Recap Monsanto Tribunal

Published on
October 24, 2016

Wageningen, it’s 6:50 AM. My friend jumps up from the mattress next to me and before I know it she is downstairs to turn of the alarm. ‘Are you still coming?’ she asks me. I’m thinking. It has been only 4 hours since we left the goodbye party of another friend of mine. Actually, the whole week has been hectic as I was travelling up and down the country with a dislocated shoulder. Today I would go to Den Haag for the Monsanto Tribunal for Otherwise Foundation and as a member of the Wageningen Reporting mission.

Forty minutes later than planned we are on our way. In the driver’s seat a camera man, next to him an alumni from the WUR and participant in the Wageningen Reporting mission, in the back me, coordinator for Otherwise and my friend part of the action cooking crew ‘Rampenplan’. In the front I hear a vague story about insecurities about whether they put the right kind of gasoline in the tank. It gives me a fussy feeling. Did I already say I’m kind of tired?

We arrive early which gives me some time to browse through the leaflets I receive upon arrival. The whole happening consists of two main events. The Tribunal itself is a space, as indicated in the booklet, where 30 people give testimonies about the impact of Monsanto’s business model on the state of the environment and on people. This will happen under the supervision of a selection of internationally renowned judges and with the help of equally internationally renowned Human Rights lawyers.  In the program I read that upon hearing the testimonies the judges will give advice as to how to proceed on the road towards actually trying Monsanto in an international court of Justice. I knew that the Monsanto Tribunal was not about organizing a ‘real’ court case, but now I also know what the aimed for harvest will be.

The other main event is the People’s Assembly. This is the space where civil society comes together to share knowledge about impunity of multinationals (the difficulties in holding multinationals accountable in court), GMO technology, seed sharing for agro diversity and toxicology. This is the space where an information market is set up so the involved organizations can share their campaigns with the visitors. This is the space where the movement building takes place. This is where I will spend my day at a workshop about the potential to break the impunity of multinationals through the construction of an International Court of Human Rights and Business about which I will share my insights in a different article.

The Monsanto Tribunal is controversial of course. To some it is high time that not just Monsanto but the whole agro-industry is finally called to responsibility.  To others all the people behind it the Monsanto Tribunal do is nothing more than putting on a high-profile smearing campaign and the whole happening is nothing but another attempt at attention seeking by activists.

Whatever the real situation is here, it certainly is a high profile indeed. At what other occasion in history did civil-society organizations cooperate so successfully to pull together such an assembly of internationally renowned judges, lawyers, academics and activists?

I myself decided to attend the Monsanto Tribunal because I am curious to find out more about the questions of supposed impunity for multinationals, the question of holding legal persons accountable for ecocide and the question of to what extend activism of this kind can contribute to new forms of legal intervention in a rapidly changing world where such new legal interventions are perhaps very much needed as technology keeps on developing into uncharted realms and where extensive globalization contributes to a context where multinationals are increasingly powerful and influential, look for example at the role Unilever plays in the innovation of transnational governance initiatives such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

At the People’s Assembly I run into lots of people that have some kind of connection to Wageningen, for example I spend my lunch catching up with an old neighbor that by now is working at Hivos. But the real thing is of course that there are lots of people from all over the world that have gathered here to be part of this event. So it happens to be that I cannot remember a moment that I heard so many people speaking French in one day in the Netherlands. Unsurprisingly, a lot of people around here are somehow connected to efforts against large scale food production and/or pro agro ecological alternatives.

A sudden reminder of the fact that we are at an activist congregation comes when I see a  group of French masked activists with banners and signs accusing Monsanto of various forms of ecocide doing a small intervention. On top of that Vandana Shiva, the undisputed rockstar of the agroecology movement, joins them for a short media moment at which many cameras, including mine, are pointed at them.

Throughout the day it becomes clear that even though the event is focused on the most unpopular agri-business of them all, the movement that is gathered here has come together not just because of Monsanto.

The workshop that I attend for example is not about Monsanto, instead it is about impunity of multinationals in general, about the history of civil society and some countries pushing for mechanisms through which multinationals can be held accountable and about how this process is being derailed. This workshop was hosted by members of TNI, La Via Campesina and the Global Justice Network. With professional activists of this degree you know that they do their homework and they did. The discourse was one where historical accounts, discussions of possibility and fierce proclamations of what ought to be all had their place.

In the evening assemblies, the conversation is about many things. For example, the latest GMO technologies at the hand of diverse agro businesses that are about to embark on the market are discussed and how they are not just focused anymore on improving agricultural production, but also about how to control pests and thus how GM technology will enter ecosystems, meanwhile not so long ago the promise was that such developments would be out of the questions.

Another topic of the evening is the fact that some of the most novel developments in the agro-industry focus around extensive mechanization of agriculture with the help of drones and mechanized planting and plant care, which has nothing to do with genetic modification, but all the more so with agro-industry and large scale agriculture.

Another issue that is addressed concerns the power struggle between civil society initiatives and the agroindustry in the USA to influence legislation, as was the case for example in the GMO labelling case in California. Here the framing is one where democracy is put against the power of large corporations. The American context certainly seeps through as the influence of corporations in legislation seems much more overt and the popular discourse against it seems much more crystalized under the influence of the Occupy Movement and the Feel the Bern campaign by Bernie Sanders.

Thus, what I observed in Den Haag dealt with a number of related issues that interlink together into a complex set of problems for a movement that is pushing for an alternative view on how to deal with the challenges of providing food sovereignty rather than food security; of taking seriously the task of protecting agro diversity through popular participation; of taking up the challenge of climate change; of saving democracy in a globalizing world and ultimately on how to make sustainability a reality.

For now it is hard to say what the long term impact will be of the Monsanto Tribunal. It feels much like the stage that was provided by this high profile event was much intended as an in between step for further interventions. The intended objective of the Monsanto Tribunal itself testifies of that, as it was a moment to collect evidence more than anything. Knowledge has been shared, networks have been reaffirmed, but the movement itself will have to show its capacity to have a long term impact before it will be able to achieve its goals.