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Saving seeds is a 'political battle with great importance'.

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. He now has 85 varieties of beans and 40 corn varieties saved.

"The protection and defense of food products, of plants and vegetables through seed protection, is an activity for life, particularly for women indigenous and campesinos, who have always done this," said Opazo.

The curadores protect native species by rejecting hybrids. Opazo said those seeds "cause control from the big companies, forcing the campesinos to buy new seeds to be able to farm, year after year."

The farmers have also spoken strongly against transgenics for their impact on their society.

"The main consequence of transgenics is the dependence on the production and maintenance of land policies that are not weighed from within the country but instead are dictated by global markets through the World Trade Organization, which is geared toward producing large volumes and at a high speed. In addition, transgenic farming produces a perverse chain reaction because we go on to lose food sovereignty," said Opazo.

The women of rural Chile have played an important role in defending campesino traditions and ancestral knowledge.

Jacqueline Arriagada, a leader in the Quillon community in the Biobio region, has fought hard to protect local food sovereignty and ancestral seeds.

"As rural women's organizations, we are in the process of training on biodiversity, and through that we've been consolidating organizations for the defense of our local and regional biodiversity," she said.

The women have participated in ecologically friendly farming groups, where they grew their own vegetables.

"The organizations are mainly composed of women, for whom healthy food for our families is without a doubt a great concern," said Arriagada.

As a response to large-scale industrial food production, many organic crops have sprouted up in these communities, producing clean, safe and environmentally friendly plants.

But despite the communities' efforts, Rodriguez denounces "biopirates," or foreign companies that are stealing campesino farming methods. Campesino movements and international biodiversity defense movements have identified a series of biopiracy groups that travel the world patenting ancestral seeds from rural and indigenous communities, and some accusations point to Syngenta, Nanosys, Monsanto and others.

"What is developing now is ecological farming, which is nothing more than ancestral farming, recovering forms of farming from our ancestors and continuing to develop them and combine them with new practices because agriculture has never been static, and has always been in a state of evolution," Rodriguez said.

These methods produce safe and healthy food, working with the land and not simply exploiting it, and are also chemical-free.

[Reprinted with permission from Latinamerica Press:]


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Title Annotation:WORLD
Author:Alorda, Rocio
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Feb 6, 2009
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