Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reflection by BTS Intern Becky McMillan‏

"The seed is life, it is a gift from mother earth, and is sacred, for that reason there are ceremonies and there we share with our neighbours, so that mother earth gives us abundance, for that reason there are many practices and rituals for the seed. As much for corn as for the other seeds that are sown in the milpa."

Delfina Asig (translation)

It has been suggested that in regions where the diversity in nature is the highest so too is cultural diversity. This makes sense. As humans evolved a spectrum of plant and animal life would have nurtured the body and inspired the imagination. In turn, humans shaped their surroundings, helping to create complex agroforestry systems. Nowhere is this relationship more clearly demonstrated, perhaps, than in the tiny country of Guatemala which is at once home to three different climate regions with their own characteristic vegetation and over 20 different indigenous Mayan groups. But today just as many of Guatemala´s Mayan traditions are being lost; its rich genetic heritage is under threat…

I always struggle to explain concisely what it is I do in my internship when asked. Or perhaps more accurately what the organizations I am working with – Ijat'z and IMAP (the Mesoamerican Institute of Permaculture) − do, for I sometimes feel my role is more as an active observer than a productive employee. The truth is I spend a lot of time puttering around the seed bank in IMAP and weeding and planting things in Ijat´z but I don´t think that is a very satisfying answer for either party.

Traveling with Colin recently we confronted this predicament frequently and quickly developed prepared standard answers if fellow tourists probed for information on what we were doing in Guate. "Human rights" he would say and I would inarticulately mutter something about plants or farming. Baffled, one traveler asked me how it was that the same organization worked in human rights and agriculture.

To me the link seemed obvious. After all, shouldn't the right to food be one of if not the most basic human right? The statistics would seem to suggest otherwise. One in every six people on the planet suffers permanently from malnutrition and the recent hikes in food prices have condemned some 100 million more people to hunger. For me up until September when I came to Guatemala those people were just numbers on a page. Now, not a day goes by that I don´t hear about how the prices of everything from frijol to fertilizers are going up and the money just doesn´t alcanza.

If people are hungry it must mean that there isn´t enough food for everyone, right? Wrong, as it turns out. According to United Nations estimates, 12 million people – twice the current world's population – could be fed adequately if access to food was regulated in a civilized manner. Hunger, then, is a question of political will, a crime against humanity led by big agribusiness and the governments that protect their interests.

One of the major problems, accounting for some 40-50% of increases in food prices, is agricultural speculation. Basically what happens is investors stockpile agricultural goods, stimulating demand and thus prices, in order to receive better profits. Similarly, excesses of cheap subsidized food in the north have been used to destabilize local production in developing countries (¨dumping¨). Governments worldwide have cut rural development programs as part of structural adjustment policies (conditions imposed on loans which promote the privatization of state institutions) leaving little support for the campesino economy. Meanwhile they have adopted policies in favour of large agroexport companies.

Let's look a little more closely at the case of Guatemala. Thirty years ago Guatemala was a country self sufficient in corn production for human consumption. As anyone who has traveled to Guatemala knows, corn is a dietary staple, especially in rural areas where tortillas are served up los tres tiempos. Corn was an integral part of the traditional Mayan milpa systems (mixed cropping systems widely used before being disrupted by Spanish colonialism – they included the highly nutritious amaranth, Erin´s favourite) and is central to the Mayan cosmovision. According to the Popul Wuh, the Mayan spiritual text, the ancestors were made of corn of different colours.

Today, a dependency on imports of corn and other goods has developed with the adoption of free trade agreements and other neoliberal policies. In June of 2008, for example, in the midst of the "food crisis", Alvaro Colom, president of Guatemala, announced the elimination of import tariffs on a range of basic products to supposedly make products more affordable. Among these goods are yellow corn and corn flour though not sugar which is produced by Guatemala's powerful families, despite the fact that the world price is almost three times lower than the domestic price.

Another type of policy, oddly enough, has been affecting food security worldwide. Climate change regulations in the US and EU have stimulated a market for biofuels, and in many countries, including Guatemala, fertile lands are being converted from food production to the production of plant based energy sources, such as the inefficient corn ethanol. Thus the poor man's food (a Guatemalan minister indicated 10 years ago that planting corn was planting poverty) has become fool's gold.

For me, the most frightening of all, though, is that with the increase of hybrid and genetically modified seeds sold by such multinational corporations as Cargill, Bayer and Monsanto the varieties of corn and other traditional food crops selected over generations by campesinos are at risk.

Hybrid seeds are the result of crosses between two pure varieties in order to strengthen certain characteristics and to improve production. Although these varieties produce high yields in the first season (usually with substantial chemical inputs) due to a phenomenon known as hybrid vigour, seeds saved from hybrid crops will either be sterile or produce plants that are dissimilar to the first generation.

Genetically modified (GM) seeds are seeds which have been enhanced in a laboratory using genes from other species, including animals. The effects of these varieties on human health are not well understood and for this reason they have been banned by some countries. While the seeds saved from GM plants are not (yet) sterile like with hybrid crops, GM varieties can cross-pollinate with heritage varieties nearby, essentially ruining the production of seeds from the heritage crop and forcing producers to buy seeds from the companies that have patented the GM varieties. Apparently, when buying GM seeds a producer has to sign a contract promising that they will not save the seeds.

It is in this context that organizations like Ijat´z and IMAP, are working through native and heritage seed saving, education, and political activism to ensure not just food security (i.e. knowing where the next meal is coming from) but food sovereignty: sustainable, independent, locally controlled and culturally appropriate food production.

And it is in this context that ¨planting stuff¨ can become a powerful political act.