Thousands of peasant farmers gathered in the main plaza in Hinche, a city in Haiti’s Central Plateau, on June 4 to protest a donation of about 476 metric tons of hybrid seeds from the Monsanto Company, a US-based biotechnology multinational that produces genetically modified organisms (GMO). Agriculture Minister Joanas Gué admitted on May 12 that the government was accepting Monsanto’s offer, supposedly intended to help the country recover from a devastating Jan. 12 earthquake. The seeds are not GMO, but critics say they are still a “poisoned present.“
The June 4 protest started with a 7-kilometer march—accompanied by Haitian instruments such as bamboo flutes and conch shell horns—from the nearby town of Papaye to Hinche’s Charlemagne Péralte plaza, named for the Hinche-born leader of an armed movement against the 1915-1934 US occupation of Haiti. The organizers burned a small quantity of hybrid corn seeds and then distributed “Creole corn” seeds (from locally produced corn) to the protesters, many of whom wore red shirts and straw hats with such slogans as “Down with Monsanto” and “Down with [Haitian president René] Préval.”
According to Kettly Alexandre of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), the protest’s main sponsor, 8,000 to 12,000 people joined the march; some organizers gave the number as 20,000. Other groups participating in the protest included Tèt Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (“Small Haitian Peasants Unity”), the Haitian Platform Advocating an Alternative Development (PAPDA) and Action SOS Haïti. There were also campesino groups from Brazil and the Dominican Republic that like the MPP are affiliated with the international Vía Campesina movement. (AlterPresse, Haiti, June 4; Radio Métropole, Haiti, June 5; EFE, June 5; Rebelión, Spain, June 6)
MPP coordinator Chavannes Jean-Baptiste has compared the hybrid seeds’ potential effect on Haitian agriculture to the January earthquake. Critics of Monsanto point to possible health risks because the hybrid corn seeds are treated with the fungicide Maxim XO and the calypso tomato seeds are treated with thiram, a toxic chemical. But the main complaint from Haitian farmers is that they would need to buy the hybrid seeds from Monsanto each year; many see the donation—which is being distributed in part by the US Agency for International Development (USAID)—as an effort to increase Haitian dependency on expensive seeds from abroad.
On June 1 Monsanto spokesperson Darren Wallis denied any ulterior motives in the donation, which the corporation says is worth about $4 million: “We do not have a commercial corn business in Haiti.” “[T]he ones hurt by the action [of burning Monsanto seeds] will be Haitian farmers and the Haitian people, not those watching on the sidelines,” Wallis said, just three days before the massive protest in Hinche.
Dina Brick, technical adviser for food security at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), told the Catholic News Service (CNS) that farmers and seed suppliers said local seed supplies were sufficient. But many peasants were low on cash because of economic and social dislocations after the earthquake, she said, and had to cut back on their purchases of local seeds. (Huffington Post, May 17; CNS, June 1)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, June 6.
See our last post on Haiti.