Taking a stand for seed freedom in Puerto Rico - América Latina en Movimiento
ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento

2012-11-02

PuertoRico

Taking a stand for seed freedom in Puerto Rico

Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
Clasificado en:   Social: Social, Alimentacion, |   Economía: Agro, |
Disponible en:   English       
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The Puerto Rico movement for organic farming and food sovereignty is barely getting off the ground as this Caribbean island nation has hardly any agriculture to speak of. Smaller than the US state of Connecticut, Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated places in the world, and it imports at least 85% of the food its inhabitants consume (1).

But wait, it gets worse. The country’s scarce farmlands are quickly falling like dominoes to urban sprawl, and more recently to “alternative” energy projects (more about that later). The vast majority of farming operations here are highly toxic, agrochemical-intensive, conventional monocultures. The island’s southern plains, classified as prime agricultural lands, are dominated by half a dozen biotech corporations, including Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont-Pioneer, which use them to produce genetically modified (GM) corn and soy seed for export (2).

And yet, Puerto Rico has a movement for organic agriculture and food sovereignty. The members of this fledgling and loosely organized movement do their modest, low key work in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds and an outlook that could only cause cynicism and despair in most people. Writing for a number of independent media, I have documented the development of this movement for over a decade, even as I myself form part of it (3).

In October 2012 the movement’s different fragments came together to participate in the Seed Freedom worldwide series of activities called for by Vandana Shiva between October 2, Gandhi’s birthday, and October 16, world food sovereignty day (4). She and fellow organizers called for educational activities and direct actions during those two weeks all over the world in defense of seed, the basis of agricultural biodiversity, from the twin hazards of enclosure through patents and genetic contamination from GM varieties.

In Puerto Rico, Seed Freedom activities were coordinated by the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-Orgánica, a farmers’ group that has been advocating for agroecological approaches since its founding in 1989 (5). Several other groups chipped in, including the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (6) and the Madre Tierra Organic Co-op (7). The activities kicked off with a talk by myself at the Madre Tierra Co-op’s Sunday farmers’ market, an institution that has been selling organic produce and educating consumers since its founding in 2001. In my presentation, which was very similar to the one I gave at the Occupy Monsanto activities in St. Louis the previous month (8) I provided a political and historical context to the current global battle around GM crops and the patenting of seeds, basing myself on two of my most recent articles, "The Grand Botanical Chess Game" and "Seeds of Empire" (9). As said before, this is part of a much broader research work on the geopolitics of seeds and genomes from a social ecology perspective.

Later that week, organic coffee grower Elena Biamón, whose farm is located in the northern slope of Cerro Punta, Puerto Rico’s highest peak, in Jayuya, spoke to the students of Albert Einstein public school about the importance of seeds and the threat of GM varieties made by corporations like Monsanto. The Einstein school, whose student body is almost entirely made up of children of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, is located in Barrio Obrero, Puerto Rico’s most famous slum.

Occupying the north shore of the stagnant, choked and polluted Caño Martín Peña estuary, the country’s most abused and least loved body of water, Barrio Obrero is not the hopeless dead end of a neighborhood most outsiders think it is. It is actually a hotbed of spirited community activism. Barrio Obrero formed a consortium with seven other nearby communities to secure funding and support from a variety of sources, including the local government, US government agencies like the EPA, and private foundations. This initiative, known as the G8, oversees a range of environmental protection and social justice activities on both sides of the Caño Martín Peña (10). They have the support of Proyecto Enlace, a public corporation formed to promote the area’s integral development.

Air photos strongly suggest that Barrio Obrero and its surrounding communities constitute the most densely populated quadrant in all of Puerto Rico. It’s one of the very last places one would ever consider for agricultural development. And yet, the students at Einstein school are enthusiastic about farming and the community is actively cleaning up vacant lots to establish garden plots. In this endeavor they count on the support of Enlace staffer Katia Avilés, one of Puerto Rico’s leading voices for agroecology and food sovereignty.

As a geography grad student at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, Avilés worked on a study directed by professor Ivette Perfecto, herself Puerto Rican too, which demonstrated that small scale organic farming can indeed feed the world, contrary to what pesticide companies and industrial agriculture advocates would have us believe (11). It is a real shame that Perfecto’s research work, internationally acclaimed and even used by the United Nations as reference (12), is almost totally unknown and unacknowledged in Puerto Rico.

The following day, the Einstein school students were visited by multimedia artist Elisa Sánchez, herself a long time activist with groups like Weikaraya and Friends of the Sea. She gave the students an arts workshop centered around the subject of seeds, their importance and the threats they face. By the end of the day, some of the students had composed and performed a rap song about Vandana Shiva and her quest to protect seeds (13).

That evening the University of Puerto Rico Law School hosted an agriculture forum with candidates of all of the country’s six political parties (14). It was only pure luck that it happened to take place right in the middle of the Seed Freedom activities. The auditorium was filled with energized farmers, students, activists, environmentalists and food security advocates.

The questions for the candidates were written by a committee that included UPR Agricultural Science professor and community organizer Robinson Rodríguez and students Edwin Velázquez and Rosemarie Vázquez, all three arrested and indicted under the draconian “Tito Kayak” law, which makes it a felony to obstruct a construction project. This law, the brainchild of the now discredited and disgraced legislator known as “El Chúchin”, is nicknamed after Alberto De Jesús “Tito Kayak”, an intrepid daredevil activist with a proven expertise in penetrating secure perimeters and making fools of security guards and law enforcement authorities (15).

They were part of a group of six activists who were arrested on December 2011 for attempting to obstruct the construction of a large scale array of wind turbines in the fertile agricultural lands of Santa Isabel, in southern Puerto Rico (16). These southern plains, tucked between the Cordillera Central (Central Mountain Range) and the Caribbean Sea, are classified by the USDA as prime farm land. That’s the highest ranking for agricultural soils, only three percent of the world’s farmland has such a coveted classification. The construction of these windmills, each one taller than the Statue of Liberty, which involved excavations and the movement of heavy machinery, caused grievous and irreparable harm to Santa Isabel’s delicate and highly prized soils. The opponents, grouped as the Agricultural Rescue Front (FRA), have made clear that they do not necessarily oppose wind energy, but that such projects should never undermine agricultural production. All of the six arrestees were involved in organizing the candidates’ forum.

The FRA was founded in 2011 to oppose not only the Santa Isabel windmills but also the controversial permuta of lands of the Gurabo Agricultural Experiment Station. In 2011 the mayor of the town of Gurabo seized lands used by the local Agricultural Experiment station for non-agricultural uses- in other words, to pour concrete into them (17). Farmers, academics and food security scholars declared their opposition, pointing out that there can be no agricultural research if researchers have no land to work on, and without agricultural research there can be no agriculture. Furthermore, the Gurabo station is the site of some of Puerto Rico’s most important scientific research into organic farming.

The Seed Freedom activities in Puerto Rico culminated the following Monday, October 15, at the Ponce city courtroom, where a crowd of supporters came to witness the hearing of the six valientes whose only crime was to defend Santa Isabel’s irreplaceable farm lands. After half a day of an exceptionally inept performance by the prosecution, the judge adjourned the hearing. As of this writing, the six defendants still await a verdict.

And so ended Puerto Rico’s participation in Seed Freedom. The mixed feelings of the defendants and their supporters as they walked out of the courtroom that afternoon, a mix of hope, uncertainty and apprehension, pretty much summarize the spirit of these troubled days.


- Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, journalist and environmental educator. He is director of the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (
http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/) and a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology.


1) 
http://www.prensacomunitaria.com/ambiente/desarrollo-sustentable/615-la-isla-vulnerable-un-bochorno-nacional
2) Articles by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero:  "Biotech Island: Frankencrops in the Caribbean" http://www.greens.org/s-r/52/52-01.html; "More GM Crops in Puerto Rico: Why We Should Worry" http://www.greens.org/s-r/58/58-07.html.
3) Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero "Organic Farming Takes Root in Puerto Rico" June 3 2005 http://www.organicconsumers.org/organic/puertorico060605.cfm, "Tale of the Silent Revolution" September 6 1999 http://ipsnews2.wpengine.com/1999/09/agriculture-puerto-rico-the-tale-of-the-silent-revolution/
4) http://seedfreedom.in/
5) http://www.organizacionboricua.org/
6) http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/
7) http://www.coopmadretierra.org/
8) Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero "Occupy Monsanto goes to the Home of Monsanto"  http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_26350.cfm
9) "The Grand Botanical Chess Game" http://www.social-ecology.org/2012/04/exclusive-the-grand-botanical-chess-game/; "Seeds of Empire" http://alainet.org/active/54793&lang=es
10) http://g8incpr.wordpress.com/; http://www.slideshare.net/bibliopoli/presentation-g-8
11) "Organic Farming can Feed the World, Research Finds" http://www.twnside.org.sg/title2/susagri/susagri011.htm
12) http://www.snre.umich.edu/profile/perfecto
13) See the video of their October 13 performance at the Old San Juan Farmers' Market: http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/search/label/Campechada%202012
14) Video of the full October 11 debate http://frapuertorico.wordpress.com/2012/10/16/video-completo-debate-por-el-desarrollo-agricola-en-puerto-rico/
15) For more information about Tito Kayak read "The Prisoner and the Kayaker" by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, Oct 22 2012. http://alainet.org/active/58980&lang=es
16) http://frapuertorico.wordpress.com/; Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero "Renewable energy projects generate opposition" April 8 2012 http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15698
17) http://www.elregionaldigital.com/recientes/2388-aprueban-transferir-50-cuerdas-agricolas-a-gurabo.html 
 
 


http://alainet.org/active/59292&lang=es


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