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Synthesis/Regeneration 19   (Spring 1999)

India: Smart Farmers Burn Monsanto's GE Cotton

by Roberto Verzola, Secretary General, Philippine Green Party

"Indian farmers are smart chaps," said Dr. Sivramiah Shantharam when he talked before the DOST [the Philippines' Department of Science and Technology] last November 25 on the controversial topic of genetic engineering. Shantharam related that in his younger days, he worked in India for a firm selling agricultural chemicals, and that he learned from experience to appreciate the wisdom of Indian farmers. "Indian farmers know exactly what they need. You may fool them once, but if you do it again, they will chase you out of the village," said Shantharam, who is today a branch chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On the same week as Shantharam's DOST talk, the farmers of Karnataka, India were showing exactly how smart they were.

Minister was unaware

On November 16: The Indian public was informed by local newspapers that Monsanto "has been conducting 40 field trials with genetically manipulated cotton across five Indian states for the last three months." Monsanto was testing a genetically engineered (GE) corn that automatically produced its own insect-killing poison (the Bt toxin). Monsanto had earlier bought into a local company to carry out the GE field trials. Karnataka Agriculture Minister C. Byre Gowda admitted that he had been informed of the on-going trials but was unaware of where they were being undertaken.

On November 20: Indian newspapers reported that the Karnataka State Farmers Association (KRRS) had issued a deadline to the State Government and Monsanto to disclose the places where the trials were being conducted and the exact description of the GE cotton seeds that were being tested. '"Monsanto should reveal immediately where the trials are being conducted" failing which "direct action would follow on the company's office in Malleswaram," their president Prof. Nanjundaswamy said. "Monsanto will have to leave the country within a week. Otherwise we will be forced to throw them out," Prof. Nanjundaswamy angrily said.

On November 24: The Minister of Agriculture of Karnataka held a press conference, where he was forced by journalists to reveal the three sites where field trials with Monsanto's GE cotton were being conducted.

Civil disobedience

On November 26, Prof. Nanjundaswamy circulated the following letter: "Monsanto's field trials in Karnataka will be reduced to ashes, starting on Saturday. ...KRRS activists have already contacted the owners of these fields, to explain to them which action will be taken, and for what reasons, and to let them know that the KRRS will cover any losses they will suffer. On Saturday the 28th of November, at midday, thousands of farmers will occupy and burn down the three fields in front of the cameras, in an open, announced action of civil disobedience."

On November 28, the Karnataka farmers released a statement:

" Today the farmers of Karnataka will reduce to ashes one of the illegal field trials that the criminal organisation Monsanto is carrying out in the country. This action will mark the beginning of a campaign of civil disobedience called Operation 'Cremation Monsanto,' which will soon be continued in Karnataka and other Indian states.

"The field that will be burned today belongs to Basanna, who came to know what kind of plants were growing in his field only last Wednesday, when Byre Gowda (Minister of Agriculture of Karnataka) mentioned his name as he disclosed the three sites where Monsanto's trials are being conducted in Karnataka.

Experiment without farmer's knowledge

"According to Basanna's testimony, officials of Mahyco Monsanto went to his farm in July and proposed him to grow, free of cost, a new variety of cotton seeds, which they claimed would give very good results. He could not suspect that their intention was to carry out an experiment on genetic engineering without his knowledge and consent, risking the future viability not only of his farm, but of his complete community.

"The officials of Mahyco Monsanto, who have signed a written declaration admitting their illegal behavior, went regularly to apply manure and pesticides to the Bt cotton, including heavy doses of insecticides. However, the plants are infested with bollworm (the pest that Bt cotton is supposed to control) and other pests like white fly and red-rot. Despite the heavy use of chemical fertilizer, traces of which still can be observed in the field, the Bt plants grew miserably, less than half the size of the traditional cotton plants in the adjacent fields.

"No single biosafety measure (e.g. buffer zone around the genetically engineered cotton to reduce biopollution, construction of a fence around the field, etc) was undertaken by the Mahyco Monsanto. They did not even demarcate the field as biohazard area."

Uprooted, then burned

Later in the afternoon of November 28, they released another statement:

"The direct action campaign of Indian farmers Operation 'Cremation Monsanto' started today at 13:30 in the village of Maladagudda, north of Bangalore. Mr. Basanna, owner of the field where an illegal genetic experiment was being conducted without his knowledge, and Prof. Nanjundaswamy, president of KRRS (a Gandhian movement of 10 million farmers in the Southern Indian state of Karnataka), uprooted together the first plant of genetically modified cotton, inviting the rest of the local peasants to do the same. Within a few minutes, all the plants in the field were piled up and ready to be set on fire."

Taking their fight to the global arena, the Karnataka farmers also announced:

"...we are making an international call for direct action against Monsanto and the rest of the biotech gang. This call for action will hopefully inspire all the people who are already doing a brilliant work against biotech, and many others who so far have not been very active on the issue, to join hands in a quick, effective worldwide effort."

The farmers emphasized, "we are calling only for non-violent direct actions".

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