New Internationalist

Sri Lankan farmers resist new seed law

Rice farmers in Sri Lanka [Related Image]
More than 70% of Sri Lankans are engaged in some sort of farming. Shehal Joseph under a Creative Commons Licence

Grassroots farmers’ organizations in Sri Lanka have joined forces with environmental activists, scientists and other concerned citizens to mobilize against a new Seed Act which they say will undermine farmers’ rights and threaten biodiversity. The draft ‘Seed and Planting Material Act’ under consideration by the government will, campaigners say, benefit the seed industry, controlled by big transnational corporations, at the expense of the country’s small-scale farmers who are the mainstay of the rural economy.

The new law will require, among other things, the compulsory registration of farmers and certification of all seed and planting material in Sri Lanka by a Seed Certification Service to be run by the Department of Agriculture. A ‘Director in Charge’ will exercise the exclusive right to certify seed and planting material, with the department maintaining and publishing a list of producers and suppliers of certified seed and planting materials. The draconian new law provides for officials to raid farmers’ premises to enforce compliance. It says that no person shall ‘import, export, sell, offer to sell, dispose in any manner or supply or exchange with commercial intention seed and planting materials except in accordance with the provisions of this Act’.

Among those worried about the new law is Sarath Fernando, adviser and founding member of MONLAR (the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform) and a longtime farmers’ rights activist. ‘The [proposed] law should be repealed,’ he says. ‘This kind of legislation is being pushed all over the world. It is an international plan, beneficial to big seed companies in taking control.’ Some of the transnational seed companies have agents in Sri Lanka, and promoting genetically modified seeds is part of their plan. ‘In Sri Lanka, there is a bid to promote a processed, hybrid type of seed called “Golden Rice”, to get rid of the nutritious, indigenous rice varieties,’ Fernando explains.  

Although the law is couched in terms that suggest it will ‘safeguard and conserve the genetic resources of indigenous seed and planting materials’, environmentalists believe it will do just the opposite. This is because the practices of monoculture and uniformity favoured by the big seed companies help to destroy biodiversity. Vandana Shiva, an internationally renowned Indian environmental activist, physicist and author, has drawn attention to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s finding that ‘more than 75 per cent of diversity in agriculture has been destroyed due to the spread of industrial monocultures’.

Vandana Shiva has critiqued the Sri Lankan draft Seed Act, at MONLAR’s request. She points out that the Technical and Advisory Committee to be set up under the Act has no representative from the farming community, nor any biodiversity expert to ensure the conservation of genetic diversity. However, it does have a genetic engineer, who, Shiva believes, should have ‘no role in a Seed Law’.

The new law also calls for the setting up of a Seed and Planting Material Advisory Council that will ‘co-ordinate with public sector agencies in working towards the development of the private sector seed and planting material industry’. Shiva says: ‘Private -public partnerships mean public subsidies for private profits. The public system will provide genetic material, research, extension. The private sector will take the intellectual property rights and walk away with super profits.’ She argues that farmers should be exempted from all restrictions placed on commercial entities and the seed industry.

Fernando says that MONLAR’s position on the proposed Seed Act is in line with that of Navdanya, an environmental organization which focuses on biodiversity conservation, and of which Shiva is a founding member. A recent Navdanya publication titled The Law of the Seed says the dominant legislation today relating to seed violates democratic processes. ‘An arsenal of legal instruments is steadily being invented and imposed that criminalize age-old farmers’ seed breeding, seed saving and seed sharing. And this arsenal is being shaped by the handful of corporations who first introduced toxic chemicals into agriculture, and are now controlling the seed through genetic engineering and patents.’

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