Seed caretakers: The struggle to be able to reproduce them freely

Thousands of peasants in Chile resist the idea of buying them, handing them over to research and cultivating them under the parameters of agro-industry. They believe that the secret of good food is in seeds that can reproduce freely, that adapt to the territories, that generate an enormous range of colors, flavors, shapes and sizes and that are grown without artificial fertilizers, pesticides or chemicals. From south to north, seed keepers, mostly women, try to preserve their varieties, reproduce them and expand them so that they do not disappear with the advances of biotechnology. These are their stories.

A handful of seeds were given to Hortensia Lemus (55) 10 years ago in an exchange of products between families in the Tatara Valley, in the province of Huasco. Among those there was a different one, which at first sight looked like a pumpkin. Hortensia planted it next to an olive tree and a weak, not very leafy and nothing special, began to emerge from the soil. A fruit, which still looked like a pumpkin, grew on one of its branches with rabbit bites.

So that it would not rot, he harvested it and opened it with scientific curiosity. "It was small, lemon green on the outside and pink on the inside, with small seeds. I tasted it and it was sweet, sweet. It was a watermelon! Exquisite. I had never seen one like it", he remembers. He separated and cleaned the seeds and together with the organization Biodiversidad Alimentaria, which brings together researchers and farmers to recover and conserve traditional seeds from Chile's indigenous and peasant communities, he began to reproduce them. The pigskin watermelon, as it is called in the area, was almost extinct, and thanks to this rescue, it is now in the peasant gardens of Huasco.

In the last decade, Hortensia has dedicated herself to visiting house by house the oldest farmers of the valley in search of those almost extinct and forgotten specimens. Varieties of tomatoes such as the tench, small, yellow, with an intense flavor, which used to grow wild in the hills; the purple beans; the colpe bean, named after the creek where it grows; the peas with big ears; the sandilleja, a watermelon weighing more than 20 kilos, or the citron, a citrus fruit shaped like an octopus, are reproduced in order to preserve their seeds and classify them in the Biodiversity Food Seed House in the Tatara Valley. More than 1000 varieties, preserved in jars and pumpkin containers, fill their shelves for small farmers to use. Once they harvest, they must return 20% of their seed production to Hortensia, who is responsible for delivery. The idea is to secure a commitment with no money involved.

Hundreds of farmers are thus able to freely obtain diverse and traditional seeds, which they can continue to reproduce in their fields without having to buy them back. Although it seems normal, this practice is outside the frameworks established by UPOV 91, an agreement that the state ratified in 2011 and whose acronym refers to the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants. The agreement clarifies that companies that invest money in development and technology to improve seeds have intellectual property rights over them and that those who want to use them must pay every time they sow them, because in addition, when they are modified, they do not allow their natural reproduction. The possibility was opened for companies to register unknown local and ancestral varieties in the market as their own, as long as they improved them, and the industrialization and sale of genetically modified seeds, including transgenic seeds, grew in Chile. The field was filled with them. Thousands of farmers in Chile resist the idea of buying them, giving them to research and growing them under the parameters of agro-industry. They believe that the secret of good food is in free seeds that are grown without artificial or pesticides.

"I don't buy anything that I don't produce here at home or that I don't know where it comes from. A cauliflower from the supermarket in three months is ready to be eaten. In my garden, however, that cauliflower in three months is just a small plant. A vegetable that speeds up its growth cannot be rich or healthy," says Patricia Miranda (56), who together with her son Jaime Aránguiz are promoters of organic agriculture in Paine and caretakers of more than eight varieties of corn, such as purple corn, white corn, camellia corn, curahua corn, choclero, diente de caballo and ocho corridas.

Patricia's parents taught her to cultivate the land the old-fashioned way and to select and save the best seeds for the next sowing. Today she and her son do the same in a small wooden house: in jars far from the heat and humidity, with ashes, garlic, thyme, laurel or quillay to keep them free of pests, they take care of 270 varieties from almost all regions of Chile and barter or borrow with other farmers.

Near Patricia's land, Monsanto and Bayer's corn, soybean and canola seed factory is operating, generating genetically modified seeds for export. In recent years, Chile has become the largest exporter of seeds in the southern hemisphere and one fifth of these are transgenic. According to figures from Chile Sustentable, Chile currently sows around 10 thousand hectares of transgenic seeds, mostly corn, soy and rape. Since 1993 the SAG has allowed this, without regulations regarding the distance these crops must be from the land of local farmers, whose traditional seeds are exposed to genetic contamination through pollination. "In Paine we are in a fight over this. It has already happened to me that my corn varieties are contaminated. That's why we take care to save them and grow them as far away from Monsanto's land as possible," says Patricia. The Águilas Campesinas union, where she participates along with other farmers who work organically, is most concerned about the advance of agribusiness practices among neighbors and how seed marketing has been normalized.

Network that germinates and grows


In 2013 was the explosion of free seeds according to Valentina Vives (33), a chemist and environmental biologist who in Niebla -near Valdivia- produces her own food and protects local seeds with her family. That year Chile hosted the second meeting of free seeds in Latin America in a field in Laguna Verde. It was an eight-day event where more than 800 seed activists, farmers and organic farmers exchanged products and seeds, held practical workshops, talks and conversation circles about the urgency of caring for food biodiversity. "It was the consolidation of a Latin American network," recalls Valentina.


From the Seeds of Freedom Network -now part of the global Seeds of Freedom campaign- came the Semilla Austral Cooperative where Valentina works with 14 families from six regions of Chile in local seed production. "We are in love with biodiversity, the land and its generosity. We have a shared ethical vision that seed is a common good and we work to defend it, multiply it, and give it to those who need it," says Valentina.

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