Bolivia grapples with “food sovereignty” —and food crisis

In a June 21 ceremony designed as part of the Aymara New Year festivities, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales signed a new law designed to move the Andean nation toward food sovereignty by encouraging small-scale agriculture and the stockpiling of basic grains. The Law for the Productive Communitarian and Farming Revolution (RPCA) is aimed at guaranteeing the right to food to all Bolivians and improving conditions for the campesino sector. “This law is historic, because for the first time it has been developed from below to above with the social organizations, such as the Bartolina Sisa women, CONAMAQ, the CSUTCB, with the legislative and executive organs,” said Viceminister of Rural Development Víctor Hugo Vásquez.

The law calls for $500 million a year to be invested over the course of 10 years for irrigation projects, mechanization of small farms, a national silo system for stockpiling grains, and creation of a state seed bank to restore, preserve and catalogue Bolivia’s indigenous crop varieties. It also instates a special program, dubbed Pachamama for the indigenous Andean earth goddess, designed to help small farms deal with the impacts of climate change in the Andean region, such as droughts, wildfires, floods, snow and pests.

All of these impacts have hit Bolivian farmers hard over the past year, resulting in shortages of basic foods. February saw a wave of angry protests over rising food prices and sugar shortages across Bolivia, prompting the government to import sugar to meet internal demand. But large producers, especially in the eastern Santa Cruz region, also blamed government restrictions demanding that basic foodstuffs be sold within Bolivia. “We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers, told the AP. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.” He said sunflower crops rotted in the fields because farmers could neither sell locally nor get export licenses from an inefficient bureaucracy.

Countered Rural Development Minister Nemecia Achacollo: “The government is like a mother who has to look out for all her children. It’s not acceptable for [food] to be exported while leaving shortages in the domestic market.”

However, harsh criticisms of the new food law have also come from popular and campesino organizations—including some of those invoked as having helped craft it, such as the National Council of Ayllus and Markas of Cullasuyu (CONAMAQ) and the Single Campesino Union Confederation of Bolivia (CSUTCB). One provision of the law, added by the Morales administration to appease big farmers who traditionally support the opposition, is a lifting of the ban on GMO seeds. The law keeps in place bans on crops indigenous to Bolivia, such as potatoes, corn and quinoa, but allows introduction of GMO varieties for non-native crops such as soy, tomato and sugar cane, which are mostly cultivated in the lowland Santa Cruz region. The compromise prompted the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE) to ask if “Evo is a defender of the Pachamama or servant of Monsanto?” (Bloomberg, June 26; ABI, June 25; SENA-Fobomade, June 26; SENA-Fobomade, June 20; AP, June 19)

The move comes just one year after Morales announced a five-year program to completely eliminate GMO crops from the national territory. (Americas Program Biodiversity Report, June 2010)

See our last posts on Bolivia, the climate crisis and peak food.

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