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To the rescue of native seeds
Carmen Herrera
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Despite being the only Central American country where the use of genetically modified seeds is banned, the possibility exists that a law is enacted that would endanger agro-ecological production.

The use of landrace native (criollas) and domesticated foreign seeds (acriolladas) for the production of more than 75 percent of basic grains, the establishment of 408 native seed banks in the hands of small producers, the approval of Law 765 for the Promotion of Organic and Agro-ecological Production, the declaration of 11 transgenic-free territories, and the political will of the government, civil society organizations and cooperation agencies to support public policies of agro-ecological production, are part of a strategy that has gained momentum since 2008 focused on the rescue, storage, multiplication, improvement, use and consumption of varieties of native and neo-native seeds as a dynamic to resolve the sovereignty and food security of the country.

The rescue of the use of native and domesticated native seeds was an initiative of the Campesino a Campesino (Farmer to Farmer) Program of the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), which represents the small and medium producers, for the promotion and positioning of these seeds as an agro-ecological alternative and to avoid the use of transgenic seeds.

A space for dialog called Alianza Semillas de Identidad (Seeds of Identity Alliance), which brings together more than 10 civil society organizations that promote actions based on local knowledge and agro-ecological practices, has been formed ever since. For its part, the state, through the Nicaraguan Institute of Agricultural Technology, carries out nationwide development projects in agro-ecological production.

“We began this rescue work amid doubts and some battles, as many people questioned the fact that to promote this initiative was synonymous with underdevelopment and poverty. The word criollo has a traditional connotation of hardship. We were challenged by state institutions. They did not take us seriously, as if we did not have enough scientific knowledge; however, over time, the government agencies as well as non-governmental organizations and aid agencies have joined this effort through research and promotion of agro-ecological technologies, among other dynamics,” says Jorge Irán Vásquez, national specialist of the Farmer to Farmer Program, to Latinamerica Press.

Despite these positive changes in the vision regarding the promotion of landrace and domesticated foreign seeds, there is still a need to overcome the issue of regulation and provision of funds for the accurate implementation of the legal framework, to halt the advance of the chemical industry that puts pressure for and promotes the sale of transgenic seeds. Also, to overcome the shortcomings of the management of the production system in which the use of agrochemicals as supplies for soil remediation and pest control still prevails, as well as the deficiencies for water collection in a country that depends almost fully on the rainy season for cultivation of food crops and that is facing, for three years running, one of the worst droughts in recent history, brought on by the El Niño phenomenon.

“The campesino production is also affected by those transnational industries that influence the promotion of agro-industrial processes that depend on their products: machinery, supplies and seeds. It is difficult for the rural sector to resist the use of these inputs because they depend on agrochemicals. In the case of Nicaragua, machinery was not introduced for the small production sector and in the case of seeds created in the laboratory, they have not managed to penetrate in the basic consumer products,” is the analysis made by Harold Calvo, a promoter of the Seeds of Identity Alliance, in an interview with Latinamerica Press.

Legal framework
The Union of Agricultural Producers of Nicaragua (UPANIC), which brings together the major agricultural producers, has made public its request to the government to allow the introduction of transgenic seeds and to take over legally the sales and use of improved and transgenic seeds.

“A 10 percent of native seeds are obtained by the government and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to distribute them to their beneficiary producers. This amount is enough to reach 85 percent of the total production based on native seeds. To date, in the country, the import of transgenic products is only allowed for animal feed, which means that the population consumes transgenic through their meat consumption,” emphasizes Calvo.

As for the legal framework, as it is clear from the information given by some organizations that promote ecological farming, although the government of President Daniel Ortega has supported the adoption of regulations protecting organic production, to date laws like Law 807 of Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity concerning the protection of biosafety approved in 2012 is not regulated; and the recent draft of the Seed Regulation, Production and Import Law, also known as Seeds Law, despite not yet being approved, leaves several of its articles open to the possibility for the introduction of transgenic seeds into the country by proposing the mandatory certification of mother seeds.

“We have made a series of motions to the proposal of the draft of the Seeds Law,” Calvo states. “That law will cause producers to operate outside the law, in the sense that they want to promote production of mother seeds monitored by the state run Agricultural Production and Health Institute. Native seeds have thousands of genes and origins; it is difficult to know which one is the mother because they are crossing them every day. What they want is that all seeds be certified and sold to cover the 75 percent which consumes native seeds”.

Another important challenge faced by the rural sector, although there is progress being made in the use of native seeds for planting both basic grains and vegetables and fruits, is that this is not complemented by the use of any other agro-ecological tools.

“Native seeds are not magical. They should be paired by comprehensive agro-ecological practices to achieve sustainable use: use of water, soil, community organization. The people should have the autonomy and sovereignty to organize themselves in order to defend their productive systems as learned from their ancestors,” Vásquez said.

Biodiversity protection
Erick Barrera, coordinator of the “Rescue, Storage and Multiplication of Native Seeds” project of the Dennis Ernesto González Foundation, highlights the approval of 11 municipal ordinances “for the protection and promotion of biodiversity, native and domesticated foreign seeds and declaring Territories Free of Transgenic Species” and nine other municipal ordinances now in the approval process as some achievements obtained by the Seeds of Identity Alliance.   Another achievements are that the 50 percent of the seed banks are maintained and managed by women producers; there is allocation of municipal budgets in the municipalities for the purchase and promotion of native seeds and domesticated foreign seeds to be delivered to their target population; and more than 35,000 farming families, who are producers of native seeds, are members of organizations in the Alliance.

On the subject of research, the organizations in the Alliance emphasize: the promotion of plant breeding plots of native bean and maize seeds to adapt them to climate changes, agreements with state universities, conducting nationwide marches demanding compliance with the legal framework for the no introduction of transgenic seeds, and lobbying for the regulation of Law 807.

The no-burning practice for crops by 90 percent nationally and the positive assessment made by the current government regarding the use of native seeds, are also considered achievements for the Alliance.

Among the challenges the Alliance face are: specialization by products (maize, beans, sorghum, rice, among others) provided to producers of native and neo-native seeds, the creation of networks of seed banks nationwide, establishing modalities of trading and price for native seeds, the regulation of Law 807, work on the reduction and/or elimination of chemicals for the production of native and domesticated foreign seeds. Since to date, 40 percent of the inputs used in their production are still agrochemicals, according to field specialists of the Alliance organizations.

They also face the campaigns of large companies that are organized in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), with regard to the statement they have recently made, related to the El Niño phenomenon, that “transgenic seed is the solution for climate change”, and the looming threat of the approval of the Seeds Law that could allow the entry of transgenic seeds into the only country in Central America where their use for growing food for human consumption, is prohibited.

But the most pressing challenge is the lack of awareness of the general population who does not see the importance of buying and consuming organic products in a country where small farmers have spent more than three decades betting on agro-ecological production of the main food items of the Nicaraguan diet: corn and beans.

“We have an outstanding debt with the population as we have not sensitized it on the benefits of consuming organic products to benefit their health and to contribute to the process of stimulation of farmers producing organically,” reflects Vásquez. —Latinamerica Press.


Mayra Flores, an agro-ecological producer, owns a native seed bank in the community of Samulalí, San Ramón, Matagalpa. /Carmen Herrera
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