Ramón Vera Herrera

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INTERVIEW WITH Ramón Vera Herrera
(GRAIN, Researcher;  http://www.grain.org/, BIODIVERSIDAD, General Manager, http://www.biodiversidadla.org/Autores/Ramon_Vera_Herrera)
From the second half of the nineteenth century, humanity is headed toward a dangerous loss of agricultural biodiversity that has affected not only the cultivated species but also existing varieties within the same species. The trend in the use of a limited number of uniformed agricultural plant species, in defence of an industrialized and centralized high yield agricultural model, has led to a fatal genetic flattening of the seeds. This process can’t ensure the genetic diversity needed to address the following future challenges: climate change, population increase, resistance to new diseases and insects.  Why is biodiversity so important for us? Why are we losing it? What is the current regulatory framework on seeds property and in which way it is affected by the UPOV Convention?  Why in Latin America local communities are so highly opposing to the effects of the UPOV convention in their countries? What is the current situation in these countries? Ramón Vera Herrera, the overall editor of Biodiversidad and one of GRAIN’s members for Latin America, answered to those and other questions.
Ramón Vera HerreraRamónis the overall editor of Biodiversidad, a quarterly magazine edited and designed in México in collaboration with 10 Latin-American counterparts. He works actively with the rest of GRAIN's Latin America team in advancing GRAIN’s programme in the region. In addition, he edits the Mexican monthly Ojarasca, translates international writers for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and is actively involved in the struggles of indigenous peasants in his country.
GRAIN: GRAIN is a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. It was founded in the 1990 by Henk Hobbelink.

Biodiversidad is a quarterly Latin American magazine published through a coordinated effort involving GRAIN (in Chile, Argentina and México), REDES-AT (Friends of the Earth Uruguay), La Via Campesina Seeds Campaign (worldwide), Acción Ecológica (in Ecuador), Red de Coordinación en Biodiversidad (in Costa Rica), Acción por la Biodiversidad (in Argentina), CLOC Vía Campesina (worldwide), Sobrevivencia-AT (in Paraguay), Centro Ecológico (in Brazil), Grupo Semillas (in Colombia) and ETC Group (in México).  It deals with the defence of agricultural biodiversity and the conditions of the peasant, indigenous and local communities in Latin America.

INTERVIEW - (April 2014)
The interview was realized in April 2014 and published in July 2014 - (Original interview in English)
Subject: The inextricable link between biodiversity and sharing of seeds - Biodiversity, seeds laws and right of seeds sharing

Question 1: You have been working with the international non-profit organization GRAIN since 2009. What are GRAIN’s main objectives?

GRAIN is devoted to promote the control of local communities over their own (traditional and contemporary) food systems through the custody and exchange of their own ancestral native peasant seeds, and thus in the backing up these local communities in their defence of their territories, their self-government and their food sovereignty. GRAIN is keen on producing information to make all these communities aware of what they face vis-à-vis the corporations, governments and international organisms. GRAIN also works at the grassroots level, with workshops and collaborations to forward the aforementioned objectives.

Question 2
: You are also the overall editor of Biodiversidad. Could you explain what is the mission of this magazine and what are its main current topics?

Biodiversidad is thought of as a tool to link reflections, testimonies, experiences, research, and general information of how corporations, governmental dependencies and international organisms deeply affect with their actions the life and conditions of many different communities that struggle for their subsistence —that is, their livelihoods and food sovereignty—, while taking good care of the material, natural world with which they deeply interact all the time. This taking care is so important, and is so embedded in the material culture of peoples and their communities that is vastly disregarded or directly despised by policy-makers and corporative actors. Biodiversidad wants to address this universe of interactions between communities, their environment (their territories), and the corporations, governments and international organisms, so to reinforce them in the different struggles they get involved in their resistance to corporation control. Biodiversidad is distributed in hand, because it is seen not as a detached magazine but as a direct linking tool among communities, regions, struggles, and movements. Thus, it is widely read in the peasant world, either indigenous or non-indigenous.

Question 3
: Now we are going to talk about “seeds”. Multinationals are strongly pushing towards the privatization of seeds in order to monopolize this market. Is this a bad thing? Why?

This is obviously a very terrible thing! Seeds shouldn't be taken out of context. Of course, there is no one who oppose their selling, but it is important that seeds are the ever-changing result of thousands of years of careful handling and collective management. Seeds directly reflect relations. They are the knots of many diverse paths, they are crossroads of many people who care about them as being the most ancient key to new life —the concentrated potential of mutual nourishing, livelihood, food sovereignty, and material independence. That is why so many peoples consider them “sacred”.
The privatization of seeds is a direct attack on the traditional and contemporary possibility of independent food systems. It is a direct erosion of the possibility of biodiversity because any privatization, any private control imposed on seeds custody and exchange disrupts the infinite transformation of seeds that is present in peasant traditional agriculture. Any patent, any kind of intellectual property right is an effort to stop the transformation of any variety, something that is impossible, and an effort to exert control of this transformation. Genetically Modified (GM) seeds are one of the ultimate control efforts (a genetic fetter with a bar code attached) to erode independent food systems and finally wipe them out.
This attack is so deep and so vast that the entire peasant world gets hit. The whole life of the communities is damaged, because it is a very fundamental attack on subsistence, on the possibility the communities have of achieving food sovereignty by their own means.

Question 4
: Why is biodiversity  so important for us?

Biodiversity is one of the fundamental strengths of life. And it is mutually reinforced with cultural diversity. Many biologists and anthropologists coincide in their way of picturing material life as the joint result of biological and social factors, and, talking in general, we can say that biodiversity is always possible due to the cultures that foment it, and vice versa. Cultural diversity is reinforced by the degree of biodiversity they foster.

Question 5
: Now the regulatory framework on the production, sharing and commercialization of seeds is rather complex. On one hand, there is “the UPOV convention” (lastly revised in 1991) which gives big protection to the varieties of seeds produced by big multinationals; on the other hand, in some countries the constitutional courts are recognizing the rights of local minorities in having their own seeds. Could you explain in simple words what are the critical elements of the regulatory framework on the “seed market”? In which way the UPOV convention help multinational in monopolizing the market of seeds and increasing their profits, and badly affects local farmers?

Yes, it is rather complex and with many subtleties, but the main point is that all these conventions, all Constitutional reforms on seeds, or the seed laws now being enforced in many countries, all regulations, standards and norms on the issue, are aimed at promoting intellectual property rights, patents, and other documents that protect the private right to keep, use and trade with certain varieties, which, of course, in the short term is resulting in a huge monopoly of the big companies dedicated to this effect. They protect their right to impose “technological packages” that pair lab-seeds with agrochemicals, they promote authoritarian crop intensification programs, and of course these regulations strive to impose a dependency on any producer that is growing maize, or rice (for example). Through this lab-seeds' dependency, through these imposed crop-intensification programs, they directly attack the subsistence strategies by which communities had solved their livelihood for many centuries. The ultimate effect is that people cannot live from the land and end migrating, vacating the land and making their territories prone of being pillaged or grabbed.
But their utmost power is really very fragile. Seeds are not things, they are complex weavings of relations and the transformation of seeds cannot be stopped by decree. So the corporations need to be sure that peasant seeds won't prevail. The only way of doing it is trying to enforce compulsory registries and certification systems (of a so called ideal individual that represents a so called variety). This is of course another way of eroding the vast universe of seeds in a few examples of their vast transformation potential. In the long run, all these “seed laws” will backfire against their promoters.

Question 6
: What are, in your opinion, the countries around the world where international seed laws and trade agreement have had the most negative impacts, in particular in terms of biodiversity degradation, farmers’ impoverishments and social degradation?

This has been a continuous attack, and in many countries this has resulted in very extreme results. India is one example of the effect of lab-seeds and crop-intensification programs, with the thousands of suicides committed by desperate peasants. Paraguay has suffered even a “coup d’état” to enhance the role of multinational corporations that are seed-giants, promoting GM crops and extensive industrial monocultures. Europe suffered the first, and made the owners of rights truly new feudal lords exacting direct money from the laymen growing of varieties to which they have a title. In France, even, they have nonsense such as the “voluntary-compulsory” payment for the use of some seeds or vegetal materials. This is so because the so-called owner cannot, of course, show that the seed being planted is from the exact variety he or she has the right (due to the extreme variability normal to the infinite transformation of seeds), so he imposes the payment as a way of control. But the laymen that planted their own variety, cannot show that this variety is not the one of the so called owner, so they voluntarily pay in order not to be further disturbed by the landlord during the season.
In the not so long run, the monopolies are affecting the overall markets of food. 82% of all seeds traded commercially have some kind of intellectual property right. Ten corporations control 77% of the market. Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont, alone, control 47% of it. The norms intend to turn compulsory that every seed is registered and to have a certificate that it is bought (that it is acquired) through the industrial corporative channels that are controlled by these few hands. The most negative effect of these laws is that they end “criminalising” the keeping, using and exchanging of any seed that doesn't fulfil these preconditions. This is said very plainly and easily but it entails attacking one of the most ancient strategies in the history of humanity. This strategy has made the food biodiversity we know nowadays, available for everyone, solving the subsistence of many million people for at least eight thousand years.

Question 7
: As overall editor of Biodiversidad, you are mainly specialized on seed and biodiversity conditions in Latin American countries. Could you kindly explain what are the critical points to address on the topic of seed rights and biodiversity preservation in these countries?

I am not specialized in seeds or in the biodiversity conditions in Latin American countries. On the contrary, all the people involved in the magazine are trying to maintain an integral vision so we can relate or link one aspect to the others. What is the relation between Land-Grabbing, change of the use of soil, deforestation, imposing industrial methods of agriculture, lab-seeds (and their laws and regulations attached), the poisoning of the environment (water, air, soil, animals, plants, people), the erosion of subsistence strategies, the eviction of thousands of persons from their territories, the growth of cities, the marginalisation of life in them, and the extractivist projects by which the corporations loot the vacant territories?  We believe there is a vicious circle in all these various aspects of the attack against peasants and their territories. And seed laws are part of the legal framework put in place to achieve this.
One very strong example of this legal framework comes from the Mexican Federal Law of Production, Certification and Commerce of Seeds (2007) that contemplates exactly the high amounts in fines and even jail, if the law is “broken”. The criminalisation we are talking about is really very strong in this case.

Question 8
: Over the last decades in many Latin American countries, local people and organizations, have strongly been fighting in order to protect their rights in producing, sharing and commercialize their own seeds (see “GRAIN, Seed laws in Latin America: the offensive continues, so does popular resistance”). Why in these countries does the thematic of seeds seem to be more sensitive than in other countries around the world?

I think, in Latin America, the point is that people, the communities, are really keen on resisting this entire offensive. All these laws and regulations are really felt as what they are: “huge threats against the livelihoods of communities, a direct attack on the future, a direct erosion of local knowledge and ancestral strategies, a threat against the possibility of producing their own food, by their own means, in their own terms.” This is a threat against autonomy; a threat against the defence of their ancestral territorial life!

Question 9
: In which Latin American country do you think there is the most dangerous situation in terms of risks for land biodiversity and social uprising?

There are many countries in which there is such a dangerous situation. The danger is so diverse that it might change from country to country. México, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, El Salvador, even Costa Rica with its so-called happy country white-washed by the media. Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Argentina, Paraguay. The dangers are there. Even in Canada now, the government and the corporations are so disrespectful of territorial rights that are insisting on attacking the Indian communities when they insist on “fracking technologies” and in the extraction of shale oil and gas.

Question 10
: What do you think is the best agricultural model in order to preserve our environment and, at the same time, to feed the rising global population?

The peasant traditional and contemporary versions linked to “agroecology” have proved to be a real alternative that may cool the earth (as Vía Campesina puts it). In this peasant agriculture, or peasant production of food (not all of it is growing food), there is collecting or gathering, hunting, fishing, livestock breeding, cattle raising, yard animals, there is a strong trait of taking care of many different details all year long. This assumption of responsibility is unique and it represents the most generous endeavour ever assumed.