The National Network of Native and Local Seeds Uruguay is made up of more than 350 small family holdings, involving over 500 farmers spread across 14 of the country’s 19 departments, in three regions – north, south and east.
Organised in more than 30 local groups, they meet regularly to plan the production and exchange of seeds. The Seeds Network also includes REDES-Friends of the Earth Uruguay and the Faculty of Agronomy at the public national University of Uruguay (UDELAR), as founding members since 2002.
The Network’s members are committed to reviving and re-valuing local seeds, to developing and exchanging them to grow their own food, and to supplying local markets, all with the goal of avoiding reliance on corporate-controlled seeds. Every small-scale farmer that gets seeds from the Network for cultivation and to feed her or his own family, also commits to reproducing these seeds in order to keep building up the Network’s living reserve of seeds.
Keeping track of the amount of seeds preserved and reproduced daily throughout the Network is a very difficult task. It adds up to over 70 species and 300 varieties, according to agronomist Silvana Machado, a member of REDES-Friends of the Earth Uruguay and part of the Seeds Network’s technical support team. The seeds are mainly for vegetable, aromatic and medicinal plants.
Every two years, the Seeds Network holds a Seed Farmers’ Meeting and the National Local Seeds Festival, in various locations. The most recent events each brought together more than 700 people. These meetings are a chance to evaluate the previous two years of work and set activity plans for the next period. In addition, the family farmers set up a seed sharing and produce fair, which is also an exciting space for cultural exchange. Furthermore, the Seeds Festival is an informal space for network and coordination between the members and the various political, academic and government actors attending its conferences and activities.
Agroecology in Uruguay in action
The Seeds Network has been one of the main proponents of Uruguay’s “National Agroecology Plan” (NAP), a law that was passed in December 2018 under the left-wing administration led by former President Tabaré Vasquez, to promote agroecological food production. Its implementation is currently under consideration.
In that regard, at the end of June 2020, REDES-Friends of the Earth Uruguay urged the new right-wing government (which took office on 1 March 2020) to allocate financial resources for the implementation of the NAP, considering it a matter of “urgency that the new leadership of the Animal Husbandry, Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry designate an authority to chair the Plan’s Honorary Commission, which has not been operating since that first day of March.”
Irina Aldabe, a farmer from the Guardia Vieja production community in San Carlos, located in Maldonado department in southeast Uruguay, is also part of the Seeds Network general coordination. Irina emphasised that agroecology is “the solution to the problems we face as farmers, individually and socially.” Some of the challenges she mentioned included “the cost of inputs and fuel, impacts on health (due to the use of agrotoxics by agribusiness, for example), and soil conservation”, among others.
A number of agroecological practices are widely implemented across the small holdings of the various farmers in the Seeds Network. For example, seeds are air and sun dried, then packed in dry, vacuum-sealed containers. Diseases and pests cannot thrive when moisture is removed, meaning the seeds stay preserved for longer periods of time.
Another widespread practice is fertilising crops with organic matter, such as animal manure (cow dung is very common) or poultry litter (a mix of rice husks and droppings obtained from hen farms). Compost is also extensively used by farmers, prepared on site with organic materials, harvest leftovers and animal litter or droppings, and serving as a potting mix for seedlings.
Bio-inputs and plant preparations, such as native efficient microorganisms or macerated nettles, are used for naturally controlling pests and diseases, and for the nutritional balance of crops.
Other commonly used agroecological practices include crop rotation and the use of “green manures” (fallow crops grown to provide nutrients and rest for the soil), and observance of moon calendars to decide when to plant and harvest.
Healthy food production in Uruguay and organised solidarity
The over 30 local groups in the Seeds Network distribute and sell their products on a weekly basis, in some cases even daily, at neighbourhood street fairs and local markets.
Amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Uruguay in 2020, which prompted the declaration of a national state of health emergency and has resulted in severe economic consequences for the country, farmers from the Network donated seeds and food supplies to soup kitchens, trade unions, local street fairs and peoples’ canteens in many locations, particularly in the Canelones, Paysandú, Treinta y Tres, Maldonado and Montevideo departments.
One example is Aldea Avatí, a cooperative for agroecological food production and collective land work in Rincón de Pando (in Canelones, southern Uruguay) that was set up on 20 hectares by a group of young people with a permaculture approach. They provided food to soup kitchens and children’s lunch clubs in several zones of the department.
Mariano Beltrán, the technical coordinator of the Seeds Network, reported that a huge range of seeds were handed out in many places in Canelones, including lettuce, beans, mitzuna, broccoli, spinach, chard, arugula, watercress, leek, grass peas, garlic, pumpkin, squash, sweet pepper, onion, and aromatic and medicinal plants seeds.
Collectives El Ombú (in Paysandú, north-eastern Uruguay) and Los Parientes (in Treinta y Tres, eastern Uruguay) also stood out for their food sharing efforts during the months of crisis.
Food sovereignty in Uruguay and agroecology are the way
Graciela González is a woman farmer and a delegate in the Seeds Network general coordination. She and her family live by National Route 7, in Piedra Sola district near San Jacinto city in Canelones. She is a member of the Calmañana cooperative and her main area of work is producing aromatic and medicinal plants.
Graciela underlined the importance of women in safeguarding local seeds and food sovereignty, as women farmers bear the culture of food production and processing.
“This achievement has come with time. Women have always held the seeds in their hands; in the countryside we were taught to grow and harvest all our food, to plant our own garden first to feed our families.”
In that spirit, Irina Aldabe considers agroecology as a tool to forge food sovereignty and nourish the country’s population in a safe and healthy way.
Aldabe added that the NAP proposes “changing how we measure productive success, which is not only about volume, but about seeing if the water is still clean after production, in what condition is land left, and what is the health status of those who work there and those who consume that food.”
Images © Amelia Collins and REDES-Friends of the Earth Uruguay.