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Against the Grain : Multinational Corporations Peddling Patented Seeds and Chemical Pesticides Are Poised to Revolutionize India's Ancient Agricultural System. But at What Cost?

July 10, 1994|Sandy Tolan | Sandy Tolan, based in Gloucester, Mass., writes on trade and the environment. He is executive producer of "Searching for Solutions," a documentary series on population and sustainable development to be broadcast on National Public Radio

The raid was planned well in advance, the target selected with precision, the goal immense. The farmers would wear green scarves and loose fitting khadi--traditional homespun cotton--that evoked the spinning wheel Gandhi had chosen as the symbol of India's self-reliance. Like Gandhi, the farmers would move against an unwelcome foreigner, echoing the Mahatma's campaign against British imperialism. And to focus the nation's attention on the threat of a new colonialism, they would seize on a speck of nature at the core of civilization and at the heart of their livelihoods: the seed.

The seed agitation began in a stairwell just before noon on Dec. 29, 1992. Seventy-five farmers mounted four flights of stairs that led to the southern India offices of a multinational food corporation. Inside, half a dozen employees from Cargill Seeds Private Ltd. of India--a tiny subsidiary of the largest privately held company in the United States--were going about their business when the farmers burst through the door. "We have not come to harm you," announced Sesha Reddy, a barrel-chested farmer with a shock of white hair, Coke-bottle glasses and a booming baritone. "We are here only as a protest."

The farmers smashed windows, tore phones from the walls, emptied desk drawers, broke open locked file cabinets and hurled armfuls of papers, financial records and the symbol of their protest--Cargill hybrid seeds--through the broken glass to the street below. "It was," recalls John Hamilton, manager for Cargill Seeds India, "a rather unpleasant experience."

Below, in the streets of downtown Bangalore, a city of 4.1 million in the state of Karnataka, 400 farmers scooped up the papers, files and seed packets as they fluttered down from the fifth-floor offices. Wearing his trademark green-felt hat, M.D. Nanjundaswamy waited in his car with a pack of matches. Farmer, state legislator and former law professor, Nanjundaswamy is perhaps India's most prominent figure in the farm protest movement. When the piles grew high, he handed the matches to a farmer. Within minutes, a huge fire brought traffic to a stop.

" Bon fire," Nanjundaswamy said with a smile. "From the French origin. Good fire." The farmers formed a ring around the flames and shouted up to Cargill, in the south Indian language of Kannada, the historic slogan of Gandhi's freedom struggle: " Tolagi India !" Quit India.

"THIS IS INDEED A DEFINING MOMENT IN ECONOMIC HISTORY," declared Peter Sutherland, director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Sutherland was addressing economic ministers from around the world who had gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco, in April to sign the largest trade pact in history and to establish a new international structure, the World Trade Organization. Sutherland, a former Irish attorney general, is generally credited with keeping the fractious First and Third World forces together and bringing the negotiations, which had begun more than seven years ago in Uruguay, to a successful conclusion. Many of the signatory governments still must ratify the treaty.

Since the fall of communism, free trade has carried an air of destiny. Proponents, mostly from the First World, compare GATT's falling trade barriers to the collapse of the Berlin Wall; both are seen as essential steps in the world's march toward democratic capitalism. The trade pact, according to its advocates, will eventually add $235 billion a year to world economic income and expand the development of the First and Third Worlds within a decade of its ratification. "Every country gains," concluded Sutherland, amid palm trees and gleaming pink walls. "There are no losers."

But the farmers of India's seed agitation are convinced that the pact will produce many losers. And they are not the only ones who think this. In the year preceding the accords, millions of farmers, environmentalists and social activists in India, Europe and east Asia took part in mass demonstrations and, in the case of Mexico, open rebellion. Leaders of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas cited free-trade accords as a principal motive for their revolt. Cheap corn imports from America, they claimed, will drive down prices and wipe out Mexican peasants. In South Korea, thousands of people participated in "rice riots" to denounce low-priced imports. Japanese legislators went on hunger strikes, and rice farmers vehemently protested increased imports. More than 10,000 farmers across France joined in anti-GATT demonstrations, blocking highways and rail lines and bringing their tractors into the heart of Paris. And in India, crowds reaching half a million rallied against GATT for more than a year.

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