The protests and downright political fiasco that surrounded the proposed Ley para la Protección de Obtenciones Vegetales (more widely known as the Ley Monsanto) was one of those all too common moments in Guatemalan politics where you weren’t sure whether to celebrate, laugh, cry or do a double facepalm. Or perhaps do them all together at the same time.
So what was all the fuss about? Well, let’s start with the law itself. Its most controversial elements related to the proposal to make possessing, exchanging or even saving seeds patented by international agribusinesses a criminal offence punishable by fines of up to $1,300 (yes, that’s dollars) and prison sentences of up to 4 years (yes, that’s years). These penalties would also apply to hybrid seeds that had been crossed with a protected variety, even unintentionally, so campesinos would find themselves at risk of being prosecuted if their unprotected seeds cross-pollinated with the patented seeds of nearby farms.
Given that a whopping 27% of the entire global seed market is controlled by one company, it’s not too difficult to see why the law was quickly named after Monsanto, a company whose malicious corporate practices around the globe make The Umbrella Corporation look about as harmless as Ben & Jerry’s in comparison.
Knowing full-well that the Guatemalan population would be outraged at the passing of such a law, Guatemalan politicians elected for a political trick that dates back about as far as democracy itself: if you know that a law is going to be unpopular, make sure you slip it by at such a point in time when your population is partying too hard to pay attention. And so the law was passed in mid-June this year: coinciding perfectly with the raucous World Cup celebrations that rocked the country. Sometimes you really do just have to stand in admiration of Guatemala’s politicians for their Machiavellian deviousness. If only they could apply such ingenious strategizing to actually running the country.
So when Guatemalans finally sobered up after the World Cup, they found themselves faced with the very real prospect of seeing what was soon to be dubbed the Ley Monsanto coming into effect within a matter of months. Fortunately, the country’s indigenous leaders were quick to spring to action: launching both a legal challenge to the law in the Constitutional Court, Guatemala’s highest legal body, on the grounds that the law would harm the country and organizing mass-protests and road-blocks across the country.
News of the law’s implications were quick to spread like wildfire across the population and soon La Ley Monsanto was on everyone’s outraged lips. The ensuing protests were so widespread and filled with such anger that it wasn’t long before the politicians were beginning to question whether their “yes” votes were a good idea, especially after the names and photos of all of the congressman who voted in favour of the law started doing the rounds.
Soon, politicians left, right and centre were backtracking on their original “yes” vote, providing all sorts of excuses for their folly, including (the best one we heard) that they only voted in favour of the law because they didn’t bother to read its contents. Apparently, if they had actually read it they would never have voted for it. Yes, some actually said that.
In the meantime the legal challenge scored a big win when the constitutional court provisionally suspended the law and called for it to be re-debated. Now under pressure from all sectors of society, the Guatemalan congress seized upon the opportunity to save what face they had left and voted to repeal the legislation. And then proceeded to claim that the protests had no influence whatsoever on their decision. You just couldn’t make it up.
So the next time that your skeptical parents or grandparents tell you that protests never achieve anything and that you’re just being an idealist hippie by getting involved, tell them that in 2014 indigenous campesinos in Guatemala stuck two middle fingers up to one of the most powerful transnational corporations in the world. And won.