Let It Burn
“A fabulous Easter gift,” commented Monsanto Director of Development Initiatives Elizabeth Vancil. Nearly 60,000 seed sacks of hybrid corn seeds and other vegetable seeds were donated to post-earthquake Haiti by Monsanto. In observance of World Environment Day, June 4, 2010, roughly 10,000 rural Haitian farmers gathered in Papaye to march seven kilometers to Hinche in celebration of this gift. Upon arrival, these rewarded farmers took their collective Easter baskets of more than 400 tons of vegetable seeds and burned them all.[i] “Long live the native maize seed!” they chanted in unison. “Monsanto’s GMO [genetically modified organism] & hybrid seed violate peasant agriculture!”
According to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, coordinator of the Papay Peasant Movement (MPP), “there is presently a shortage of seed in Haiti because many rural families used their maize seed to feed refugees.”[ii] Like any benevolent disaster capitalist corporation, Monsanto extended a hand in a time of crisis to the 65 percent of the population that survives off of subsistence agriculture. But not just any hand was extended in this time of great need, rather: a fistful of seeds. The extended fist was full of corn seeds, one of Haiti’s staple crops, treated with the fungicide Maxim XO. With similar benevolence, not just any tomato seeds were donated to the agrarian peasants, but tomato seeds treated with Thiram, a chemical so toxic the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled it too toxic to sell for home garden use, further mandating that any agricultural worker planting these seeds must wear special protective clothing.[iii] Happy Easter! Monsanto’s web site’s official explanation for this toxic donation is that “fungicidal seed treatments are often applied to seeds prior to planting to protect them from fungal diseases that arise in the soil and hamper the plant’s ability to germinate and grow. The treatments also provide protection against diseases the seed might pick up in transfer between countries.”[iv] However, according to the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, “repeated exposure [to Thiram] can affect the kidneys, liver and thyroid gland. High or repeated exposure may damage the nerves.”[v] Why would Monsanto be so eager to donate seeds that could potentially compromise the health of so many famished people?
“The Haitian government is using the earthquake to sell the country to the multinationals!” stated Jean-Baptiste. Welcome to the new earthquake.
“[It’s] a very strong attack on small agriculture, on farmers, on biodiversity, on Creole seeds … and on what is left of our environment in Haiti.” – Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, executive director of the Peasant Movement of Papay.
A Brief History of Violence
Monsanto is also responsible for other life-changing inventions, such as the crowd-pleasing Agent Orange. The Vietnamese government claims that it killed or disabled 400,000 Vietnamese people, and 500,000 children were born with birth defects due to exposure to this deadly chemical.[vi] Up until 2000, Monsanto was also the main manufacturer of aspartame, which researchers in Europe concluded, “could have carcinogenic effects.” In a rare demonstration of social justice, in 2005, Monsanto was found guilty by the US government of bribing high-level Indonesian officials to legalize genetically-modified cotton. A year earlier in Brazil, Monsanto sold a farm to a senator for one-third of its value in exchange for his work to legalize glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide.[vii] In Colombia, Monsanto has received $25 million from the US government for providing its trademark herbicide, Roundup Ultra, in the anti-drug fumigation efforts of Plan Colombia. Roundup Ultra is a highly concentrated version of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide, with additional ingredients to increase its lethality. Colombian communities and human rights organizations have charged that the herbicide has destroyed food crops, water sources and protected areas and has led to increased incidents of birth defects and cancer.
With more than 11.7 billion dollars in sales in 2009 and more than 650 biotechnology patents – most of them for cotton, corn and soy – Monsanto is an economic powerhouse. Nine out of ten soybean seeds in the US are also linked to Monsanto. Together with Syngenta, Dupont and Bayer, Monsanto controls more than half the world’s seeds with no effective anti-trust oversight. One of the world’s most powerful corporations, Monsanto teamed up with United Parcel Service to have the 60,000 hybrid seed sacks transported to their intended destination for Easter 2010 in its drive to trickle down some good to the little guys. Distributing Monsanto’s seeds on this auspicious occasion was a $127 million project funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), called “Winner,” designed to promote “agricultural intensification.”[viii] According to Monsanto, the original decision to donate seeds was made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland,[ix] unbeknownst to Haiti.
“Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.” -Monsanto’s former motto.
The genetically-modified seeds such as those donated and later immolated, cannot be saved from year to year. Some so-called terminator seeds – the DNA of which is altered so as to not drop seed after harvest – require the farmer to buy new seeds from Monsanto the following year in a legally binding contract, instead of collecting the seeds that would have naturally developed on the plant before its DNA was modified. Other GMO seed which do drop fertile seed may not be replanted by contract. Diminished yields, health problems and weakened prospects to buy the next season’s seeds in consequence of and combined with that binding contract with Monsanto have driven many rural farmers to poverty, and subsequently led to a rash of farmer suicides in rural India. Since 1997, more than 182,936 Indian farmers have committed suicide, according to a recent study by the National Crime Records Bureau.[x] “As seed saving is prevented by patents as well as by the engineering of seeds with non-renewable traits, seed has to be bought for every planting season by poor peasants. A free resource available on farms became a commodity which farmers were forced to buy every year. This increases poverty and leads to indebtedness. As debts increase and become unpayable, farmers are compelled to sell kidneys or even commit suicide,” Indian author Vandana Shiva noted in her 2004 article “The Suicide Economy Of Corporate Globalisation.”[xi]
Foreign farmers are not the only ones affected by these product features and associated business practices. As of 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 lawsuits against US farmers for alleged technology contract violations on GMO patents, involving 372 farmers and 49 small agricultural businesses in 27 different states. From these, Monsanto has won more than $21.5 million in judgments. In estimates based on Monsanto’s own documents and media reports, the multinational corporation appears to investigate 500 farmers a year.[xii] “Farmers have been sued after their field was contaminated by pollen or seed from someone else’s genetically engineered crop [or] when genetically engineered seed from a previous year’s crop has sprouted, or ‘volunteered,’ in fields planted with non-genetically engineered varieties the following year,” said Andrew Kimbrell and Joseph Mendelson of the Center for Food Safety.[xiii] A Monsanto seed will often magically appear in an ordinarily organic field, giving Monsanto grounds for an onerous lawsuit that will eventually lead to the complete occupation of the innocent farm.
Nothing New Under the Caribbean Sun
Jean-Robert Estimé, who served as Foreign Minister during the murderous Duvalier dictatorships, is Monsanto’s representative in Haiti,[xiv] and refuses to acknowledge his involvement in furthering the impoverishment of his own people. However, Monsanto’s “Manifest Destiny”-like intentions for Haiti are hardly anything new. Many Haitians consider Monsanto’s seed donation to be part of a broader strategy of US economic and political imperialism. Haiti’s agricultural sector has already been decimated by United States’ interference once. Jean Bertrande Aristide was overthrown by a coup supported by the US government in 1991. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund collectively decided that if he were to return to power, a condition upon his return would be that he open the country to free trade. Shortly thereafter, the tariffs on rice fell from 35 percent to 3 percent and the money that was originally reserved for agricultural development went into paying off the country’s external debt. Under the Clinton White House, the Haitian market was flooded with subsidized rice from Arkansas. Since then, almost all of Haiti’s rice is imported and subsequently, much of that local knowledge and expertise of rice cultivation is lost.[xv]
Food Sovereignty, Not Agricultural Slavery
As the new earthquake continues to shake, this seemingly benevolent donation of vegetable seeds will forever change the paradigm of Haitian agriculture and thus lead to its further dependence on seeds that poison both the soil they are grown in and the bodies that consume them and that create financial dependency on the biotechnology firm Monsanto. “Our people will never be autonomous if Haiti has to suffer through what is called generosity, but makes us dependent on corporate control in agricultural production,” said Catherine Thélémaque of Action SOS Haiti in Montreal.[xvi] Agroecologists Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer, at the University of Michigan, have recently published a study showing that sustainable, small-scale farming is more efficient at conserving and increasing biodiversity and forests than industrial agriculture.[xvii] With less than 1 percent of its original forest coverage remaining, Haiti cannot gamble on the disastrous environmental effects of hybridized industrial monoculture to feed its many hungry. “If the US government truly wants to help Haiti, it would help the Haitians to build food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, based on their own native seed and access to land and credit. That is the way to help Haiti,” says Dena Hoff, a diversified organic farmer in Montana and member of Via Campesina’s International Coordinating Committee.
The Impending Storm
In his 1780 History of European Colonization, Guillame Raynal remarked that there were signs of an “impending storm.”[xviii] This storm erupted into a full-fledged monsoon on August 22, 1791, when Dutty Boukman sounded the conch shell and the slaves of Saint Domingue rose in revolt against the French imperialists. Under the leadership of Touissant L’Overture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the slave rebels overthrew the imperialist occupation of Napoleon Bonaparte and in 1804, Haiti was declared a free republic. Lest we forget the lessons of history, we cannot discount the power of unity. Much as Napoleon himself did, a tyrannical corporation such as Monsanto exports poverty, would keep the people as agricultural slaves and must be resisted. It’s time for Boukman to sound his conch once more: La liberté ou la mort!
iii. Extension Toxicology Network, Pesticide Information Project of the Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University and University of California at Davis.
vi. MSNBC, “Study Finds Link Between Agent Orange, Cancer,” January 23, 2004, The Globe and Mail, “Last Ghost of the Vietnam War,” June 12, 2008.
xii. Center for Food Safety, “Monsanto vs. US Farmers,” Nov. 2007.
xiii. Andrew Kimbrell and Joseph Mendelson, “Monsanto vs. US Farmers,” Center for Food Safety, 2005.
xiv. Urfie, Fr. Jean-Yves, “A new earthquake hits Haiti: Monsanto’s deadly gift of 475 tons of genetically-modified seed to Haitian farmers.” Global Research. Canada. May 11, 2010.
xviii. Center and Hunt, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity,” 119.
I regret some inaccuracies included in this article, and attempt to correct them here:
In speaking with a representative from the Peasant Movement of Papay’s office in Brooklyn New York, I learned the particular peasants mentioned in this article initially burned several pounds of seeds in protest of Monsanto, though have yet to burn all of the seeds in their entirety. This initial seed burning was mainly symbolic, and used to bolster a movement against the agribusiness multinational.
Monsanto donated its hybrid and GMO seeds to the Haitian government, which then attempted to sell the seeds to Haitian farmers. Monsanto did not donate the seeds to the peasant farmers themselves. I was told by MPP’s representative that many of the seeds were not planted in the Central Plateau, where the protest took place. Only very few of the seeds were planted in the Port-au-Prince area. As many of the seeds are “terminator seeds”, the question remains whether they will still be suitable for planting during this year’s planting season.
For more information regarding the Peasant Movement of Papay, please visit their official website at: http://www.mpphaiti.org/