Friday, November 14, 2008

Campesinos rescue their native seeds

Campesinos rescue their native seeds
Susan Abad

Government agrarian policy undermines native seed use.

The more than four decades of internal violence Colombia has suffered continues to take its toll on the countryside.

Germán Vélez, director of the nongovernmental Grupo Semillas organization says that when the displaced and others who suffer from economic exclusion cannot make lives for themselves in the countryside, they move to the city.

“The first thing they lose is food security,” he says. “When a farmer leaves, the first thing he loses is his seeds, which are the base of his productive system. And when a farming community abandons its land, their lands suffer from severe erosion.”

“The few who return to their plots find that they have not only lost their way of providing food for themselves, but also their seeds and soil quality, so they have to start over from zero.”

The governmental Agustín Codazzi Geophysics Institute found that more than 61 percent of Colombia´s land is in the hands of 0.4 percent of the landowners, and that the violence and poor government policies has driven Colombia´s population of small-scale farmers from 50 percent of the national population in the 1970s to 24 percent.

Forced displacement has only compounded this. Over the last 10 years, some 2.3 million campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous and settlers have been forced to abandon around 2.6 million hectares (6.42 million acres), Colombia´s Comptroller´s Office says. The National Movement of Victims of State Crimes estimates the area at around 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres).

Recovering lost seeds
Two years after members of the Zenu indigenous people were displaced from their home in Uraba in early 1995 by paramilitary groups, they returned only to find that using their ancestral seeds would no longer be easy. The new industrial agricultural model left many using different seeds and farming techniques, as well as farming chemicals.

“The problem got worse because the initial aid the government gave them included improved seeds, which in principle the campesinos do not know how to work, and the majority of them are apt for special production conditions such as optimized water, special soils … that if you don´t have it, if you don´t have the required technology, it doesn´t render the production it should,” says Mauricio García, coordinator of the Swissaid Foundation’s Seeds of Identity Campaign, which also runs in Ecuador and Nicaragua.

The Zenu began a process to recover their lost native seeds with the help of some neighboring villages, and they were able to again have their corn, bean, yuca and yam seeds.

García says the campaign was born out of the idea of strengthening the native agricultural model by allowing the indigenous community to be independent and work with their own resources.

“In this case, the seeds are a focal point in this process that not only gives the communities food autonomy, but also allows them to recompose their social fabric and ancestral knowledge,” says García.

He notes that the first step after returning to the community is a quick inventory of the lost seed varieties followed by searching in neighboring communities to replace them.

“If it was a massive displacement [of people], the work is more difficult and a product the communities had used for centuries could be lost,” he adds.

Swissaid has also written a guide called “Recuperando Vida” or “Recovering Life,” which outlines which seeds should be planted in the short- and long-term, proper transportation and storage, and planting within the community.

García says that indigenous, Afro-Colombian and campesino organizations have been working to recover their seeds since the 1990s in the Caribbean, Cundiboyacence, Pacific and Cauca regions, as well as their traditional farming knowledge. They are also developing new eco-friendly farming proposals, such as chemical-free farming and organic farming.

The resistance model
The arduous task has clashed with state policies that seek industrial farming with heavy use of transgenic seeds for the production of biofuels, tree plantations and export-targeted monoculture.

García calls it a model “that says the small-producers shouldn´t stay in the fields if they are inefficient and not very competitive.”

But on Oct. 7, 2005, in San Andrés de Sotavento, in northern Colombia, the Zenu, Córdoba and Sucre Indigenous Reservation declared itself transgenic-free and opened the way for the governmental Colombian Agricultural Institute in its norms on transgenic corn to include a prohibition of this type of seed on indigenous lands, and establish a minimum distance of 300 meters between the transgenic plantations and the indigenous reservations.

“But despite these cases of resistance and the alternative proposals, a lot remains to be done,” said Vélez. “These networks are very few, they are not articulated to demonstrate that this agricultural model is viable, sustainable and could be a counterweight to the state´s policies.”

He added that while there are no national figures for this kind of agriculture, it is estimated that more than half of the 10 to 15 million campesinos — working plots of 1 to 5 hectares (2.47-12.4 acres) — using subsistence farming with their native seeds yield 70 percent of the food produced in Colombia.
—Latinamerica Press.

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