Saving Seeds Is a 'Political Battle with Great Importance'

By Alorda, Rocio | National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Saving Seeds Is a 'Political Battle with Great Importance'


Alorda, Rocio, National Catholic Reporter


Faced with increasing monoculture and use of genetically modified crops, some of Chile's campesinos are fighting to preserve their ancestral seeds by protecting them from disappearing or becoming contaminated by transgenic varieties.

Although Chile is not internationally known as a producer of genetically modified soy or corn, imported transgenic seeds are being used here, and the crops are later exported.

Genetically modified seeds in Chile are nothing new. In 1992, the government allowed for transgenic material to enter the country for the production of genetically modified seeds for exportation under a norm of the Agricultural and Livestock Service. This led to seed testing in Chile's fields, according to Maria Isabel Manzur, an expert in transgenics at the Sustainable Societies Foundation.

A study Manzur conducted on transgenics found that "Chile produces transgenic reverse-season seeds to supply the U.S. and European markets, and the companies involved are mostly transnationals."

According to the Agricultural and Livestock Service, there were more than 20,000 acres of transgenic crops in Chile in 2000. Transgenic corn comprised 95 percent and transgenic soy 2 percent.

Even though the production of transgenic seeds does not at first glance appear to hurt biodiversity, transgenic-free crops become contaminated by pollination.

"The biosafety quarantine for corn and soy was lifted in 1994," Manzur said. "Lifting this quarantine means that only distances between seedbeds are maintained to impede their contamination with other crops, but this does not call ... for methods to avoid the contamination of the seedbed to other crops or weeds."

There is very little conclusive scientific information about the environmental impact of transgenics. But a study by the National Institute for Agricultural Research found that these genetically modified crops could contaminate 23 varieties of pre-Hispanic corn, seven of which are on the path to extinction already.

Now, Chile's rich biodiversity is being protected by those who have traditionally lived off of it and treated it with respect: campesinos.

Since 2002, the National Association of Rural and Indigenous Women of Chile, known as Anamuri, has run the Seed Campaign, which includes campesino seedbeds, seed exchanges and biodiversity fairs.

Francisca Rodriguez, Anamuri's director, said that the campaign's message has resonated with campesina women and seed protection has become a passion for many of them.

"Recovering seeds is a political battle with great importance," Rodriguez said. "This is a silent, local action that is done every day. This isn't a campaign of a lot of hype; it's a silence campaign that is carried out with love in a struggle that takes place day to day, with conviction, with feeling and a great deal of consciousness."

The seeds represent life in the campesino world, and they are now being protected by farmers like Carlos Opazo, a leader and curador, or healer, who has dedicated the last 14 years of his life to recovering ancestral seeds threatened by transgenics.

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Saving Seeds Is a 'Political Battle with Great Importance'
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