On June 4th about ten thousand Haitian peasants marched to protest U.S.-based Monsanto Company’s ‘deadly gift’ of seed to the government of Haiti. The seven-kilometer march from Papaye to Hinche—in a rural area on the central plateau—was organized by several Haitian farmers’ organizations that are proposing a development model based on food and seed sovereignty instead of industrial agriculture. Slogans for the march included “long live native maize seed” and “Monsanto’s GMO & hybrid seed violates peasant agriculture.”
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. About 65 percent of Haiti’s population lives in rural areas as subsistence farmers. On January 12 2010, a devastating earthquake leveled Haiti’s capital city Port au Prince, and 800,000 urban refugees migrated to rural areas. According to Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, coordinator of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) and a member of La Via Campesina’s international coordinating committee, “there is presently a shortage of seed in Haiti because many rural families used their maize seed to feed refugees.”
With sales of $11.7 billion in 2009, U.S.-based transnational corporation Monsanto Company is the world’s largest seed company, controlling one-fifth of the global proprietary seed market and 90 percent of seed patents from agricultural biotechnology. In May Monsanto announced that it had delivered 60 tons of hybrid seed maize and vegetables to Haiti, and over 400 tons of its seed (worth $4 million) will be delivered during 2010 to 10,000 farmers. The United Parcel Service is providing transport logistics, while Winner—a $127 million project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and focused on ‘’agricultural intensification’—is distributing the seed.[i] Monsanto stated that it made the decision to donate seed to Haiti at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “CEO Hugh Grant and Executive Vice President Jerry Steiner attended the event and had conversations with attendees about what could be done to help Haiti.”[ii] It is unclear whether any Haitians were included in the conversations in Davos.
Some have charged that the Monsanto representative in Haiti is Jean-Robert Estimé, who served as foreign minister during the brutal 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.[iii] While Monsanto vehemently denies this claim[iv], Estimé is included in an email exchange about the donation between Elizabeth Vancil, Director of Global Development Partnerships at Monsanto and Emmanuel Prophete, a Haitian agronomist working for the Minister of Agriculture.[v] The domain for Estimé’s email address is Winner (www.winner.ht), which implies he works for the U.S. government.
The Haitian rural organizations consider Monsanto’s seed donation part of a broader strategy of U.S. economic and political imperialism. “The Haitian government is using the earthquake to sell the country to the multinationals,” stated Jean-Baptiste. Vancil stated that opening up Haitian markets to Monsanto’s products “would be good.”[vi]
Monsanto emphasizes that its donated seed is hybrid and not genetically-modified (GM).[vii] However, reliance on hybrid seed will erode Haitian farmers’ food sovereignty and self-reliance; Monsanto acknowledges that they will be unable to save seed to plant in the future[viii], and must pay annually for the seed. Even the donated seed must be purchased—Monsanto donated the seed to the Haitian government, which is charging farmers for the seed. “Providing an outright donation of seed would undercut one of the basic pieces of Haiti’s agricultural and economic infrastructure,” says Monsanto.[ix] USAID’s Winner program is distributing the seed through farmer association stores, which will use the revenue to reinvest in other inputs, and help “farmers decide whether to use additional inputs (including fertilizer and herbicides) and…how to handle next year’s planting season.” [x] This implies that the farmer associations will use the proceeds from the seed sales to purchase Monsanto seed and inputs in future seasons.
Haiti’s agricultural sector has already been decimated by U.S. interference. In 1991, Jean Bertrande Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically-elected president, was removed in a U.S.-supported military coup. As a condition for his return, the U.S. government, IMF and World Bank required that Aristide open up Haiti to free trade. Tariffs on rice (Haiti’s staple grain) were reduced from 35 to 3 percent, government funding was diverted away from agricultural development to the nation’s foreign debt, and subsidized rice from Arkansas (it was the Clinton administration) flooded the Haitian market. Haitian rice farmers were decimated,[xi] and today almost all of the rice consumed in Haiti is imported. Sacks marked ‘U.S. Rice’ are everywhere in the markets and neighborhood stores, on peoples’ heads and the backs of mules.
The U.S. government is now undermining Haiti’s food system from the ground. A letter from the Haitian Minister of Agriculture to Monsanto implies that GM seed may have been offered in addition to hybrid. “In the absence of a law regulating the use of genetically-modified organisms (GMO) in Haiti, I am not at liberty to authorize the use of Roundup Ready seed or any other GMO material,” stated Juanas Gue, Haitian Minister of Agriculture, in a letter to Monsanto. [xii]
Monsanto has already proven the length it will go to open new markets in developing countries for its GM seed and toxic chemicals. In 2005, Monsanto was found guilty by the U.S. government of bribing high-level Indonesian officials to legalize GM cotton.[xiii] Evidence indicates that in Brazil in 2004, Monsanto sold a farm to a senator for one-third of its value in exchange for his work to legalize glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide (sold by the corporation as Roundup), that is in a class of highly-toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. In 2008, Brazil began spraying the most agricultural chemicals in the world—more than even the US[xiv]
“The entrance of Monsanto’s transgenic products into Brazil happened illegally,” says Paulo Almeida, a member of the Brazilian Movement of Landless Rural Workers who has been in Haiti since 2009 on a solidarity brigade organized by Via Campesina-Brasil. “We know what is happening with this donation is the implementation of the so-called Green Revolution, with all of the inputs for seed, chemicals, etc. But the Green Revolution isn’t possible here in Haiti. There is no way to survive with monoculture here.”
Development of industrial agriculture in Haiti is related to plans to develop an export-oriented agrofuels industry in the country. In 2007 USAID published a report on the ‘prospects for solid and liquid biofuels in Haiti’.[xv] The Inter-American Development Bank’s Haiti strategy document for 2007-2011 states that removing “obstacles to export of agricultural products are a top priority,” and that “biofuel promotion is being explored specifically.”[xvi]
The hybrid seed maize donated by Monsanto was treated with the fungicide Maxim XO, and the calypso tomato seed were treated with thiram, a fungicide so toxic that the U.S. government requires agricultural workers to wear protective clothing when handling seed treated with it. Monsanto’s communications to the Ministry of Agriculture contains no explanation of the danger of these chemicals, or any offer of special clothing or training for Haitian farmers.[xvii]
The Obama administration has a hypocritical and inconsistent policy on Monsanto and GM crops. When the Obamas moved into the White House they planted an organic garden, presumably as a positive example of food and agriculture systems. In March of this year, the administration convened public anti-trust hearings on competitiveness in the U.S. seed market, but it has yet to publish its conclusions. Despite this sign of concern, Monsanto continues to monopolize 60 percent of the entire seed maize market and 80 percent of the GM seed maize market in the United States.
On June 21st the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the historic case Monsanto Co. vs Geertson Seed Farms, its first case about a GM crop. The case focused on the environmental and economic impacts of genetic contamination of organic seed with pollen from GM crops. “The Justices’ decision today means that the selling and planting of Roundup Ready Alfalfa is illegal,” said Andrew Kimbrell of the Center for Food Safety. “It’s a significant victory in our ongoing fight to protect farmer and consumer choice, the environment and the organic industry.”
Yet the Obama administration is firmly promoting the interests of U.S. agricultural biotechnology transnational corporations abroad. At the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual convention in May, Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary for the Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs, stated that the U.S. State Department (which controls USAID) will aggressively confront critics of agricultural biotechnology.[xviii]
“The entrance of Monsanto into Haiti will spell the disappearance of the peasants,” said Doudou Pierre Festil, a member of the Peasant Movement of the Congress of Papaye and coordinator for the National Haitian Network for Food Sovereignty and Security. “If Monsanto’s seed comes into Haiti, the seed of the peasants will disappear. Monsanto’s seed will create health and environmental problems. Thus it is necessary for us to struggle against this project of death that would do away with the peasants.”
Contamination of Haitian maize with pollen from Monsanto’s hybrid corn will also occur, and could render the Haitian varieties unusable for saving and replanting, forcing farmers to become dependent on purchasing hybrid seed from the corporation.
“If the U.S. government truly wants to help Haiti, it would help the Haitians to build food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture, based on their own native seed and access to land and credit. That is the way to help Haiti,” says Dena Hoff, a diversified organic farmer in Montana and member of Via Campesina’s international coordinating committee.
The United Nations estimates that 75 percent of the world’s plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers have abandoned their local seed for genetically-uniform varieties offered by transnational corporations, and as GM and hybrid seed have contaminated native varieties. Genetic homogeneity increases farmers’ vulnerability to sudden changes in climate and the appearance of new pests and diseases, while seed agrobiodiversity—with myriad local seeds adapted to different microclimates, altitudes and soils—is fundamental for adapting to climate change.
Critics of Monsanto’s donation argue that the best way to ensure enough seed for Haiti is through the collection, conservation and propagation of local, native varieties in community seed banks. Haiti’s native seed varieties have developed and adapted to the different regions of Haiti over generations, in tandem with its people. Saving and replanting seed strengthens crops’ genetic plasticity, e.g. their capacity to adapt rapidly over generations to changing growing conditions, and also increases agrobiodiversity.
If the U.S. does not get its policy for Haiti right this time, there will not be another chance. Given the extent of food insecurity and environmental degradation in Haiti, the country must adopt a policy for food sovereignty to establish a sustainable foundation for the survival of its people and biodiversity. Ninety-eight percent of Haiti’s original tropical forest cover has been lost, there is widespread soil erosion, and desertification is increasing. Haiti cannot sustain further ecological destruction from the imposition of industrial agriculture, which will increase the use of chemicals, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
Alternatively, if the Obama administration supports a policy of food sovereignty in Haiti, the country could construct a model food system that could feed all Haitians, increase biodiversity and ecological resilience, and contribute to local, sustainable economic development. Recent research by agroecologists at the University of Michigan shows that sustainable, small-scale farming is more efficient at conserving and increasing biodiversity and forests than industrial agriculture.[xix] In order to implement a policy for food sovereignty, Haiti must develop without Monsanto’s seed.
Fortunately, Haitian peasants have a long history of resistance and struggle. In 1804 Haiti became the first colony in the Western Hemisphere to have a successful slave revolt, which resulted in the first independent state ruled by Africans. Haiti became a global pariah to the emerging superpowers.
“We defend peasant agriculture, we defend food sovereignty, and we defend the environment of Haiti until our last drop of blood,” states the Final Declaration of the march against Monsanto. “We commit to unite our forces to change this anti-peasant, anti-national state. We want to construct another kind of state, a state that defends peasant agriculture, a state that assists the rural men and women in the protection of the environment, and the conservation of soil and forest.” [xx]
Speaking from a stage in Charlemagne Péralte plaza, named for the Hinche-born leader of an armed movement against the 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, Jean-Baptise symbolically set Monsanto seed on fire, while others began to distribute packets of native seed maize to the cheering crowd. “We have to fight for our local seed,” Jean-Baptiste told them. “We have to defend our food sovereignty.” [xxi]
[i] PR Newswire. “Monsanto Company Donates Conventional Maizeand Vegetable Seed to Haitian Farmers to Help Address Food Security Needs.” May 13 2010. http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/monsanto-company-donates-conventional-corn-and-vegetable-seed-to-haitian-farmers-to-help-address-food-security-needs-93713444.html.
[ii] Monsanto Company. “Monsanto donates maizeand vegetable seed to Haiti.” Monsanto Blog May 13 2010. http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/05/13/monsanto-donates-seed-to-haiti/. Accessed June 7 2010.
[iii] Urfie, Fr. Jean-Yves. “A new earthquake hits Haiti: Monsanto’s deadly gift of 475 tons of genetically-modified seed to Haitian farmers.” Global Research. Canada. May 11, 2010.
[iv] Monsanto Company. “Haiti seed donation timeline.” http://www.monsanto.com/features/helping_haitian_farmers_timeline.asp. Accessed June 15 2010 @ 10:46 EST.
[v] Email exchange dated April 1st between Elizabeth Vancil and Emmanuel Prophete, in which Jean Robert Estimé is included at a Project Winner email domain.
[vi] Katz, Jonathan M. “Monsanto gives Haiti $4 million in hybrid seed.” Associated Press. May 14, 2010. http://www.politicalfriendster.com/showConnection.php?id1=6093&id2=238.
[vii] Monsanto Company. “Five answers on Monsanto’s Haiti seed donation. Monsanto blog May 20 2010. http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/05/20/five-answers-monsanto-haiti/.
[viii] Katz, Jonathan M. “Monsanto gives Haiti $4 million in hybrid seed.” Associated Press. May 14, 2010. http://www.politicalfriendster.com/showConnection.php?id1=6093&id2=238.
[ix] Monsanto Company. “Monsanto donates maizeand vegetable seed to Haiti.” Monsanto Blog May 13 2010. http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/05/13/monsanto-donates-seed-to-haiti/.
[x] Monsanto Company. “Five answers on Monsanto’s Haiti seed donation. Monsanto blog May 20 2010. http://www.monsantoblog.com/2010/05/20/five-answers-monsanto-haiti/.
[xi] Holt-Gimenez, Eric. “Haiti: roots of liberty, roots of disaster.” Huffington Post, January 21 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-holt-gimenez/haiti-roots-of-liberty–r_b_431724.html.
[xii] Haitian Minister of Agriculture. Letter to Mr. Jerry Steiner, Executive Vice President for Sustainability and Corporate Affairs, Monsanto Company. March 26 2010.
[xiii] Guerin, Bill. “The seeds of a bribery scandal in Indonesia.” Asia Times Online. April 20 2005. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/GA20Ae04.html.
[xiv] Kenfield, Isabella. “Monsanto’s seed of corruption in Brazil.” North American Congress on Latin America. October 16 2010. https://nacla.org/node/1417 .
[xv] Portnoff, Marc. “Prospects for solid and liquid biofuels in Haiti.” United States Agency for International Development. April 2007.
[xvi] Inter-American Development Bank. “Country strategy with Haiti: 2007-2011.” November 2007. http://enet.iadb.org/idbdocswebservices/idbdocsInternet/IADBPublicDoc.aspx?docnum=1309702 .
[xvii] Bell, Beverly. “Haitian farmers commit to burning Monsanto hybrid seed.” Huffington Post. May 17 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/beverly-bell/haitian-farmers-commit-to_b_578807.html.
[xviii] Clapp, Stephen. “State Department official pledges to confront global biotech critics naysayers.” Informa.com. May 10 2010; Volume: 52, Issue: 09. Received via email on May 7 2010.
[xix] University of Michigan. “SNRE Professor Perfecto co-authors PNAS paper on family farms, biodiversity and food production.” ANN ARBOR, MI, February 22, 2010. http://www.snre.umich.edu/newsroom/2010-02-22/snre_professor_perfecto_co_authors_pnas_paper_on_family_farms_biodiversity_and_f
[xx]Final declaration of Haitian movements against Monsanto, June 4 2010.
[xxi] Weekly News Update. “Haiti: Thousands of farmers reject Monsanto’s seeds.” http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com/2010/06/wnu-1036-haitian-farmers-reject.html . June 7 2010.
This article was written by La Via Campesina staff and originally published by La Via Campesina.