By Jason TockmanGreen Left Weekly
May 5, 2004
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias has announced that the cultivation of genetically modified crops will be prohibited on Venezuelan soil, possibly establishing the most sweeping restrictions on transgenic crops in the western hemisphere.
Though full details of the administration's policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are still forthcoming, the statement by President Hugo Chavez will lead most immediately to the cancellation of a contract that Venezuela had negotiated with the US-based Monsanto Corporation.
Before a recent international gathering of supporters in Caracas, Chavez admonished genetically engineered crops as contrary to interests and needs of the nation's farmers and farmworkers. He then zeroed in on Monsanto's plans to plant up to 500,000 acres of transgenic soybeans in Venezuela.
"I ordered an end to the project", said Chavez, upon learning that transgenic crops were involved. "This project is terminated."
Chavez emphasised the importance of food sovereignty and security â€” required by the Venezuelan Constitution â€” as the basis of his decision. Instead of allowing Monsanto to grow its transgenic crops, these fields will be used to plant yuca, an indigenous crop, Chavez explained. He also announced the creation of a large seed bank facility to maintain indigenous seeds for peasants' movements around the world.
The international peasants' organisation Via Campesina, representing more than 60 million farmers and farmworkers, had brought the issue to the attention of the Chavez administration when it learned of the contract with Monsanto. According to Rafael Alegria, secretary for international operations of Via Campesina, both Monsanto and Cargill are seeking authorisation to produce transgenic soy products in Venezuela.
"The agreement was against the principles of food sovereignty that guide the agricultural policy of Venezuela", said Alegria when informed of the president's decision. "This is a very important thing for the peasants and indigenous people of Latin America and the world."
Alegria has good reason to be concerned. With a long history of social and environmental problems, Monsanto won early international fame with its production of the chemical Agent Orange â€” the Vietnam War defoliant linked to miscarriages, tremors, and memory loss that more than 1 million people were exposed to. More recently, the company has been criticised for side-effects that its transgenic crops and bovine growth hormone (rBGH) are believed to have on human health and the environment.
Closer to home in Venezuela, Monsanto manufactures the pesticide "glyphosate", which is used by the neighbouring Colombian government as part of its Plan Colombia offensive against coca production and rebel groups. The Colombian government aerially sprays hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying legitimate farms and natural areas like the Putomayo rainforest, and posing a direct threat to human health, including that of indigenous communities.
"If we want to achieve food sovereignty, we cannot rely on transnationals like Monsanto", said Maximilien Arvelaiz, an adviser to Chavez. "We need to strengthen local production, respecting our heritage and diversity."
Alegria hopes that Venezuela's move will serve as encouragement to other nations contemplating how to address the issue of GMOs.
"The people of the United States, of Latin America, and of the world need to follow the example of a Venezuela free of transgenics", he said.
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