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Colombia farmers’ uprising puts the spotlight on seeds

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This is what "free trade" looks like: destroying farmers’ seeds. (Photo: ICA)

GRAIN | 04 September 2013

Colombia farmers’ uprising puts the spotlight on seeds

UPDATE - 6 September 2013

The Colombian government has just announced that it is suspending Resolution 970, which was the subject of massive public outcry in recent weeks thanks to the huge peasant mobilisation launched on 19 August. The Resolution, adopted in 2010 and sometimes referred to as Law 970, made it illegal for Colombian farmers to save seeds in order for private companies and transnational corporations to gain monopoly control over the market.

Resolution 970 will be suspended for a period of two years, and this will only apply to domestically produced seeds (not imports). The government says it will use the two-year freeze to write new rules on seed use "which will not affect small farmers".

This is NOT a reversal of policy. It is a public statement from the government. People are waiting to see it written into a document with legal force, and are reiterating calls for the Resolution to be repealed instead.

Sources (in Spanish):
 Comunicado del ICA: A propósito del documental 970 - comunicado a la opinión pública
 Campoalegre Noticias: Campoalegrunos ganan el primen roun contra 9.70 del ICA
 Radio Caracol: "Congelada la resolucion 970, que inspirara la documental 970" y "La suspension de la resolucion 970 debe tener un respaldo legal"
 El Tiempo: "Acuerdos entre gobieron y campesinos en tunja"

On 19 August, Colombian farmers’ organisations initiated a massive nationwide strike. They blocked roads, dumped milk on cars and basically stopped producing food for the cities. The problem? Farmers are being driven out of existence by the government’s policies.

The state provides almost no support for the small-scale farming sector. [1] Instead, it embraces a social and economic model that serves the interests of a wealthy elite minority. Recent free trade agreements (FTAs) signed with the US and the EU are undercutting Colombian producers, who can’t compete with subsidised imports. [2] The Colombian government has been actively promoting land grabbing by large corporations, many of them foreign (Monica Semillas from Brazil, Merhav from Israel, Cargill from the US), to promote export-oriented agribusiness at the expense of family farming oriented towards food sovereignty.

But the farming sector needs real support, especially in the form of access to land and lower costs of production, protestors argue. Otherwise, Colombian potato and coffee farmers, dairy and meat producers, not to mention small fishers, will not be able to keep up. They are being evicted and exterminated.

With their backs against the wall, a movement of mobilisation began in one part of the country in June and grew into a coordinated national action for August. The farmers’ strike was soon supported by other sectors: oil industry workers, miners, truckers, health sector professionals and others. On 29 August, ten days into the strike, more than 20,000 students joined the movement and shut down the capital city, Bogotá.

The response of the government was chaotic and contradictory. Police forces violently repressed and injured a lot of protestors, not to mention journalists. More than 250 people were arrested, including high-level union leader Hubert Jesús Ballesteros Gomez, mostly on trumped up charges.

A number of people on both sides lost their lives. At one moment the government recognised the farmers’ grievances as valid and offered some concessions. In another it claimed that the movement was infiltrated by the FARC. President Santos even went on TV and claimed that "the agrarian strike does not exist". The following day, he was filmed from a helicopter, inspecting the skirmishes and tear gas which filled the streets of Bogotá.

The mobilisation has been extremely successful in opening up space for discussion, conscientisation, solidarity and resistance in Colombia. Students, for instance, were keen to support the farmers and back their demands. They rallied loudly against GMOs and for food sovereignty. But they also wanted to put forward their own demands for free public education, nudging the mobilisation beyond agrarian concerncs into a broader wave of social pressure to change current Colombian policies.

Law 970

Seeds emerged as one highly visible issue. Under the FTA signed with Washington, as well as that signed with Brussels, Bogotá is required to provide legal monopoly rights over seeds sold by US and European corporations as an incentive for them to invest in Colombia. Farmers who are caught selling farm-saved seeds of such varieties, or simply indigenous seeds which have not been formally registered, could face fines or even jail time. [3] As is the case in many other countries throughout the world, this criminalisation of farmers’ and indigenous people’s rights to save, exchange and sell seeds puts the country’s biodiversity and cultural heritage at risk.

While it’s true that the Colombian government has been moving in this direction for many years, and agreeing to such policies as part of its membership in the Andean Community or the World Trade Organisation, many people point out that it is only since the signing of the US and EU FTAs that the government has begun seriously implementing them.

In 2011, the Colombian government authorities stormed the warehouses and trucks of rice farmers in Campoalegre, in the province of Huila, and violently destroyed 70 tonnes of rice that it said were not processed as per the law. This militarised intervention to destroy farmers’ seeds shocked many, and inspired one young Chilean activist, Victoria Solano, to make a film about it. The film is called "9.70" because that is the number of the law adopted in 2010 that articulates the state’s right to destroy farmers’ seeds if they don’t comply. [4]

Today, thanks to the force, tenacity and justness of the farmers’ protest, people from all walks of life are Colombia are discussing that film, as can be seen in the mass media, social networks and the streets, and asking why the government is pursuing such senseless policies.

Support the movement

There is no question that Colombian farmers can feed the country very well, in a way that provides jobs, dignity and a healthy environment. But the government is too firmly attached to an economic model that caters to crony interests and holds no place for small-scale family farming. We should all support the popular agrarian struggle in Colombia to turn that model around. It’s not too late.

As one small concrete action, the documentary film "9.70" — which you can watch online in Spanish at — is seeking funds to produce a version with English subtitles so that more people around the world can understand what the Colombians farmers are facing and support them to defeat such policies. The smallest contribution helps. Please go to to participate. The deadline is 10 September!

As another meaningful action, the Latin American Coordination of La Via Campesina are seeking international solidarity initiatives to support the strike. Please go to to learn more. Again, time is of the essence!

Beyond Colombia, the battle over similar seeds legislation is raging right now at very high political levels, and across the countryside, in Chile and Argentina as well. One concern is that some of the more aggressive elements adopted by the government of Colombia could infiltrate other Latin American countries as well. The need to scrap these laws is truly urgent indeed!

Going further:

 "La historia detrás del 970", Semana, Bogotá, 24 August 2013
 Grupo Semillas, "Colombia: Las leyes que privatizan y controlan el uso de las semillas, criminalizan las semillas criollas", Bogotá, 26 August 2013
 Julia Duranti, "A struggle for survival in Colombia’s countryside", 30 August 2013
 Visit the website for more coverage (in English, French and Spanish) of the general agrarian strike and the fight over Law 970
 For more information about the struggles around the seed laws in Colombia, please contact Grupo Semillas ("Seeds Group") at or visit their website
 To learn more about the political battle currently taking place in Chile, please get in touch with Anamuri, the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women, at
 For information about what is happening in Argentina, please contact Diego Montón at the Latin American Coordination of La Vía Campesina, at


[1Almost one-third of the Colombian population lives in the countryside and nearly 60% of those in the rural areas live, to some extent, in hunger. See Paro Nacional Agrario y Popular, Pliego de peticiones:

[2The effects are just starting, but they are real. US agricultural exports to Colombia shot up 62% in the first year of the agreement, while Colombian farm exports to the US went down 15%. (See USTR,, and Portafolio,

[3To be registered and certified, seeds need to meet criteria of genetic uniformity and stability, to suit agroindustrial processes. This excludes, by definition, peasant seeds — or criollo varieties, as they are called in Colombia — which tend to be diverse, adaptive and dynamic. Under the current rules in Colombia, if a farmer wants to plant criollo seeds, s/he has to get authorisation from the government, can only do it once, can only do it on five hectares or less and must consume the entire harvest at home (cannot sell it on the market).

[4See the film’s Facebook page,, and on Twitter look up #NoMas970. In the three years of Law 970 so far (2010-2012), the government rejected or destroyed nearly 4,000 tonnes of seeds.

 source: GRAIN