The state of Goiás, located in the Central Region of Brazil, is facing immense environmental and social challenges due to the expansion of agribusinesses there, especially export-oriented agro-fuels plantations. The monoculture cultivation of sugar cane for ethanol is displacing indigenous and peasant communities and jeopardizing their basic human rights. The rapid expansion of agro-fuel plantations disregards the local savannah ecosystem and threatens the unique biodiversity found there. In addition to these industrial operations, another great challenge for local peasant agriculture is the dissemination of genetically engineered (GE) seeds that threaten biodiversity, guzzle water and consume massive amounts of chemical inputs. These seeds are making local agriculture more dependent on other external inputs and chemical products sold by a few large multinational companies. This shift from locally controlled agriculture to large-scale industrial agricultural operations is affecting the capacity of rural communities to produce their own food, especially because it creates unfair competition between small-scale farmers and large agricultural corporations. With the expansion of agro-fuels plantations, and no control over their seeds, small-scale farmers end up having no option other than selling their land to large farmers and international investors. This shift in Brazilian agriculture is a result of and also exacerbates the growing influence of transnational corporations over the local food system. In Brazil, three companies – Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge – control 66 percent of the exported grains. Within this daunting context, the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP) and their Creole Seeds Program (supported by Grassroots International) are demonstrating viable alternatives to industrial agriculture. MCP is a grassroots organization in Brazil that advocates for the protection of local peasant economies, food and seed sovereignty. MCP organizes farming families and communities around sustainable agriculture practices, and has been a leading voice in the state of Goiás on the negative impacts of the expansion of industrial monoculture crops, such as sugar cane for agro-fuel production and the dissemination of GE seeds. MCP’s Creole Seeds Program encourages the production, growth and distribution of local heirloom – or creole – seeds for food crops adapted to local conditions. Through community-led experiments, participant farmers have tested hundreds of local varieties of corn, beans, rice, cassava, and cover crops for soil improvement. MCP selects high yielding varieties for multiplication and helps farmers market the best creole seed varieties to other rural communities. In addition to the restoration of the creole seeds market, MCP’s program is bringing farmers together to learn about other sustainable agriculture practices and, most importantly, to protect their interests in an unfavorable climate caused by the agro-fuels production boom. The Creole Seeds Program successfully demonstrates the productivity of these seeds and their non-reliance on expensive and toxic inputs required for GE crops. Since 2006, MCP’s members have produced more than 400 tons of heirloom varieties of corn, rice and beans that are being distributed to other small-scale farmers. The Creole Seeds Program is rapidly becoming a model of participatory research on sustainable management of genetic diversity. Using a farmer-to-farmer methodology, MCP is helping farmers rescue, evaluate, characterize, select, and conserve local genetic resources. MCP’s Creole Seeds Program values women’s leadership and contribution to the preservation of local seeds and agro-biodiversity. Twenty-six women’s groups are also participating in the program. MCP has developed a specific methodology to work with peasant women that includes meetings and trainings to address the issues of patriarchy and women’s perspectives on sustainable agriculture practices. The results are impressive:
- 348 tons of creole seeds have been sold to other communities: 57 local varieties of corn, beans, cassava and rice, and 10 different crops that are used to restore soil fertility.
- MCP has helped organize 40 community seed banks in Goiás.
- The participatory methodology of the Creole Seeds Program is generating new opportunities for farmers to study and implement sustainable agriculture practices such as the rotation of planting and grazing areas and natural (organic) soil fertilization.
- The Creole Seeds Program has strengthened communities of small-scale farmers to organize for better rural development policies and resist the negative impacts of agribusinesses on their communities.
- Through the Creole Seeds Program, MCP has been able to build practical connections and knowledge exchanges with other communities in Latin America and Africa (for e.g. Mozambique) that are being impacted by the same environmental, economic and social threats.
The Creole Seeds Program continues to influence farmers as they learn about the productivity and accessibility of locally multiplied seeds. Elias Freitas Mesquita, MCP’s regional coordinator, described it this way: “The Creole Seeds Project is a great project because the community wants to see it to believe it. They can see the results for themselves—that our local seeds are more productive, insect resistant and produce better tasting crops than hybrids or other seeds.”