Originally Written by the Mesoamerican Permaculture Institute Translated by Martha Schmitz
Organizations representing Indigenous peoples in Guatemala will present the Biodiversity and Ancestral Knowledge Law before the Guatemalan Congress on May 31. The bill is also known as “the People’s Law,” as it arose from the consensus reached by ancestral authorities and Indigenous and campesino organizations across the country.
The Network for the Defense of Food Sovereignty (REDSAG, from its Spanish name), the Alliance of Indigenous Authorities and Organizations in Defense of Biodiversity, and the Law Firm for Indigenous Peoples drafted the bill, which seeks to protect native plants and seeds as a vital form of preserving traditional knowledge, food sovereignty, and biological diversity in their lands and territories.
Seeds represent a source of life for all beings. Indigenous peoples across Guatemala have cared for and adapted native seeds and plants, generation after generation, ensuring the survival of different species and the communities that depend on them. One REDAG representative discussed that the People’s Law is based on a holistic vision of “respect, harmony, balance, recognition, and consultation,” while another representative stated that “Indigenous and campesino communities’ maintain living systems inherited from our grandmothers and grandfathers, in coexistence with Mother Earth.”
Patrik Mucia, Biodiversity Coordinator at IMAP (one of REDSAG’s member organizations) shared that, “Seeds have been part of our culture. Our ancestors developed the ability to work with them, preserve them, improve them, multiply them, and share them with the new generations. Seeds are our heritage. We must recognize their importance in our lives. When we have seeds, we have the power to choose a healthy life and to guarantee food sovereignty, free from genetically modified seeds. This power is something that multinationals have sought to take away from us by crossbreeding with native seeds, offering so-called “improved” varieties, forcing us down the path of consumerism. Without realizing it, we are handing our native seeds over to the multinationals. This has already affected farmers, their families, their communities, and Mother Earth, because it has caused the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These multinational entities have generated huge profits, while sacrificing our lives and natural resources.”
Indeed, farming practices, knowledge sources, and species have come under attack by big agribusiness. In the face of climate change, a rising tide of extinction “breaking the biological balance” and profound inequality, the protection of Indigenous knowledge and native plants is ever more important.
In the face of climate change, Guatemala is likely to be seriously affected, in terms of extreme weather events and the deleterious effects on agriculture, affecting nearly a third of Guatemala’s workforce directly, as well as all those who depend on their labor. The use and adaptation of native seeds allows communities to respond to changing environmental conditions, protecting native plants from the threat of extinction.
Mucia also shared that “when we talk about ancestral seeds, it’s the same as discussing intelligence. A native seed can adapt to climate change year after year. That’s why it is important to keep the seeds in the ground. The seed, however small it may be, has been fundamental to cultures both past and present. Seeds have allowed us to survive and thrive, even in the face of droughts and long winters. In communities, family seed banks have served as a strategy to move forward even after crop loss or natural disasters.”
He added that, “Unfortunately, multinational companies are selling the idea that a GMO seed can be made climate change- or disease-resistant and that farmers will get a better result from using them. Unfortunately, they fail to mention the detail that the seed by itself does not work. It requires the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides across its life cycle, from planting to harvest, causing damage to the soil and the health of consumers. It’s the exact opposite of using traditional seeds. With traditional seeds, we opt for quality over quantity, creating greater yields over the long term, rather than forcing intensive production, at great cost and in an unsustainable way. Native seeds have been adapted and improved over hundreds of years, retaining information, because our seeds have memory.”
The proposed Peoples’ Law not only offers a traditional source of resilience to the present-day climate crisis; it also supports Indigenous peoples’ right to food sovereignty. Food sovereignty speaks to peoples’ rights to define their own policies around food production and consumption, with respect for their choices around what to grow and how. As the bill makes clear, Indigenous peoples’ rights to food sovereignty, native seeds, and traditional agricultural practices are further supported by national laws and international treaties and conventions. However, the right to food sovereignty is far from being achieved. In Guatemala, nearly one out every two children face chronic malnutrition; among Indigenous peoples, 65.9% of children face malnutrition as a result of centuries of racist violence, dispossession, and exclusion. Furthermore, climate change will likely result in more failed harvests, exacerbating malnutrition. Nonetheless, Indigenous and campesino communities continued connection to traditional agriculture and native seeds provides a source of life, allowing small farmers to feed their families, despite the structures of oppression they face.
The People’s Law arises as a response to the forced imposition of GMO seeds, monoculture farming practices, and the increased use of chemicals in agriculture. The hegemonic system imposed by big agribusiness contributes to the destruction of biological and cultural diversity. Simultaneously, it increases the dependence of communities on outside products to feed themselves, making them subject to the vagaries of the global market. For example, in the last year alone, the cost of a bag of fertilizer has risen from 220 Quetzals (37 Canadian dollars) to 425 Quetzals (70 Canadian dollars). The minimum wage for agricultural workers does not even cover basic staples, and certainly leaves no room for a rapid rise in the prices of GMO seeds, fertilizers, or pesticides.
In the face of overlapping crises, Ancestral Authorities and Indigenous and campesino communities offer a solution: the passage of the People’s Law, which will promote respect for life for all beings, recognizing plurinationality, preserve the richness of cultural and biological diversity across Guatemala, and safeguard the wellbeing of this and future generations.