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The Reclaiming the Commons mobilization in San Francisco continues a series of international grassroots gatherings on issues of genetic engineering, the patenting of life, and corporate dominance over our food and health that began six years ago in St. Louis. Since May of 1999, most of these gatherings have coincided with the annual convention of BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization.
This historic series of events began in Monsanto’s home city of St. Louis in July of 1998. The “First International Grassroots Gathering on Biodevastation” was called by members of the Gateway Green Alliance in St. Louis to bring together grassroots opponents of genetic engineering to learn and strategize. Participants included concerned scientists and representatives of popular movements from Ireland, England, Mexico, Canada the European Parliament, India and the United States, as well as a large contingent of farmer and consumer activists from Japan. There was a demonstration of over 200 people at Monsanto world headquarters in the St. Louis suburb of Creve Coeur.
Following her keynote appearance at the St. Louis gathering, Dr. Vandana Shiva invited representatives of grassroots environmental, consumer and farm organizations to New Delhi, India in March of 1999 for “Biodevastation 2,” which was organized and hosted by Dr. Shiva’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. A small contingent of activists from the U.S., Canada and Europe, met with people from all over India, Malaysia, Bangladesh and Japan to discuss genetic engineering, life patenting, and the alternatives. Participants traveled to visit farmers in many parts of India who are opposing Monsanto and other biotech companies, while working to preserve native seed varieties and traditional growing methods.
In India, activists learned that BIO would be having their annual convention in Seattle during May of 1999 and called for Biodevastation 3 to be held in Seattle during the BIO convention. Biodevastation 3 began with a march through the streets of Seattle, followed by a rally and a spontaneous walk through the Seattle Convention Center. This was the first to offer sessions focused on the dangers of human genetic manipulation. Biodevastation 3 concluded on the day the worldwide media announced that pollen from genetically engineered corn can kill large numbers of young monarch butterfly larvae.
The fourth gathering, Biodevastation 2000, was timed to coincide with that year’s BIO convention in Boston. Biodevastation 2000 was organized under the auspices of Northeast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering (NERAGE), a regional network that was initiated by the New England caucus at the St. Louis Biodevastation gathering, and is sustained by the Institute for Social Ecology’s Biotechnology Project. This event was co-sponsored and supported by nearly 30 regional and national organizations and featured a rally and parade to the Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston that drew nearly 4000 participants. This was the largest ever gathering in opposition to genetic engineering anywhere in North America thus far. Panelists and workshop speakers at the preceding three-day conference included scientists, farmers and activists from India, the Philippines, England, South Africa, Canada, Uruguay and all over the United States. Vandana Shiva, Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner were the keynote speakers, and the world renowned Bread and Puppet Theater led the colorful and lively parade.
In 2001, BIO’s convention took place in San Diego, California, a city with a military-dominated history and culture. Despite a severe overreaction on the part of local police and a hostile media climate, some 1200 people marched peacefully on the city’s Convention Center on the opening day of the BIO convention. This event was named “Biojustice,” at the suggestion of organizers from California’s renowned Ruckus Society. The teach-in was dubbed “Beyond Biodevastation” and featured speakers on biopiracy from Mexico and the Philippines, as well as a diverse group of scientists, farmers and activists from North America, Europe and India. There was a heightened focus on sustainable agriculture, disability and genetic discrimination issues. These events were featured prominently on CNN and NBC News, as well as all the major wire services and regional California media outlets.
bioJUSTICE/bioDIVERSITY 2002 brought the series to Canada for the first time, with support from the Ottawa-based Polaris Institute, the Council of Canadians, and a broad coalition of environmental and safe food advocates in Toronto, where that year�s BIO convention was held. Issues of drug safety and corporate abuses in medical research are much more prominent in Canada than in the U.S., and some of the leading experts on these topics participated, along with speakers on GE food issues, indigenous responses to biopiracy, and the growing threat of biological warfare. Once again, Vandana Shiva was a keynote speaker, along with David Suzuki, who appeared at a colorful GE-free picnic at Toronto’s Grange Park on the opening Sunday of the BIO convention.
The year 2003, featured a series of events under the expanding ‘Biodev’ umbrella. The Gateway Green Alliance initiated an event in St. Louis, this time focusing on the links between corporate control, environmental racism, agriculture and biowarfare. It coincided with the semi-annual meeting of the World Agricultural Forum (WAF), created by Monsanto and other agribusiness companies seeking to bring some of the international fanfare of the annual World Economic Forums to St. Louis. Biodevastation 7 featured discussions on the international threat to farms and farmers, globalization and food imperialism, indigenous agriculture, biowarfare and the direct links between biotechnology and environmental racism. There were speakers from Africa, Mexico, India, the UK and Canada, as well as throughout the US.
St. Louis police demonstrated a severe overreaction to the planned protests across the street from the WAF, detaining local organizers during the days prior to our events and raiding several activist houses and gathering spaces. Meanwhile, a group of activist bicyclists and puppeteers planned a Caravan Across the Cornbelt, which was originally designed to link the WAF with the upcoming BIO convention in Washington, DC. Singled out for severe police harassment, the caravan was delayed several days, but still pulled off an impressive series of performances throughout Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio. Meanwhile, when organizers on both coasts discovered the USDA’s plans for an international summit of agriculture and trade ministers in Sacramento in June 2003, the focus shifted from the BIO convention to the USDA ministerial.
The Sacramento Mobilization for Food Sovereignty, Democracy And Justice attracted the support of 130 organizations – including the United Farm Workers’ union and the international farmers’ movement Via Campesina – and focused public attention on the role of the Sacramento Ministerial in US government preparations for the upcoming fall WTO meetings in Cancun, Mexico. It featured a standing-room-only teach-in at Sacramento State University, several days of direct actions focused on the WTO and corporate agribusiness, and a huge rally and parade, which proved to be a massive festival of resistance to biotechnology, industrial agriculture, globalization and US imperial designs around the world. Direct actions included a lock-down in support of a local community garden, climbers protesting genetically engineered trees, and farmers dumping GE corn, as well as several days of actions right around the Sacramento Convention Center.
With over 5000 participants, Sacramento set a creative and inspiring example for people working to organize this year’s response to the BIO convention in San Francisco.
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