For many years there was opposition from both nations: Colombian farmers and social movements, as well as U.S. trade unionists and activists concerned about the human rights situation in Colombia, protested the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Nevertheless the U.S. government approved it in 2011 and it went into effect a year later. In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012, he said, “soon there will be millions of new customers for American goods in Panama, Colombia, and South Korea. I will go anywhere in the world to welcome new markets for American products.”
The idea of “American goods” might bring to mind Chevrolets, a fancy refrigerator, or Hollywood movies, but it also includes something much smaller and much more ancient: seeds. Although seeds grow freely and (for the most part) reproduce themselves naturally, the U.S. government and multinational corporations consider them a commodity to be controlled and marketed worldwide. In fact, according to the documentary 9.70, the commercialization of patented seeds is one of the three most profitable businesses in the world, with ten companies dominating 77% of the global market. Of these ten, three control 47% of the market: Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.
Monsanto has had a presence in Colombia since the 1970s, with the first shipment of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds arriving in 1997, but the business of patented seeds became more lucrative with the passage of the free trade agreement. Most free trade agreements regulate seeds and patents. In Colombia’s case, the Colombian Institute for Livestock and Agriculture (ICA) passed resolution 9.70 in 2010 as a requirement for the approval of the FTA with the United States. This resolution controls the production, use and marketing of seeds. More specifically, it makes non-certified (ICA is the certifying institution) seeds illegal and anybody who uses the non-certified seeds (or saves them for the next year) on land that is larger than five hectares (about 12 acres) or for commercial use, is breaking the law. Not surprisingly, the majority of certified seeds come from the U.S.; in Colombia only 8% of certified seeds come from Colombian companies. However, buying certified seeds is two or three times as expensive as saving seeds to plant in the following years, and certified seeds can only be used once, in one harvest (they have to be purchased again the following year).
Victoria Solano’s powerful documentary 9.70, tells the story of this resolution and its devastating impact on farmers in Campoalegre, Huila. These farmers reserved the best part of their crop as seeds to use for the following year, as they do every year. However, officials from the Colombian Institute for Livestock and Agriculture (ICA), escorted by members of Colombia’s riot police, showed up to confiscate 62 tons of their rice seeds and threw them in a landfill because their practices were illegal according to Resolution 9.70. Not only were the farmers’ seeds destroyed, legal actions were also taken against them for breaking the law. According to the farmers, they were never informed of the new resolution that made their ancestral practice, a tradition carried on for hundreds if not thousands of years, illegal. The Campoalegre farmers are not alone—according to Semana magazine, resolution 9.70 has led to the destruction of 4,271 tons of seeds of rice, potatoes, corn, and other vegetable products.
Soon after ICA’s destruction of rice seeds and the release of the documentary in August, Colombian farmers went on strike. Their demands included a suspension and renegotiation of the U.S.-Colombia FTA. After highly subsidized U.S. products began to flood the market, Colombian farmers found themselves facing huge losses and the prospect of no longer being able to make a living the way they always had. Their month-long protests made farmers’ concerns visible to many in the country’s capital who often forget about the reality of the Colombian countryside. To quell the protests, the government agreed to negotiate with the farmers on a number of points. One of the outcomes of their negotiations was to “freeze” Resolution 9.70 for the next two years.
This was a powerful victory, although not an outright repeal of the resolution.
Unfortunately, there are other international agreements that regulate the privatization of seeds. The International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), based in Geneva, came into being with the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. According to GRAIN, the mission of UPOV is to privatize plants and the convention is being imposed around the world under the pretext of “protection.” Colombia is a member of UPOV, which means that the Colombian government can use other channels, apart from Resolution 9.70, to regulate and “protect” the use of seeds.
On December 3, Colombian farmers returned to the streets with the complaint that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos had not followed through on 72 of the 88 agreements signed as part of the negotiations to lift the farmers’ month-long strike in August. A spokesperson from Colombian Dignified Farmers (Dignidad Agropecuaria Colombiana) asserted “it’s clear that the national government made certain agreements only to put an end to our strike, but wasn’t at all interested in resolving these agrarian problems. It’s a joke and we demand that they fulfill their promises.”
In relation to Resolution 9.70, the government claims that small-scale farmers can use any kinds of seeds they want; farmers say that the rules aren’t clear, and anyway, who gets to define a “small-scale” farmer? Even if small-scale farmers are exempt, in one way or another some portion of Colombian farmers who might not want to be part of the “new market for American products” will be forced to buy certified seeds.
These days Colombia has peace negotiations on the horizon, is considered a middle-income country, and its capital city Bogota is profiled in The New York Times for being a desirable destination in Latin America. Maybe the violence isn’t as bad as it was ten years ago (although there’s still plenty). But those years simply laid the groundwork for what is happening now: a different kind of war, for all the same reasons; a war over who owns what; a war that will make certain people rich and keep others poor.
Liza Smith has been doing human rights and solidarity work around the situation in Colombia for over ten years and has worked for organizations such as Global Exchange, Peace Brigades International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She is currently a part-time consultant with the FOR Peace Presence.