Bolivia: Transgenic Corn Puts At Risk Native Varieties


Bolivia, with the indigenous emergence at different levels of the state apparatus since the arrival into power of President Evo Morales in 2006, enacted several laws and norms in defense of Mother Earth. In relation to the use of transgenic the Political Constitution, approved in 2008, specifically states in article 255, II 8, the “prohibition of importation, production and commercialization of genetically modified organisms and toxic elements, which damages the health and environment.” Added to this mandate are several laws and decrees that carry the same protectionist intent.

But, as a popular saying in the country goes, “hecha la ley, hecha la trampa” (laws are made to be broken). Miguel Ángel Crespo, director of Productivity, Biosphere and the Environment (PROBIOMA), a nongovernmental organization founded in 1990, tells Latinamerica Press that the best example of the infringement of the law is the case of maize. “Mexico —he says— has 69 registered varieties of this native cereal that have become part of its national identity. Surprisingly, Bolivia has 77 native varieties, but this diversity is now seriously threatened with the introduction of transgenic maize.”

Location of Bolivia. Source: CIA World Factbook.
Location of Bolivia. Source: CIA World Factbook.

In May, the Bolivia Free of Transgenics Platform denounced the existence of approximately 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of transgenic maize harvested by a Mennonite colony in the municipality of Charagua, in the south of the eastern department of Santa Cruz, after a team of specialists from the SOS Maíz Bolivia organization took samples in March in Field 20 of the Mennonite Pinondi Colony, detecting after conducting laboratory tests the presence of transgenic maize resistant to glyphosate, a herbicide catalogued in 2015 by the World Health Organization as “probably carcinogenic.”

According to Bolivian legislation, only soybean cultivation can use transgenic seeds, but only in one temporarily authorized event. However, several genetically modified varieties that have not been authorized are in use now. Soybean production, based on transgenic seeds having official permission, have increasingly inflated agribusiness. According to Crespo, the use of glyphosate-resistant varieties and the use of this herbicide have generated a vicious circle, generating new plagues and thus, demands for new agrochemicals.

“There is now in the market a variety that is resistant to the infamous Paraquat — used in the Vietnam War —, glyphosate, glufosinate and 2,4-D. This situation, rather than optimizing applications, promotes the indiscriminate use of the four herbicides. Later, when the soil loses fertility as a consequence of this abuse, the business owners offer fertilizers; and do the same with insecticides, generating a constant increase of the demand for these products,” with the consequent environmental impact, he states.

Migrant beekeeping

Natural sensors of this vicious circle are bees, pollinators by excellence. Not only voices coming from the scientific community are sounding the alarm.

Osvaldo Soruco, Agricultural Engineer and beekeeper from Santa Cruz — where the largest agro-industrial production of the country is concentrated —, confesses to Latinamerica Press that they do not have “scientific studies that prove certain phenomena in bees, because it is very expensive to do this and our association of ecological producers is reduced. But we have empirical findings. For example, years ago we sent our hives to sunflower cultivation fields, such as a temporary rental of bees, to pollinate the crop; but not now, because when we return them, we find that the population of each hive decreases significantly and the other survivors die a short time after.”

The thing is that insecticides do not discriminate; bees are the victims of the use and abuse in crops that use complete agrochemical packages, many of them, such as Paraquat, are already banned in other countries. “This has forced us to do a migrant beekeeping: we must find forests in areas far from agricultural crops; out there is where we transport the hives to produce a non-toxic product, but the agricultural frontier is right behind us, it expands and we have to go further and further,” says Soruco.

The cultivation of transgenics, synonymous with monoculture and extensive agriculture, also devastates communities, and local productive and food systems. Gizel Caballero, from the Center for Research and Promotion of Farmers (CIPCA), an organization founded in 1970, highlights the case of the Guarayos province, in the northwest of Santa Cruz, a traditional habitat of the ethnic group of the same name. By law, Native Community Lands (TCO) — geographic areas that constitute the habitat of indigenous peoples and communities where they maintain their own forms of economic, social and cultural organization — cannot be sold or ceded to third parties, but quick profits influence in the decision of not few.

“The lands are put up for rent or sold under the table; in this way, the natives are leaving their territories to swell the rings of poverty around the cities; or to become agricultural laborers. The presence of women is observed in the communities, especially mothers and children,” he says.

Labor rights cannot resist also the advance of this agricultural frontier. Caballero says that “more than 8,700 wage earners of the agro-industry sell their work skills without any labor protection. In the case of the sugar cane harvest, they are paid 30.00 bolivianos [US$4.31] per ton cut manually.” The owner of the property has a contractual relationship only with the intermediary; this person, in turn, hires laborers without regard to any legal labor considerations.

This so-called modernization of large-scale agriculture is a determinant factor of food insecurity. Official data confirms that the country now imports more food than ever before, because its agriculture is basically focused on exports and not to satisfy the local demands. According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE), food imports increased from $570 million in 2011 to $610 million in 2015.

Promote citizen awareness

The truth is that in Bolivia, nine years after the adoption of its new Constitution, which opened hopes of turning the country into an endogenous production model, respectful of the environment and its biodiversity, the picture is already less uncertain: by far the battle is being won by the powerful agribusiness transnational companies. This is confirmed by Reynaldo Díaz, president of the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade (IBCE), which reports, based on a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), a new record “of the area cultivated with genetically improved seeds, surpassing 185 million hectares (457 million acres) in 19 developing countries.”

Bolivia contributes to this bleak picture with approximately one million hectares (2.5 million acres) of transgenic soybean crops, an area that continues to grow. Except that, from time to time, nature takes revenge, as in the last campaign when a persistent drought pushed back the production figures. As paradoxes of monoculture, transgenics also reproduce their own limits.

Faced with this evident inability to comply with and enforce laws, emerge citizen action movements. In a precarious way, and without support or official incentives, an Agroecological Platform has been organized, whose members promote organic agriculture, organizing fairs of clean products where they can, and generating information that is made available in social media.

As Soruco states, for now all they have left is to raise public conscience to promote the consumption of clean foods to rest importance to the impact of transgenics. “To do this we have developed a protocol of good agro-ecological practices and a regulation to certify with a quality stamp, that facilitate the appreciation of the consumers,” emphasizes the beekeeper.

Latinamerica Press

Latinamerica Press is a product of Comunicaciones Aliadas, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Lima, Peru, specializing in the production of information and analysis about events across Latin America and the Caribbean with a focus on rights, while strengthening the communications skills of local social leaders.

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