Can Bolivia go organic?
Early in his term, President Evo Morales vowed that his government would push for an ecologically-friendly Bolivia. More than two and a half years have passed since then, and despite some legislative advances toward this ideal, ecologically-friendly farming is far from a reality in this Andean country.
In June 2006, Morales unveiled his National Development Plan, called "A Dignified, Sovereign, Productive Bolivia to Live Well," and in November he passed the country's Ecological Regulation and Promotion of Farming and Non-Timber Forestry Production Law, in an effort to make pro-environment farming a state policy.
Ecologically speaking, Bolivia is naturally blessed. Its flora and fauna are among the most diverse on the planet and the country's varied climates are apt for the production of a wide array of crops. A significant percentage of its agriculture is environmentally-friendly, or at least, chemical-free.
"In the isolated regions, producers plant native potatoes and other products without using herbicides. These 'natural' products get to the markets without any certification and are mixed with other [crops] that have been grown with herbicides," says Carmen Sotomayor of the Association of Ecological Farmers' Organizations of Bolivia, an umbrella group of 65 networks representing 60,000 campesinos. "The result is that consumers don't end up knowing their ecological condition."
More than two years after the ecological law was passed, Sotomayor complains that its advances have remained mostly on paper.
"The law is important, but in practice, the state still gives no support at all to our sector," she said. "The resources necessary to implement the law aren't there."
She says that several changes to the leadership of the Rural Development Ministry have caused a setback to the law's implementation.
The law called for the creation of a government council to promote ecologically-friendly farming, but this agency is in the works until now.
"We're under the impression that the government is a bit reticent and still doubts the possibilities of ecologically-friendly agriculture," she added.
She says that the "ecological" concept is more than just not using toxic substances in production, but that the entire production chain is designed to protect the environment and ensure sustainability.
One of the problems with this kind of farming is the lack of scientific research, since so many studies focus on conventional agriculture, not to developing sustainable, environmentally-friendly methods.
Organic farming eyes exportation
Sotomayor notes that all of the quinua exported by the country's top exporter is organic, as is 90 percent of the coffee exported, and organic chestnut production is on the rise.
"This increase of ecological production is owed principally to foreign markets, which are more stable and offer higher prices," she says.
The high cost of ecological products within Bolivia makes it a difficult sale. The process to get the "ecological product" certification comes at a cost, and chemical-free farming generally produces smaller harvests, driving up the price for the consumer. Certain products such as rice, wheat and certain vegetables are directed at the internal market, but these newcomers only have a very small share of the market.
The organic farmer's association says that the sector is going to grow. The campesinos, who practice green farming methods saw that in addition to earning a living they avoid health problems caused by using herbicides.
"The campesinos who embrace ecological methods are not going to get rich, but they are going to live a little bit better thanks to the high prices of their products," Sotomayor says.
Threat of transgenics
The draft charter approved by a pro-Morales assembly (opposition members boycotted the vote in protest) had prohibited the production, importation and sale of transgenic products. But after a compromise between the government-allied assembly members and the opposition, the text that will go to referendum early next year says genetically-modified products will by "regulated" by the law, not expressively banned as in the earlier draft.
"The text was changed so as not to create conflicts with the large soy farmers that currently farm transgenic soy," says Aldo Claure, head of the Biodiversity and Genetic Resources unit of the Rural Development Ministry. "The previous version would have meant the end of transgenic soy in our country."
If the new constitution is approved, Congress will have to write a new Biosecurity Law. Claure says that the new law should not allow for transgenic seeds of species that already exist in Bolivia, and that foreign species should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
He says government authorities have not received new requests to introduce transgenics in the country for three to four years.
To date, the only transgenic organism expressly permitted in Bolivia was the RR 40-3-2 soy of the US agricultural chemical giant Monsanto. This strain was authorized in 2005 under the government of Carlos Mesa (2003-2005), at the request of the National Oleaginous and Wheat Producers Association, or Anapo.
Other requests for transgenic cotton and corn were rejected under Mesa's government. Genetically-modified corn was totally prohibited due the contamination risks posed to native species. When he took office Morales had practically shut the door to any new transgenic crops.
Monsanto's RR soy, which is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, has been very successful in Argentina, but not in Bolivia.
RR is grown mainly by large- and medium-sized producers in eastern Bolivian farmland. Many small-producers, however, prefer conventional soy, says Sorka Copa, a biochemist and researcher at the Bolivian Environment and Development Forum, known as Fobomade.
"Bolivia has an agreement with Venezuela to export soy to that country," she says. "But the agreement gives priority to the small producers and demands non-transgenic soy. Our organization helps farmers to detect transgenic seeds and avoid them [from mixing] into their crops.
A few years ago, several campesinos found that the "enriched" seeds that Anapo had given them were really transgenics, Copa says.
Transgenic soy has other disadvantages. It does not produce as great a harvest as conventional soy because of the climate and soil. Also, the presence of genetically-modified soy endangers the livelihoods of the producers who do not farm it, forcing these producers to certify that their products are transgenic-free, an additional cost.
RR is the only legal transgenic crop in Bolivia, but the Rural Development Ministry "strongly" suspects that transgenic soy has gotten into the country, according to Claure.
"The farmers themselves say that there is modified soy because the government rejected it and banned the legal farming of it," he said. "There is no respect for laws and the government lacks mechanisms to control it." --Latinamerica Press.