Guatemala: “Social mobilization crowned with victory”

On 5th September 2014, the Congress of Guatemala repealed plant variety legislation that would have allowed Guatemala to accede to UPOV 1991. This legislation passed by Congress in June has sparked massive protests from farmers' organizations, indigenous movements and civil society. The revocation of the legislation also known as "Monsanto Law" follows a decision taken on 29 August by the Constitutional Court to suspend the law based on demands of different farmer and civil society organisations.

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16 September 2014 in Utviklingsfondet Nyheter


Friday 5 September 2014 was a historic day for farmers and civil society in Guatemala. A broad alliance of civil society got Congress to cancel the controversial "Monsanto Law". This victory in the fight against the powerful seed industry to ensure farmers' rights. In addition, it shows that broad alliances among civil society can challenge the power elite in the country.

Controversial law weakened farmers' rights

The controversial plant variety protection law was referred to as "Monsanto Law" by indigenous and small-scale farmers in Guatemala. The Act, which was signed by the Congress on 26 June 2014 should have come into force on 26 September. It was to grant monopoly rights on new plant varieties by  seed companies. The law made it a criminal offense to use, exchange and sell protected seed from the own harvest, and violation of this law could be punished with one to four years in prison and a fine of between 1,000 and 10,000 Quetzals, equivalent to USD 130 and 1300.

Trade agreements are often pushing developing countries to introduce intellectual property rights such as patents and plant variety protection. The introduction of plant variety protection was one of the commitments the Government of Guatemala undertook when in 2005, along with the other Central American countries, Guatemala signed a free trade agreement with the United States. Through this agreement, commonly known as the "US-Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (US-DR-CAFTA)”, Guatemala was forced to become a member of the International Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (known under the French acronym UPOV).

In September 2006, the Government of Guatemala sent a letter to UPOV to initiate the accession process. The UPOV Council recommended the Government of Guatemala to harmonize its law on plant variety protection based on the UPOV 1991 Act. The law was drafted with the support of the UPOV Secretariat, without consultation with professionals, farmers, indigenous groups and other parts of civil society that would be affected by the law.

UPOV favors plant breeders

Since UPOV Convention was signed in 1961, it has been revised several times (1972, 1978 and 1991). After each revision, plant breeders’ rights were strengthened and farmers' rights were weakened. Plant breeders acquire 20 to 25 years monopoly rights to commercial exploitation of new varieties that meet the requirements of novelty, distinctness, uniformity and stability.

Countries that want to accede to UPOV cannot become a membership based on  UPOV 78 which allows free use of seed of protected plant varieties saved from the own harvest but are forced to join  UPOV 91.

“National laws on plant variety protection based on UPOV 91 set strict limitation for farmers to exchange and sell farm-saved seeds from protected varieties, says Teshome Hunduma, policy advisor at  the Development Fund.

UPOV is dominated by industrialized countries and the seed industry and there is hardly any participation of farmers' organizations in UPOV. Therefore was important to strengthen civil society participation and influence in the national processes. What we have witnessed in Guatemala shows that this work is important and produces results, he concludes.

Seeds are the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and farmers

A large percentage of Guatemala's population make their living from agriculture. Indigenous peoples and poor farmers are dependent on local seed that is adapted to the climatic conditions. Especially for the indigenous population, who account for over half of the population, local varieties are the basis of their traditions. Therefore, they see the proposed  law as a violation of the rights of indigenous peoples.

The proposed law is also seen as a threat to the country's food security, as it may deprive thousands of families from control over their own genetic resources and make them dependent on seed companies. Small farmers produce most of the staple foods in Guatemala, and a weakening of their rights could lead to reduced food production and increased poverty.

Beans and corn are the basis for food security in Guatemala and we are working to strengthen local food systems through seed banks and participatory plant breeding, "says Rosalba Ortiz, program coordinator at the Development Fund program. It is the way to go in Guatemala where 80% of seed production comes from farmers themselves, she adds.

Important victory for democratization

The law that was passed by Congress in June sparked huge protests from civil society, especially since farmers' organizations, indigenous movements and professionals collaborated closely. This broad alliance was important and made it possible to be heard by the Supreme Court, Government and Congress. Civil society worked through the indigenous national platform Mesa Nacional Indigena to convince indigenous representatives and other members of the opposition in Congress to support their demands and  repeal the law.

It is a great victory for the entire country Guatemala, says Miguel Lucas from ASOCUCH in Guatemala. Lucas is one of the farmers who have been active in the National Indigenous platform and worked actively to promote indigenous peoples 'and farmers' rights. The proposed Act was a direct attack on biodiversity, rural economy, food sovereignty and indigenous culture and traditional knowledge. It violates the provisions of the Constitution such as punishing farmers for use and sale of farm-saves seed of protected varieties. It also violates the rights of indigenous peoples because they lose ownership of genetic resources they depend on, he adds.

Mobilizing people at the grassroots and their representatives are important for the development of democracy in Guatemala. But it is also important that they are represented in the national platforms such as the indigenous national platform. This increases their influence and impact. Organization and strengthening of civil society in the South, especially farmers' organizations and other social movements are an important work.

This happens not often, but it shows that long-term efforts to strengthen farmers' movements, and social movements are incredibly important, says Rosalba Ortiz. "We will continue with our working method which is a bottom-up approach because it is one of the most effective ways to support small farmers struggle for a better life," she says.