s authorisation will be illegal and punishable by imprisonment.

It will also be illegal, and punishable by prison, to posses the harvest from such seeds or to save them for future plantings.

According to the law, the breeder’s right extends to “varieties essentially derived from the protected variety.” In this sense, a hybrid produced from a protected variety crossed with an unprotected variety would automatically belong to the breeder of the patented variety.

The law thus promotes privatisation and monopolies over seeds, endangering food sovereignty, especially that of indigenous peoples, said Cer-Ixim. It also warned that Guatemala’s biodiversity will fall “under the control of domestic and foreign companies.”

The new law was brought in as part of the process of complying with the 2005 CAFTA-DR free trade agreement between Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and the US. Under its terms, signatories are obliged to sign up to the International Convention for the Protection of New Plant Varieties — exactly the same one that was being foisted on Africa last year. However, as bilaterals.org reports, despite that obligation, there is mounting resistance to handing over the country’s seed sovereignty in this way:

The growing opposition to the “Monsanto Law” comes from diverse sectors of civil society such as indigenous organisations, environmental groups, scientists, artists and members of Congress.

Artists and television celebrities have joined an online signature campaign to reject the law.

Their petition is addressed to the President, Otto Perez Molina, via the Avaaz website, and argues that the law is unconstitutional.

“This law violates articles of the Constitution relating to the Protection of Individuals, Cultural Identity, Natural Heritage, Right to Health, the principles of the Economic and Social Regime, in addition to the obligation of the state to protect consumers,” the petition states.

Just recently, the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest legal body, provisionally suspended the entry into force of the law, giving 15 days for the various parties to to present their arguments. Despite the broad-based support for repealing or modifying the law, it is not clear what options the government has. After all, passing the law is a requirement of CAFTA-DR, and if Guatemala refuses to comply, we can expect the US to apply considerable pressure to encourage it to toe the line. Ultimately, the US can refuse to bring into force the agreement; given the presence of corporate sovereignty (pdf) and other onerous provisions in CAFTA-DR, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing for the people of Guatemala.