After graduating from high school, Melissa started an undergraduate programme in Biology at the University of Antioquia, but after five semesters she decided to take a break in order to commit herself to community work in rural areas. This decision led her to join rural agroecology school programmes and organisations such as Manada Libre, the Corporación para la Investigación y el Eco-desarrollo Regional (CIER) and the Corporación Penca de Sábila.
For the past three years, Melissa has been providing technical support to peasant families producing agroecological food through the Colombian Network of Organic Agriculture (RECAB) and is the coordinator of the Community House of native and creole seeds of Antioquia of the Network of Free Seeds of Antioquia. She is also a member of international advocacy movements and organisations, such as the Agroecological Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean (MAELA), the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (Comité Internacional de Planificación para la Soberanía Alimentaria).
What is the seed problem in Colombia today?
The issue of seeds is closely linked to land problems. Peasants have been uprooted from their land, their knowledge, their know-how and their practices.
Agribusiness has been taking over large tracts of land, because the power brokers have been deciding for several decades that the big agribusiness corporations should be in charge of the production and marketing of our food.
It is a real chess game. For example, by not taking care of territorial development (roads, education, water, sewage, etc.), governments impede the normal functioning of the peasants’ work, forcing them to sell their land to large corporations. This undoubtedly accelerates the process of privatisation of the country’s natural resources. The truth is that in Colombia, as in many parts of the world, an accelerated violation of our rights to food and adequate nutrition is taking place.
Let us remember that in the 1970s, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) launched the so-called “Green Revolution” (1), with the aim of reducing hunger in the world. This programme is accompanied by a series of recommendations that are harmful to traditional small-scale agriculture, such as the adoption of complex technologies, the privileging of monocultures, the use of fertilisers, pesticides, fungicides and new techniques for storage and conservation.
This naturally opens the door to agribusiness, which rubs its hands together and begins a process of accelerated expansion, which ends up invading the distribution networks with its ultra-processed food products. As always, people in rural areas are the most affected by this change of model, as the quality of their food deteriorates.
The benefits sought by this process are not only economic, but also of power. The installation of structures of domination is privileged in various aspects: seeds, land work, food, health, access to capital, mining and material exploitation, etc.
How did the Seed Network come about?
The Seed Network was born out of a need to see how agribusiness is destroying the biodiversity of Colombia and the planet. From seeing how agribusiness is homogenising our behaviour, our relationship with other people and with the land; how corporations are taking over our entire food system.
With the loss of a seed, not only are some essential products of the basic food basket being lost, but also our traditional systems and the entire natural chain are affected: insects, diversity of native species, some even inedible, that help us with the balance of ecosystems.
When agribusiness arrives arguing that if you want to produce on a larger scale, you have to use certain techniques or inputs, they are breaking and violating environmental and social fabrics that communities have been building for decades, even centuries.
Who are the custodians of seeds?
They are guardians of the land, of the water, of their territory. With seeds come knowledge, a whole tradition, not only at the gastronomic level, but also at the cultural, soil management and conservation levels. They are leaders within their communities, who are responsible not only for producing seeds, but also for protecting a wide range of genetics of a species. For example, 20 or 50 varieties of the same species. These custodians also play an important role in their communities, informing and spreading the word, generating reflection, participating in peasant spaces (fairs, community actions, etc.).
The custodians are peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Colombian population, fishermen, shepherds, people who, within these spaces, want to defend their territories and nurture deep reflections.
Who is part of the Seed Network and how can they access it?
As it is such a broad space, the Seed Network is not only open to individuals or families who are custodians of seeds. It is also open to organisations that are carrying out territorial work in different areas of water protection or territorial advocacy, as well as university research groups. In general terms, they enter under a mission, from their work: seed production, communication, education, production, political advocacy, from the market or the circulation of seeds.
Despite being a voluntary membership, the seed custodians, thanks to their knowledge of their territories, identify and analyse potential agents within their communities, who can be integrated. For example, if a person is growing beans in a village in Guarne (Antioquia) and already has 3 varieties, we can involve them; perhaps they can develop other varieties, thanks to the Network’s knowledge. Finally, over time, people either stay or leave on a voluntary basis, because this is a job, a task that requires commitment.
The Community Seed House is also part of the peasant and family economies because when it is proposed to a producer that, by cultivating beans, he can keep a certain number of varieties, they will also circulate through a Seed House, in order to obtain a harvest of beans that will be bought, which represents a great opportunity for them.
The majority of seed custodians are women as a direct consequence of what has been happening in Colombia in recent decades, as the men have been recruited to make war, to do the hard work, and the women are the ones who have been in charge of feeding their families and conserving the greatest variety of seeds. It is worth noting that the care, curation and selection of seeds is much more rigorous on the part of women.
How is the quality of a seed validated?
In the Seed Network, we have an instrument to control the quality of native and creole seeds, called the Participatory Guarantee System (SPG). Its construction was the result of participatory and rigorous work, which allows us to guarantee that our country’s native and creole seeds meet high quality standards.
The PGS also responds to the fact that the certification model promoted by the state does not consider the production of seeds by peasants, much less the production of agroecological seeds. The system is governed by a complete protocol, with which we evaluate the following five criteria in each of the seed custodian farms:
1. That the seed be native and native;
2. The seed must be open pollinated, that is to say, it must be able to reproduce many times;
3. That it is a NON transgenic seed. We verify this with a test called Inmunstrip;
4. That it is a seed that is accompanied by a Community Seed House and by a promoter of the Network;
5. That the seed responds favourably to physical, physiological and sanitary quality tests (humidity, germination, pathogens, etc.). This guarantees that the seeds coming from the field do not go to other places with any virus or bacteria that could affect production and affect the quality of the seed.
For the commercialisation of seeds in Colombia, it is already a requirement on our part that they go through this quality system.
These parameters are analysed once a year during a field visit by an auditor, who takes advantage of his visit to the farm to analyse other factors on the farms, such as composting, the absence of risk of crossbreeding by transgenics or contamination by pesticides, or fertilisers.
How does the state intervene in the work of the Seed Network?
State intervention is mainly exercised through the creation of rules and regulations on the production and distribution of seeds. For example, Resolution 970 (2), which sought to regulate the production, use and commercialisation of seeds in Colombia, was repealed thanks to the advocacy and pressure exerted by the social movement. This was replaced by Resolution 3168 of 2015, and although it was transformed, it continues to affect a large number of farmers.
The state considers that criollo and native seeds do not have the necessary quality standards to be marketed, as we do not have certification from the Colombian Agricultural Institute (ICA). Therefore, we cannot sell in agricultural shops, which prevents us from having a major impact on the territory. Despite this, we are able to circulate seeds, not because they allow us to do so, but because the communities continue to fight for this right.
Fortunately, on 29 December 2017, Resolution 464 on family, peasant and community agriculture was born in Colombia. This recognises in one of its guidelines (3) the farmer’s seeds, the recognition of the Community Seed Houses, the recognition of participatory systems of guarantees, that is to say, of the quality of native and creole seeds in Colombia. Thanks to this resolution, we can continue to circulate our seeds.
What do you think of the work of national education in rural areas?
I think that national education should adapt its pedagogy and programmes to the needs of rural life. It is essential to promote community development, territorial development or family farming. Rural life has its own dynamic, which has largely been created in the face of state neglect. The people in the villages have learned to structure themselves. They have a common sense, an ownership of what happens in their communities. Therefore, they organise themselves in “convites” (parties with food and drink) to till the land, harvest the crops, build roads, houses or guarantee water supplies.
Seeds of resistance
For the government, the peasantry is seen only in terms of production and with a technified vision of it. Machinery, pesticides, herbicides. And if they do not meet these standards, the communities are forced to evict and dispossess them. On the other hand, through education, peasants must prepare themselves for life in the city, because they say that this is where the future lies.
There are people who think that rural people are ignorant, that they lack knowledge and do not know how to express their ideas. In terms of form it may seem that way, because many of them have been victims of the structural shortcomings of the system that has not given them access to formal education, but deep down, they have very deep knowledge about their territories and their communities.
Could you propose a conclusion to our conversation?
I can conclude by saying that a group of passionate and committed organisations and human beings have been carrying out a serious and structured mission to preserve not only biodiversity, but also the quality, variety and autonomy of our food.
We are achieving this thanks to the protection of our native and creole seeds, and the preservation of the knowledge of the peasants, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, fishermen and shepherds of our country.
(1) About the Green Revolution.
Source Wikipedia: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revoluci%C3%B3n_verde
“The adoption of a series of practices and technologies, including the planting of cereal varieties (mainly wheat, maize and rice) more resistant to extreme climates and pests, new cultivation methods (including mechanisation), as well as the use of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation, which made it possible to achieve high productive yields”.
“The green revolution was highly successful in increasing yields, but not enough emphasis was placed on nutritional quality, resulting in the spread of low-quality protein and high-carbohydrate cereal varieties. These high-yielding cereal crops, now widespread and predominant worldwide, are deficient in essential amino acids and unbalanced in essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and other nutritional quality factors”.
(2) ICA Resolution 970 of 2010.
Source: ICA – Instituto Colombiano Agropecuario (Colombian Agricultural Institute)
Law 970 allows farmers to save part of their own harvest for use as seed for future planting, as long as (i) the farmer is a farmer with a maximum extension of 5 hectares (i.e. a small farmer); (ii) the seed comes from a harvest in which legal seed has been used; and (iii) it is used only for own consumption, not for commercialisation. This again means that everyone is obliged to use certified seed and that the reserve is a privilege of small farmers only and under strict conditions.
(3) Resolution 46 of 29 December 2017.