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Peoples of Mesoamerica in defence of seeds and maize

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Photo: working group at the Mesoamerican Meeting in Defence of Maize, at the Centro Especializado en Agricultura Orgánica, Cartago, Costa Rica. Source: María de los Ángeles Jiménez Solano (Biriteca Agroecológica)

GRAIN | 6 June 2024

Peoples of Mesoamerica in defence of seeds and maize

Between 11 and 13 April 2024, the Mesoamerican Meeting in Defence of Maize and Seeds was held in Cartago, Costa Rica, attended by peasant farmers from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador. Although the latter two countries are not included in the geographical region of Mesoamerica, the importance of seeds and of maize as an ancestral crop meant that representatives from these countries were also invited to take part.

This call for the defence of maize and all peasant seeds comes amid increasing pressure to impose the so-called UPOV laws through trade agreements and other neoliberal policies throughout the region. Today, corporations and governments are attempting to impose the most recent version of the UPOV convention, from 1991, which represents a direct threat to the autonomy and sovereignty of peasant and indigenous peoples over their seeds and agrobiodiversity.

The concern of organisations over the imposition of UPOV 91 is that the new laws seek to consolidate corporate control and the privatisation of seeds in the region and around the world. This limits the ability of peasant and indigenous communities to maintain sovereignty in saving, exchanging, improving and above all reproducing (i.e. sowing) their seeds. This casts doubt over the food sovereignty of the entire region.

Since time immemorial, maize and seeds in general have been a fundamental pillar of food and farming for peasant and indigenous communities. Maize is considered sacred by indigenous peoples. However, farming is facing multiple threats due to the increasing standardisation of commercial seeds, as well as attacks on the territorial integrity of these peoples. As such, it is important to defend territories and communities in order to truly defend their native seeds.

The Mesoamerican Meeting in Defence of Maize and Seeds was important as a space for reflection and action, in order to protect native and creole seeds as an act of resistance and preservation of agrobiodiversity. It was also an opportunity to re-examine the complexity of the relationship between communities, land and nature, expressed through a deep connection to territory.

Working group at the Mesoamerican Meeting in Defence of Maize, at the Centro Nacional Especializado en Agricultura Orgánica, Cartago, Costa Rica. Photo: María de los Ángeles Jiménez Solano (Biriteca Agroecológica)

Resistance from peasant and indigenous peoples to ensure the protection and free use of seeds in Latin America is increasingly important. Big seed companies are pressuring governments to create legal mechanisms that guarantee the profitability of their model, preventing peasant farmers from using and reproducing seeds.

These attempts by transnational companies to control seeds are bolstered by the sale of pesticides that function as a package for the seeds they sell. For example, four companies, Bayer (19%), Corteva (18%), Syngenta (8%) and BASF (4%), currently dominate half (49%) the seed market valued at 47 billion dollars; some of these companies also control 75% of the global pesticide market.

In view of this, the organisations in attendance highlighted the need for strategic alliances with diverse stakeholders as fundamental tools to strengthen the defence of agrobiodiversity. These alliances should work to raise society’s awareness of the challenges facing peasant and indigenous farming and promote collective action to protect our seeds and food systems.

Central to the resistance in Mesoamerica is the defence of the milpa, a traditional sowing system that consists of the harmonious interaction between various crops, namely maize, chilli, beans and squash. These "4 sisters", as they are known among Mesoamerican indigenous peoples, represent not only a vital source of food, but also a symbol of agrobiodiversity. However, the milpa has many more varieties of plants and animals that go far beyond these "4 sisters". This vast agrobiodiversity is being threatened by genetic contamination and biopiracy driven by transnational corporations.

Given this threat, the need to promote education and awareness-raising on the importance of the use and conservation of seeds by peasant farmers has been highlighted. Accessible educational materials must be developed in Spanish and indigenous languages that also encourage community and participatory research in order to strengthen resistance to the advance of corporate seeds.

At the heart of this struggle is the concept of sowing as a political act. Planting peasant seeds is a direct challenge to the status quo imposed by corporations, an affirmation of communities’ autonomy and resistance. In a world where farming has become a battleground, sowing peasant, native, creole or home-grown seeds is an act of rebellion against genetic homogenisation and corporate domination.
The participants of the meeting concluded the event by expressing a clear rejection of UPOV 91 and Free Trade Agreements as lobbying mechanisms to force countries to adopt UPOV 91. They also rejected the Technical Regulations on the Biosafety of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) for Agricultural and Livestock Use (known as the Central American Regulation), which threatens the sovereignty of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and promotes the transfer, trialling and trade of transgenic seeds.

The participating organisations, communities and movements declared:

  • Once again, we assert that defending maize (the milpa, the chacra) necessarily means respecting the self-determination and autonomy of indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities and peoples.
  • Once again, we reject any experimental, pilot or commercial sowing programmes, as well as the distribution, storage or commercialisation of genetically modified organisms (including transgenics, gene-edited products and those who promote them and other forms of synthetic biology, anywhere in the country or the rest of the world).
  • Food sovereignty and autonomy will always be rooted in respect for the collective right to have, save, exchange and freely sow native seeds without the imposition of any form of state, federal or corporate control (be it registration, certification, inventories, seed banks, catalogues of varieties, patents, designations of origin or plant breeders’ rights, whether individual or collective, or the phytosanitary measures imposed by FTAs).

Crucially in this declaration, the participants also proposed 21 points in order to champion what is their own and assert their autonomy loud and clear, to rebuild their communities, their relationships, their work, the care they take, the sowing, reproduction, safe-keeping and sharing of their peasant seeds, their own systems of health, education and justice.

Read the full declaration of the Mesoamerican Meeting in Defence of Maize here.

 Fuente: GRAIN