The Battle for Venezuela’s Seed Law

Protest against GMO seeds in the Plaza Bolivar

photo by William Camacaro
Protest against GMO seeds in the Plaza Bolivar in Caracas
before the National Assembly vote on the Seed Law

“In late December 2015, amidst plummeting oil prices, highly politicized food shortages, and an all-around tense political climate in Venezuela, an unexpected event took place in the country’s National Assembly just days before a major shift in its political leadership. A new seed law was passed, with provisions including bans on genetically modified (GM) seeds and the patenting of life forms, recognition of both formal and informal seed systems, and protections for the seeds of the country’s peasant, Indigenous, and Afro-descendant communities.”

Thus begins an article in The Journal of Peasant Studies describing in great detail the social and political forces behind a striking new legal framework for agriculture in Venezuela. I will excerpt below parts of this article that might help US farmer-readers understand how this happened. It is a unique example of passing food sovereignty into law.

Agrarian and environmental movements from many countries have embraced this law as representing a radical break from prevailing global trends in seed legislation and governance and an unexpected win in an otherwise bleak political landscape. Such a landscape is characterized by ever-deepening corporate capture of the world’s genetic resources, facilitated by a global architecture of legislation treating seeds as private property as opposed to a commons and upholding the rights of (private) breeders over those of farmers. Governments whose national laws are not harmonized with this global architecture are pressured to modify them toward these ends, and increasingly are. Intellectual property rights laws are but one legal tool for dispossessing farmers of control over their seeds, with another being seed certification laws. Both are spreading throughout countries of the Global South, facilitating further corporate enclosure of seeds while threatening the rights of farmers to engage in basic practices of seed saving and exchange long fundamental to human survival.

No less extraordinary are the domestic conditions in which the Law was passed, marked by economic crisis and deepening political polarization, calling into question the future of the country’s political process known as the Bolivarian Revolution. Such conditions, in fact, had contributed to a major shift in Venezuela’s National Assembly during elections earlier in December 2015, from a majority aligned with the Bolivarian Revolution (chavista) to an opposition majority, for the first time since 1999. The passage of the Seed Law was among the final acts of the Bolivarian-majority National Assembly before stepping down. The Law would not have been passed – and it very nearly wasn’t – had it not been for a groundswell of mobilization from below, together with critical openings within the state. This article takes a closer look at this process, addressing the common question upon the Law’s passage of how did it happen?

Before 1999, when over half of the population was living in poverty and facing a lack of decent work and basic services into the late 1990s, the general sentiment among the poor working-class majority of the population was that the government was not there to serve their interests. The rise of the Bolivarian Revolution in 1999 reflected an achievement on the part of the disenfranchised majority to shift the power balance and claim the political space they had long been denied. The assumption of the presidency by Hugo Chávez Frias, on a platform of social justice, redistribution of wealth, and sovereignty, was considered by many a major manifestation of popular power.

For the Bolivarian Revolution, a first point of order, in addition to addressing the immediate material needs facing the population, was to build the legal architecture necessary for broad-based popular participation in governance, toward a vision of ‘protagonistic and participatory democracy’. In July 1999, a constituent assembly was elected to lead the process of redrafting the constitution through a participatory national effort, with an emphasis on inclusion of historically excluded groups. The result by December 1999 was a radically different constitution, passed by popular referendum, that guaranteed a host of new rights to the population and laid the legal framework for direct citizen participation in governance.

In the years following 1999, a challenge facing the Bolivarian Revolution has been the tensions between the unharnessed popular power, or constituent power, that had brought the revolution about, and the constituted power of the state. The Bolivarian Revolution has opened up important spaces for the construction of popular power, in tandem with a new institutional architecture, while also raising inevitable tensions between competing forms of power.

These tensions are within the highly heterogeneous mix of groups and individuals, across state and society, identified with the Bolivarian Revolution. There is no singular unified Bolivarian agenda for food sovereignty, with perspectives running the gamut from radical takes aligned with those of La Via Campesina to more mainstream paradigms involving large-scale, capital-intensive forms of production and distribution.

A key factor influencing the latter is the enduring legacy of the Green Revolution and related processes of agricultural modernization in Venezuela since the 1930s. Out of the 76 crops grown commercially in Venezuela, nationally produced certified seeds were available for only 8 of these at the time of the last agricultural census (rice, corn, potato, soya, sesame, cotton, black beans, and pinto beans), and in limited amounts. The vast majority of commercial seeds are imported. An extreme example is in vegetable production, where, although production levels meet an estimated 80% of national demand, nearly 100% of the seeds are imported.

The ‘starting point’ for the current process as such could be considered 2012, with a confluence of events. The first of these was the Third Venezuelan Congress of Biodiversity. This event was significant both for its theme, ‘Land and Territory’, including a focus on the rescue of traditional seed varieties, and for the participation of a wide variety of social movements, including both peasant movements and urban groups.

A second key event was the seventh annual National Gathering on Peasant Seeds held in the community of Monte Carmelo in the state of Lara, organized by local communities and supported by INIA. This three-day activity culminated in the National Day of Peasant Seeds on October 29. Just earlier the same month, the National Assembly had announced that it would be taking up the drafting of a new seed law, breathing a sense of urgency into these activities.

Among the outcomes of these events was the formation of a National Network of Seed Guardians, facilitating citizen participation in the drafting of the new law and ensuring that it would be anti-GMO. Also the national campaign Venezuela Libre de Transgénicos (GMO-Free Venezuela, also referred to as the Campaign) was launched.

A backdrop to the events of 2012 was the intensifying illness of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez Frías, looked upon by many social movements as a key ally and point of political reference. Leaders of national peasant movements as well as international delegates of La Via Campesina had been highly influential to Chávez’s take on food sovereignty matters, including his assuming an openly anti-GMO stance. In 2004, Chávez called for a ‘Venezuela free from Transgenics’.

When Chávez died in March of 2013, his staunchly anti-GMO stance was not yet reflected in the law, leaving movements without a legal framework to protect a position they had long taken for granted. Furthermore, the government he left behind contained a mix of agrarian tendencies, including those more aligned with industrial agriculture, reflected in a number of institutions of the state. Indeed, a common perception among social movements was that many government officials believed that peasant-based agriculture was politically correct but not technically correct, so they went along with policies supportive of peasants for reasons of political legitimacy. But there was always the risk of going in the other direction, and indeed this would become a key point of tension. Faced with such realities, the loss of Chávez was a wakeup call for social movements. It was also a moment of reaffirmation of the popular power that Chávez had represented to them.

Though members of the Campaign had ostensibly been part of the drafting committee for the new Seed Law, they had been left out and had not been privy to the initial draft, which included safeguards for patenting of life forms and loopholes for the legalization of GMOs, while lacking mechanisms for popular participation. When they saw the draft, leaked to them by an ally from within, they mobilized. This included the release of statements, more signature collection, street protests and the building of new alliances, including with chavista political parties. These efforts succeeded in opening up a space of negotiation with the National Assembly.

Members of the Campaign met directly with officials within the National Assembly, representing a further political opening for the Campaign. In this meeting, all present affirmed the necessity of the new Seed Law and agreed that the Law should be constructed together with popular movements.

Coming out of the meeting in the National Assembly was lots of motion on the ground, and growing tensions between the consultative and constituent approaches to the drafting of the Law. The popular constituent debate process took on a life of its own. What began as a largely defensive effort by social movements to ban GMOs turned into something far more profound.

It became apparent by this point that some key input that the movements were bringing into the public consultations of the National Assembly, coming from the popular constituent debates, was not in fact being incorporated into the drafting of the Law by the National Assembly. The activists thus took it upon themselves to draft their own version of the law, article by article.

In the months leading up to December 2015, the political situation in Venezuela had been intensifying on multiple fronts. In particular, shortages of key food items, especially precooked corn flour, a daily staple supplied by the country’s largest private food company, resulted in long lines outside of super-markets, a thriving parallel market, and general insecurity among the majority of the population. While such shortages were nothing new to the Bolivarian Revolution, especially at politically heated moments such as the lead-up to elections, this was the most extreme and sustained case of them yet, pointing both to the vulnerability inherent in dependency on industrially produced goods delivered through a highly consolidated private food distribution complex and to the deeply political nature of food. The shortages and the general insecurity prompted by them are believed to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the December 2015 elections, in which the majority of seats in the National Assembly shifted from chavistas to the opposition, whose electoral campaign had been built around ending the shortages.

With the announcement of the election results, some within the more radical grassroots base of the Bolivarian Revolution spontaneously took to the streets, affirming that the construction of popular power would be undeterred by the election results, and calling upon the government to take heed and get with the program. Ending in front of the presidential palace, this march turned into an impromptu popular assembly with the president, who joined the protesters for direct dialogue and critical reflection. Included among this group were members of the Campaign, who addressed the president, demanding that the ‘debt’ of the elections be paid by addressing the laws pending passage in the National Assembly, including the Seed Law, the passage of which had been delayed. Thus, as with the period in 2013 when the loss of Chávez breathed a new sense of energy and urgency into the Campaign around the Seed Law, this moment of political setback in late 2015 provided the final push needed, across both state and society, to get the Seed Law passed once and for all.

In the very last session of the National Assembly while still Bolivarian-majority, on 23 December 2015, the Law was approved and published into official gazette, with several accompanying statements by the president. Several institutions began to assume their roles in relation to the Law’s implementation, as the Campaign pressed forward with its next steps, motivated by the Law’s official passage at last. Meanwhile, the now opposition-majority National Assembly started to attack the Law almost immediately.

Following the passage of the Law in a particularly challenging environment, among the strategies of the Campaign, now under the banner of Seeds of the People, has been to push forward the Law’s implementation as quickly as possible through a largely bottom-up strategy. Over the course of 2016, four multi-day workshops were carried out in four regions of the country, involving approximately four hundred participants from eighty different groups. The objective of these activities was to identify and analyze key elements of the Law, toward the goal of catalyzing popular organization for local seed production, and mapping the actors, capacity and limitations for seed production in different localities. A major focus of these activities has been the development of the People’s Seed Plan. A main goal is to build up locally controlled seed supplies as rapidly as possible, and to build links between local and national grassroots efforts around seeds. While this has been a largely autonomous and extremely low budget effort, some support has come from the new Ministry of Urban Agriculture, which was formed right around the same time as the passage of the Law and has been an important new ally since. With a recent change of leadership of this ministry, however, from someone who had come directly from the grassroots to a long-time government functionary, the future relationship between movements and the ministry is uncertain at the time of writing.

Indeed, the agribusiness agenda against the Law intensified during this process. These sectors have been able to take advantage of new spaces of power opened up by the change of political orientation of the National Assembly. The Commission on Science and Technology has initiated a process of discussion of the Law in alliance with the private sector. In these discussions, the shortages currently facing the country are being used as a pretext for revising the Law to harmonize it with global mainstream seed laws and treaties.

The main arguments against the Law, revealing contentious ‘politics of knowledge’ at play, are that it is anti-biotechnology (narrowly defined in these discussions as genetic engineering, whereas the Law uses the definition of biotechnology contained in the Cartagena Protocol); biased toward local seed systems (despite the Law’ s inclusion of differentiated systems for commercial and locally-controlled seeds); and above all, that it is ‘anti-scientific.’ Regarding the last point, members from the scientific community and civil society groups from 28 countries signed onto a letter in support of the Law and affirming its scientific integrity in May of 2016.

While the Campaign has been defending the Law against attacks, it has focused the majority of its attention on actually implementing it, convinced that this is the most effective way to give the Law both legitimacy and staying power. Concrete outcomes thus far include increased production and distribution of native potato varieties in the Andean region; partnerships between agricultural cooperatives resulting from agrarian reform processes and newly-formed Food Supply and Production Committees for the production and distribution of vegetable seeds in the Plains region; and large monthly seed exchanges among urban and periurban farmers in Caracas. Seed Law activists point out that such efforts would have been illegal or in violation of various rules and standards prior to the Law and are now flourishing thanks to it.

There are ample learnings of broader relevance to be gleaned from the Seed Law battle, several of which we will highlight here.

• First, participatory democracy cannot be legislated into existence, but is constructed through ongoing practice, out of struggle.

• Second, the manner in which the activists worked inside, outside, through and between formal structures of the state, simultaneously making strategic use of different types of spaces and creating new ones as needed, proved essential.

• Third, the activists did not wait for political opportunities to arise, but steadily worked to broaden existing openings while forging new openings in the absence of them. Furthermore, action was oftentimes spurred not only by perceived opportunity but by perceived threat, understood as not only ‘the costs that a social group will incur from protest’ but also ‘the costs it expects to suffer if it does not take action’. This point is essential to our understanding of how the Seed Law battle unfolded as it did, because beyond the opening of political opportunities, what prompted the most intense, coordinated and rapid actions were in fact threats – the threat of a new seed law that would pave the way for legalization of GMOs; the loss of Chávez as the ultimate ‘influential ally’ within the state; and the shift of the National Assembly from chavista-majority to opposition-majority. This helps to explain why the Law was finally passed when it was at the end of 2015 – not because it was a particularly favorable political moment, but because the work of more than three years was potentially about to be lost, and the costs of not taking action were perceived as being high. Thus, even while the chavista Assembly members had their differences with the activists, when it came down to either losing the Law or pushing its passage forward, they chose the latter.

While the Law’s passage represents a major win in the Seed Law battle, the battle is far from over, as implementation is attempted amidst fierce political opposition and massive economic challenges. But in the midst of this, the activists involved have not lost sight of what has been achieved and draw instruction from the experience thus far. One thing they have learned is to expect the unexpected in contentious political processes involving dynamic state-society interactions. What began as an effort on the part of state actors to legalize GMOs ended with a law categorically banning them.

A point emphasized by those who gave input into this study is that the grassroots efforts that spun out of the Seed Law process, including the Seeds of the People initiative and the People’ s Seed Plan, are no less important than the Law itself and can be understood as grassroots manifestations of it. This connects to another point emphasized by many involved in the Seed Law battle – that just as important as the content of the Law is the process through which it came to be, including the intense deliberation and envisioning that took place in social movement spaces, and the points of articulation, contentious as they were, between these processes and those of the state.

Excerpted from:
Exploring The ‘Grey Areas’ Of State-Society
Interaction In Food Sovereignty Construction: The Battle For Venezuela’s Seed Law
by Ana Felicien, Christina M. Schiavoni,
Eisamar Ochoa, Silvana Saturno, Esquisa Omaña, Adrianna Requena & William Camacaro
published in The Journal of Peasant Studies,
November 16, 2018