San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Vegetable Protections: New CAFTA Battleground?

Opponents of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA) are trying to uproot a bill in the Legislative Assembly intended to promote research and development in seed technology as part of CAFTA reforms.

The proposal, which would protect the developer of a new seed variety’s exclusive right to sell that variety for up to 25 years, has CAFTA opponents defending small farmers and Costa Rica’s food security.

“This project attempts to patent seeds and plants, to hand them over to transnational companies from the United States and steal them from the people of Costa Rica,” Broad Front legislator José Merino said in a statement.

The bill includes jail time as punishment for those who don’t respect the protections – a part of the proposal even supporters say they are trying to change.

As part of CAFTA, which Costa Rica has signed but not ratified, the country agreed to pass 13 other bills along with the trade pact. Under CAFTA and in accordance with a 1991 international agreement, Costa Rica must pass a law that would give the developers of new seed varieties the exclusive right to market them for up to 25 years.

“It’s an attempt to support those who develop new varieties, so the costly process of investment is protected,” said National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Salvador Quirós. Quirós, who is the president of the assembly’s Agriculture, Fishing and Natural Resources Commission debating the proposal, said the bill is important for the development of new seed varieties to battle disease and plagues that have ravaged Costa Rican farms in recent years, he said. He added that six of the nine commission members support the proposal, but it hasn’t yet been brought to a vote.

Anti-CAFTA legislators from the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) have presented most of the approximately 80 motions to that project in the commission.

To speed up the debate, the assembly voted March 22 to put a one-month time limit on the commission’s discussion of the proposal before voting on it.

At a press conference at the Legislative Assembly Wednesday, CAFTA opponents gathered to show their unified disapproval of the proposal.

“Should our seeds, our plants, be in the hands of our people, our citizens, or in the hands of a few?” said anti-CAFTA activist Cesar López, who heads the Cultural Movement against CAFTA. He was flanked by Merino, PAC legislators and anti-CAFTA educators from the country’s public universities.

Pro-CAFTA Libertarian Movement legislator Ovidio Aguero, who is also on the commission, denied allegations that the proposal would restrict farmers’ abilities to replant seeds from plants grown from protected seeds they bought in previous years.

However, Aguero did acknowledge the need to include more protections for small farmers. He said he is working with the National Seed Office to develop a motion or motions to change the bill to define what is a small farmer and give small farmers the ability to “freely exchange” protected seeds among themselves.


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