The University of Arizona

Privately public seeds: competing visions of property, personhood, and democracy in Costa Rica's entry into CAFTA and the Union for Plant Variety Protection (UPOV)

Guntra A. Aistara


Costa Rica's entry into the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was hotly contested and the subject of a national referendum. For activists opposing the treaty, questions of 'privatizing seeds' through imposing intellectual property rights were among the main concerns raised by the treaty, as one requirement of CAFTA was signing the international Convention on Plant Variety Protection known as UPOV. The threat to farmers' seeds in Costa Rica and many other parts of the world is more complicated than being a clear-cut issue of privatization. Struggles for control over seeds are a crucial part of the political economy of agriculture that are grounded in debates over the significance of the physical and social properties of seeds as a natural resource. This article explores how debates over intellectual property rights to seeds confound simple distinctions between public domain and private property, and the implications for agricultural genetic diversity. Moreover, through the story of Costa Rica's engagement with CAFTA and UPOV, I contemplate the broader effects of the free trade paradigm on reconfiguring ideas not only of property but also of personhood and democracy. I will argue that through reconfiguring the boundary between the public domain and private property in the realm of seeds, recent intellectual property trends also reinscribe the definition of farmers along pre-defined class lines. Through their actions, groups involved offer competing visions of how a local resource should be defined and internationally connected; these visions can be understood as competing visions of political ecology in practice.

Keywords: Costa Rica, CAFTA, UPOV, intellectual property, seeds

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