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English Report

With the passing of his first months in office, we have already realized that President Lula will be less sensitive to grassroots demands than he had promised. If on the one hand, the nomination of Senator Marina Silva for the Ministry of the Environment appeared to be a gesture which reaffirmed the commitment to the environmental movement, the nomination of Roberto Rodrigues for the Ministry of Agriculture represented a clear signal that agricultural policy was turning toward the right.

Campaign for a GMO-free Brazil

Flavia Londres*

At the end of 2002, Lula had just won the presidential election. We were living in a society full of hope for the implementation of new, more advanced, and responsible policies for the country in all areas: environment, economy, health, education, human rights, etc.

In the case of transgenics (or genetically-modified organisms, GMOs), the people were truly confident because Lula had promised that, if elected, he would maintain the moratorium on these products until all the necessary studies were done on their impact. Lula also demonstrated his sensitivity to the economic repercussions and was inclined to bring them to bear on his policy-making. These "promises" appeared in at least six guidelines for governmental policy - the Notebook on "Environment and Quality of Life, pp. 12 and 28, the Notebook on "Dignified Life in the Field", p. 22, and the Notebook "Zero Hunger", pp. 50, 87, and 92.

We had just overcome eight years of a neo-liberal policy which, on these issues, resulted in an intense battle between the federal government and civil society, the latter succeeding at great cost to block the entrance of transgenic seeds into Brazilian agriculture, despite the insensitivity of the government.

The three basic weapons used by the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso were first of all, the attempt to introduce transgenic products into the country quickly and discretely, through authoritarian acts (considered illegal) of the CTNBio (National Technical Commission of Biosecurity/Ministry of Science and Technology).

Secondly, after the suspension by the Federal Court of the release of transgenic soy conceded by the CTNBio in 1998, the Union, together with Monsanto (multinational which dominates the worldwide transgenic seed market and tries even today, to release transgenics in Brasil), initiated a series of appeals. (Note that the Court determined that impact studies should be done before the release. The government and Monsanto would prefer to try to dismiss the need for such studies.)

And the third action - that which left more disastrous consequences - was the failure to execute any type of control over the illegal market in transgenic seeds, to monitor the illegal planting or sale of them, or to provide any type of educational or informative activity for the population (either for farmers or consumers).

Lula began the year 2003 with a "cursed inheritance" (as it ended up being called) represented, above all, by the soy harvest in Rio Grande do Sul, to be gathered at the beginning of March, which was in large part contaminated by transgenic grains. But another part of the "cursed inheritance" was an already existing judicial-legal struggle, a completely corrupted CTN Bio, the majority of whose members had mandates to follow, and agricultural organizations in the South seduced by the propaganda of Monsanto and disposed to challenge the government against any attempt at control which it attempted to impose.

At the end of 2002, all the organizations involved with the issue were already aware of the problem which came from the soy harvest in Rio Grande do Sul and they began to try, by any means, to meet with Lula and his ministers with the intention of discussing this and proposing solutions. None of their requests were responded to.

With the passing of the first months of the new government, we already understand that President Lula would be less sensitive to grassroots appeals than what he had promised. If on the one hand the nomination of Senator Marina Silva for Minister of the Environment appeared to be a gesture of compromise with the historic causes of the left and the environmental movement, the nomination of Roberto Rodrigues for Minister of Agriculture represented a clear signal that the agrarian policy of Brazil was turning to the right. Besides being an important opinion maker in the agro-business sector of the country, turned to the neoliberal model of large-scale corporate farming directed toward exports, Rodrigues was also a declared defender of the introduction of genetically-modified seeds into Brazil. At that moment it was already clear that Rodrigues was influencing the government more than Marina Silva was.

Restructuring of the Campaign

Until then, the majority of what had been done in the name of the Campaign for a Brazil Free From Transgenics came from a small, very active group of NGOs at the national level, but with little ingress into other organizations. Various initiatives had been taken in the sense of expanding the Campaign to involve the large popular movements of the country, in addition to a number of union organizations, NGOs, consumers, professors, etc. but all with little effect. Other organizations also performed important activities of the Campaign against the releasing of transgenics, but without a broad-reaching coalition.

With the goal of joining forces, increasing representation, and consequently taking their voices together to the new government, a broad-based, multi-voiced, large national coalition was proposed. It would be critical about the precipitated introduction of transgenics into the country and disposed to dialogue, propose solutions and participate in governmental decisions on the theme. From this perspective, The International Seminar "The Threat of Transgenics - Proposals of Civil Society" was organized in Brasilia in the middle of March.

During that time, we still did not have the opportunity to be received by those already evidently representing the "hard core" of federal government (who effectively decide the course of policy) and we already knew that a Provisionary Measure authorizing the commercialization of transgenic soy for 2002/2003 was in the works. We used all our resources and possibilities for influence to show the government the risks that were implicated in this measure, also without success.

The Seminar of Brasilia brought together 85 groups and ended up with a "Notebook" of detailed proposals on five issues - the fate of the soy harvest; legislation on transgenics in agriculture; the composition and attributes of CTNBio; action proposals for ANVISA (National Agency of Sanitary Protection/Ministry of Health); and Biotechnological Research. The only State Ministry which we succeeded in attracting for the meeting in order to receive the proposals of organized civil society was Marina Silva, of the Ministry of the Environment.

Provisional Measures

A few days after the seminar, Provisional Measure 113 was published, authorizing the commercial use of transgenic soy in the internal and external markets.

From the point of view of civil society, if on the one hand we did not succeed in blocking the publication of the Provisional Measure in an authoritative way, nor participate to the same degree, (violating judicial decisions in force), the strength of the Campaign was that the movement grew vigorously. The name of Campaign for a Transgenic-Free Brazil came to be a large umbrella, sheltering an enormous number of groups, NGOs and social movements, joined in a network and ready to assume the struggle against transgenics as a top priority.

We were facing the legislative process for Provisional Measure 113 in Congress with much more strength than we had during the Cardoso years. We held large meetings to define the strategy of action and programming of activities (at the national as well as regional level). We lobbied in a more organized and representative way and did a better job in occupying the diverse spaces available for influencing the government and providing information and consciousness-raising for the general public.

Unfortunately, during the following months we saw the consolidation of the way in which the government of Lula would carry on politics - only slightly transparent and authoritarian, reducing the site of decision-making to the famous "hard core" - worse, highly sensitive to the demands of the right-wing sectors.

Provisional Measure 113 passing Congress represented a great risk of creating a federal law that would open the country to transgenics in a broad and deregulated way. And in order to pass it in the Chamber of Deputies without major modifications, the government made an agreement with the congressional bloc from the rural areas of the country (which maintains an enormous power in Congress), committing itself to send to Congress, in the shortest possible time, a bill that would definitively regulate the question of transgenics in Brazil.

It is obvious that the country already had "definitive" legislation on transgenics, based upon Law 8.974, a Biosecurity Law, sanctioned in 1995. And if the case of releasing transgenics was stopped in the courts, it was not for the lack of a law but for a lack of compliance with the existing law.

The groups in the Campaign joined together more than ever in order to try to participate in the legislative process. Above all, everything was done so that the process might be open to participation by the people. Up to the time at which this article was written, the bill has not been presented and its contents are unknown. But at least, though largely symbolic, the government opened a space for society to give its opinion.

At the same time as the new legislation was being proposed, the federal government, notably the Ministry of Agriculture, failed to take any type of control over the sale of the soy crop from Rio Grande do Sul. It had the right to control the segregation of the transgenic crop, to supervise the labeling of the parcel of land where the crop was planted, to inform the workers and create conditions so that nearby plantings might remain free of transgenic seeds, and thus guarantee the supply of conventional seed in sufficient quantity.

The federal government, which at the beginning of the year justified its provisional measure through the "cursed inheritance" of the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso that did not supervise agriculture in previous years, assumed the shameful and inexplicable attitude of repeating the same behavior - to solemnly fail to do anything.

If the bill proposed by the government took a long time to be concluded and brought to Congress - certainly thanks to the pressure applied by the members of the Campaign and committed representatives of the Workers Party - the farmers in Rio Grande do Sul, determined to continue planning transgenic seeds (deluded by excellent results in the harvest of 2002/2003, owing to favorable climate which benefited all plantings, transgenic or not, and in this way lessened the difficulty of the work), began a movement for a new edition of the provisionary law, authorizing the planting of transgenic seeds in the harvest of 2003/04.

That which at the beginning seemed highly improbable, because it would throw cold water on all the hopes of the anti-transgenic movement regarding the creation of a new serious and responsive legislation, ended up being decided in the most shocking way possible.

At the end of September, Lula called the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Germano Rigotto (the current leader of the pro-release groups in the state) without previous notice, thus bypassing the processes and authority consolidated by his own government. He also contacted the executive secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, three congressmen from the Workers Party and one from the PMDB (Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro, or Brazilian Democratic Movement Party) , all of whom favored the release of transgenic seeds, so that in the afternoon they could define and sign a bill authorizing the release of the 2003/04 harvest. This only failed to come to pass thanks to the determined intervention of Minister Marina Silva, who knowing of the meeting through the press, hurried to intervene.

Lula went to the US the next day, leaving his vice president, José Alencar, with the responsibility for signing the infamous measure. Never had the country seen such popular mobilization around the issue than we saw during that week.

Surprised, Alencar wavered in assuming responsibility for signing the measure. As soon as that fact became public knowledge, he was alerted by various judicial groups as to the illegal and almost unconstitutional aspects of the provisionary measure. At the same time, we were gaining prominence in the press (we made headlines in the major newspapers of the country and were prominently featured in television reports during this time) and began, finally, bring to light the motives of those who are against the freeing of transgenics.

Finally, after a period of several days, Provisional Measure 131 was signed by José Alencar, but at the political cost of the government looking irresponsible in that it does not know how to run its administration.

We have a formidable task with the releasing of the planting of the 2003/04 harvest but our actions have gained a greater dimension than we had foreseen. We gained political strength, challenged the government and succeeded in communicating to the general public the motives behind our actions.

Today, the government is sending mixed messages as to the near future. On one hand, rather apprehensively, Lula promised Marina Silva that the bill, to be announced shortly, would be in agreement with the environmental, social and health concerns that she raised. On the other hand, with an almost provocative attitude, he ended up naming the Deputy from the Workers Party, Paulo Pimenta, who is one of the main spokesmen for the pro-transgenic movement, as the person who would carry Provisional Measure 131 in Congress.

This bill actually represents the only clearly defined hope for responsible legislation guaranteeing that the risks of transgenics will be evaluated, and that their economic and social relevance will be examined before any commercial release. Our challenge in the short run will be to stop Provisional Measure131 from becoming worse while it is moving through Congress or before it is transformed into a federal law allowing the freeing of these products. Also, we need to guarantee that the bill that the government will present corresponds to our expectations and that it can be legislated without making it worse. If we can accomplish this, Measure 131 would have been a temporary defeat followed by a permanent victory.

Future Scenarios

But what will happen next is difficult to predict. We have today a movement that is much stronger and organized than it was a year ago and a government, that although it has frustrated all of the hopes for seriousness and caution among the organizations that are involved with the issue, is beginning to give signs that it perceives that the liberation of transgenics in a deregulated manner could cost much more than they are prepared to pay. The political price would be high. We now need to broaden and strengthen our efforts and strengthen the movement beyond what we have already done and fight for the government to agree, before it's too late.

* Flavia Londres is an agronomist and works with the Assistance and Service for Alternative Agricultural Projects (AS-PTA - Assessoria e Serviços a Projetos em Agricultura Alternativa) and with the Campaign for a Brazil free from Transgenics.