Friday, August 26, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 2, Part 3 - GMOs and Local Food in Bolivia

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. On our second day, we saw a presentation from the Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development (FOBOMADE) and then took a tour of the La Paz foodshed. This diary covers the first section of the FOBOMADE presentation, which covered their work food sovereignty in Bolivia.

FOBOMADE stands for Bolivian Forum on the Environment and Development. When we met with them, they began with a presentation on food sovereignty that largely emphasized the issue of GMOs. The end of the presentation went beyond GMOs to other issues of local food in Bolivia.

FOBOMADE opposes agrochemicals, large scale monoculture, and the concentration of land in the hands of a few, especially in the hands of Brazilians, who are eager to get in on GE soy production in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. But another major issue with GMOs in Bolivia is the incredible biodiversity that would be impacted by them. Wiping out the genetic wealth of Bolivia's native crops (and non-native crops like corn for which they are also a center of biodiversity), either via GMOs of those same crops or simply by the expansion of large-scale monoculture wiping out the previous biodiversity of campesino agriculture, would harm not just Bolivian indigenous and campesinos but truly the entire world.

The campaign for food sovereignty at FOBOMADE comes from their campaign resisting GMOs. This began in 1994, when there was an effort to introduce GMO potatoes. This was long before Evo Morales was in power, during the neoliberal period of Bolivia's government.

Especially in 2005, when the Argentine government and Monsanto positioned themselves to legalize GM soy, that's when civil society and indigenous and campesino groups truly got organized against GMOs. There was an executive degree passed in 2005 to legalize production and commercialize GM soy in Santa Cruz.

(Bolivia has some 1 million hectares - 2.47 million acres - of soy monoculture in Santa Cruz, much of which is now genetically engineered. Argentina was the first country in South America, I believe, to legalize GE soy, and now some 97% of Argentina's soy is GE. Paraguay, a smaller country than Bolivia, has four times as much land in soy - much of which is GE - and it's disastrous. This is what FOBOMADE is fighting against.)

Even then-Senator Evo Morales, who was elected later that same year, was part of the opposition to this. That year, the social movements were successful in stopping the legalization of GE corn because Bolivia's a center of genetic diversity of corn. They did this through a resolution through the ministry of environment. But they lost on GE soy and continued to fight on it.

When the Morales government initiated the writing of a new constitution, FOBOMADE and others organized around that process, advocating an article (Article 405) that banned GMOs in Bolivia. This was included in draft versions of the constitution. However, it was ultimately softened into language in Article 409 saying that GMOs will be regulated by the law.

FOBOMADE and others also got Article 275 into the constitution, which is about Free Trade Agreements. There, they got stronger language against importation, production, and commercialization of GMOs. This actually made it into the final version of the constitution.

Now there's an apparent contradiction in the constitution between Article 409, which is vague and weak, and Article 275, which has stronger language. So now they are involved in processes attempting to get the constitution interpreted so that the stronger language has the priority over the weaker, vaguer language. There's a lot of negotiation still going on over interpretation of these various clauses.

They had a lot of hope with Evo Morales, who initially said that Bolivia should be a country free of GMOs, and yet what has happened is the opposite. There's been a 300% increase in imports of agrochemicals since 2005, and there's been an expansion of GE soy as well. Over 80% of Bolivia's soy is genetically engineered.

In the lowlands of Santa Cruz, that is dominated by industrial farmers, but there are also smallholders, largely colonizers from the highlands. Unfortunately, they've come under the influence of agribusiness, including a government agency for support of food production (Empresa de Apoyo a la Producción de Alimentos, EMAPA) which has been distributing GE soy seed to smallholders in Santa Cruz. FOBOMADE is also seeing a lot of problems with land grabs, particularly by Brazilian companies.

Beyond GMOs
Thus, the initial anti-GMO alliance has turned into the Alliance for Responsible Consumption and Solidarity. It includes a broad civil society alliance of indigenous organizations, campesino organizations, NGOs, chefs, and consumer organizations.

Throughout the entire country, because Bolivia's the center of genetic diversity for many crops, they are working with producers, farmers, and consumers to educate them about the big picture on what's happening at the global level of GMOs and agrochemicals and how to revalue local food consumption.

They are carrying out informational campaigns with print materials and their website. Also, they are working with grassroots groups in each region of Bolivia. One thing they are doing is working with chefs with experience with native campesino crops to go to each region and work with local people. For example, in the Pantanal, which is a region right on the border with Brazil that has an ecosystem similar to the Everglades, trying to help them solidify their own local food identity.

One of the organizations they are working with is the Federation of Domestic Employees so that they can bring education to their employers and to their families. In Potosi and Oruro, they are working in the area that grows quinoa that is almost 100% for export. This is an area that experiences high malnutrition because they sell the nutritious quinoa and then buy less nutritious food (like white bread and noodles) with their profits. The bulk of FOBOMADE's work is political, but they also want to bring producers and consumers closer together, similar to the local food movement in the U.S.

As FOBOMADE was working with the producers, they came to realize that one of the biggest problems was markets. So they decided to take advantage of another article in the constitution which prioritizes state purchasing of smallholder products. They realized that the medium and large producers had the advantage and they want to help smallholders access state purchasing benefits.

In parts of the Amazon, a major product is Brazil nuts, which are almost entirely for export. So one of the projects they are working on is with a Bolivian program similar to WIC. Bolivian employers are required by law to provide a "lactation subsidy" every month for a year after an employee has a child. The employer gives the employee a ticket to redeem for food.

So FOBOMADE got Brazil nuts (70% of which actually come from Bolivia - 20% are from Brazil, and 10% from Peru) included in these packets of food for 2 years. After that, there were problems after that because the price of Brazil nuts went from $2.50/lb to $4/lb. Then, a state entity was created that took over purchasing the Brazil nut and keeping it included in the lactation subsidy packets. Since then, they've been able to include other products as well, like local honey and amaranth. Before these efforts, FOBOMADE told us, the lactation subsidies were nearly all milk products, which can't even really be produced in the same regions that produce Brazil nuts.

Another program they work with is the school breakfast program, which began before the Evo Morales presidency. They found that most of the food provided came from large companies and the food was transported from far away. The food was either packed with preservatives or it even arrived rotten. Now they are working to encourage purchasing from local producers.

For example, they are now working in Yungas, the mountainous area between the highlands and valleys. For Yungas, one of the only markets is for coca. Now they are encouraging amaranth production and opening up a market through the school breakfast program to buy it and serve it to the children. This is just one example of how they work with local producers to create markets for state purchasing and for local consumption.

They are also trying to take advantage of the fact that there is an indigenous government, to see if they can have them replace junk food with healthy native foods. They go around the country having fairs to showcase native foods and to have tastings. They are also working at the municipal level to prioritize local production for local consumption there.

Through all of these projects, they are working to create a real alternative based in campesino agriculture while also educating producers on what is happening at the global level. For this, they are working with a group called the Unity Pact that is made up of a number of groups working alongside the government.

The Most Recent Fight
The different organizations were working to promote and pass a law of "The Productive Decade," which had to do with strengthening community food production from agrarian reform to credit to more. Unfortunately, as the law moved up to the government and arrived to the executive level, there were many changes made to the original law proposed by the social movements.

FOBOMADE's role was to act as a liaison and to alert the social movements to what was happening, such as the inclusion of GMOs in the law, which had been absent from the original proposed version. When the law got to the executive, they formed working groups that inserted language about importation, production, commercialization of GMOs. FOBOMADE brought that information back to the campesino groups. The Minister of Regional Autonomy, a role created in response to the Media Luna departments' effort to become autonomous, who represents the interests of agribusiness in Santa Cruz, was pushing hard for more permissiveness on GMOs.

The social movements claimed that this was a law originating from social movements and thus it was important to take out the language on GMOs. They succeeded to some extent. The many organizations launched a massive public awareness campaign, even at the international level, with a letter for people to sign in opposition to GMOs, and the letter was given to Evo Morales. With this massive mobilization, people were protesting in the streets against the law including the language on GMOs.

FOBOMADE was highly critical of the law as a whole because it did not represent the law that was proposed by the campesinos and social movements. The law has already been passed. After it was passed, they brought together social movements on how to move forward. One idea is to propose new legislation to remove some of the articles of the legislation. Also, there's a legal path to denounce the law as unconstitutional because it goes against the articles mentioned previously in the constitution as well as the Law of Mother Earth.

This law, if you want more information on it, is called the Law of Productive, Communal and Agricultural Revolution. Here are some articles on it:
  • The UK Guardian:
  • Argentina Independent:
  • Latinamerica Press:

As one of the closing comments, FOBOMADE said that they have been quite successful in many ways, considering that the effort to legalize GM soy began in 1997 and they held it off until 2005. They have also kept GMOs out for any crops for which Bolivia is a center of biodiversity.

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