Declaration before the Tribunal of Agen[1]

Sickness has long been an individual fate or a social misfortune, the possible relief of which depended upon medical knowledge and private charity progressively relayed by public authorities. Public health is now an economic affair, indeed, doubly so. On the one hand, because the market economy -- through its victory over the long-standing natural conditions that have since disappeared everywhere -- now stricto sensu produces the life and death of modern man, this economy reveals itself to be in a certain way a problem both of and for health. In our latitudes, no one can be ignorant that what is eaten, drunk and breathed -- in sum, the general conditions of everyday life, about which the individual routinely does nothing -- constitute a menace to his "capital health," to use the poetic expression of the time; and at each instant one recommends to us the improvement of the management of everyday life by renouncing this or that old habit that has become harmful and the noxiousness of which one can figure into the general accounts of the nation. On the other hand, more directly and crudely, public health has become an economic affair by acceding to the dimension and quality of industry; France, for example, devotes to public health more than 8 percent its gross national product, which is a considerable and rapidly growing sum, double that of military expenditures. As in any industry, the unique preoccupation is to conquer the markets by responding to existing needs and by creating new ones in the essential domains of medical engineering and chemistry, thanks to all the resources of marketing[2] and corruption. -- Jacques Philipponeau, Account of the poisoning perpetrated in Spain and camouflaged under the name of toxic oil syndrome,[3] Editions Encyclopedia of Nuisances,[4] Paris, 1994.

Madame President of the Tribunal, Sirs:

These lines are extracted from an excellent short work published in 1994 and devoted to a remarkable manipulation that was undertaken, not without success, by the State, the experts and Spanish justice -- in direct contact with the agro-chemical multinational [corporation], Bayer -- so as to dissimulate under the name of toxic [rapeseed] oil syndrome the prosaic responsibility of an organo-phosphate, Nemacur #10, made by the Bayer company and used in the treatment of tomatoes, in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and the sickness or infirmity (blindness, muscular atrophy, permanent paralysis) of dozens of thousands of others between 1981 and 1982.

In different times, such a book would no doubt have been printed in Geneva or Amsterdam. But one can now publish anything here, no matter what. Such is the incomparable progress of what one today does not fear to call "democracy," which -- so as to maintain the diverse impostures that finally do not escape from the central decoy[5] that one has dressed up in this beautiful name -- is the word one prefers to use every time it is possible to cover the music of the truth with the sound-effects of the spectacle. Thus, this book was published, in sum, under the table, but it has nevertheless found its readers.

If I evoke this book, this is not only because its subject matter has a lot to do with what preoccupies us in this trial, but also because the techniques of domination evolve so quickly -- even more quickly than the unemployment rate or the gains in productivity -- that they impose on all those who are not on the good side of the stick to respond rapidly to the question that it implicitly asked over the course of the last four years: is it still possible to make the truth understood when so much power, the State and money, join forces to occult it? When one is on the side of the muffled, the voiceless, how can one set up obstacles to the machinations that the marketers and their clerks hatch in broad daylight in insolent certitude, not necessarily being right but not being contradicted?[6] How to succeed in the urgent cases?

Acting against Norvatis' transgenic corn and the revolting complacence with which the French government has judged it good to authorize the commercialization and cultivation of this product -- which it did by lying about the opinion rendered by the Committee of Prevention and Precaution, to which the government had appointed peasants (those strange beings who imagine themselves more qualified to feed humanity than the pharmaceutical and chemical industries) -- my comrades from the Peasants' Confederation have, in any case, considered that it was urgent to set ourselves against those who would like to impose this product as an accomplished fact.

By traveling to Nerac on 8 January 1998 to denature Novartis' transgenic corn, thereby rendering it unsuitable for commercialization, my comrades have no doubt proposed to the important questions that I just mentioned a response that I am not far from finding exemplary. I flatter myself with having participated. As I am honored to have since then utilized, as a free man, the means that have appeared useful to make known the meaning of what we accomplished on 8 January to the greatest number of people.

I have not done this alone. In addition to my comrades in the Peasants' Confederation and the European Peasants' Coordination Committee, a number of honest and brave people all over the planet have devoted the last three weeks to this task with the poor means at their disposal. You will agree that we have had a certain merit: the several thousand children, women and men who have made us -- Jose Bove, Francis Roux and myself -- into a kind of row of honor before this Tribunal; the hundreds of testimonies of solidarity and encouragement -- French, European and international -- that we have received, your Tribunal as well, I fear; thousands of petitions of support that have been signed in such a short period of time -- all this testifies to the fact that we have worked well, that we have been understood.

I wish to make myself well-understood here, even if this declaration was prepared hastily, somewhat sacrificed to the other preparations for this trial, and thus it is not as rigorous as it should be. At least I will indicate the extent to which I thank the witnesses that we have solicited for having agreed to state their convictions here. I release that this does not at all imply that they do or do not approve of the method that we have chosen to create the conditions of the debate.

I generally share the views laid out here by the brilliant witnesses about the risks and dangers that hang over human health, the health of the animals, the natural world, the water resources and biodiversity due to the cultivation and consumption of plants derived from genetic engineering, such as they are proposed today by the companies. There is not one of them for which mercenary research has had any other goal (such as the improvement of nutritional, dietetic or any other qualities) than to elaborate a profitable and easy-to-sell commodity on the pretext -- most often specious -- that it will result in productivity gains! One will understand, I think, that this is not what agriculture and the peasants need, neither in the so-called developed countries nor elsewhere.

One has also heard the witnesses emphasize the use the French government has made of the Precautionary Principle,[7] which one can imagine is imposed on governments due to political prudence, rather than moral sense.

I want to believe that one has retained the number of these witnesses who have emphasized the meaning one must give to the offensive launched by the pharmaceutical and chemical multinationals so as to create and then conquer the market in transgenic seeds, and how this touches upon the right of the people to alimentary autonomy with respect to what would be the final objective of these merchants of poison: the patentability of the living, which would abolish the timeless practice of the peasants (reproducing their seeds themselves) to the profit of the stockholders of the multinationals.

I add a remark. If, as we desire, the French government revisits its decision and institutes a general moratorium on the utilization of genetically modified organisms in agriculture until real experiments (which suppose a confinement and not experimentation in the grandeur of nature, which certain Dr. Strangeloves, including so-called public research facilities in this country, do not fear to think of as a godsend) can verify -- over a sufficient period of time, one GMO after another GMO -- the innocuousness and real advantages there is cause to expect; and if, after this is done, the European Union in its entirety adopts a position of responsibility with respect to the pressures of the United States and the World Trade Organization, there would still be the risk of an uncontrollable dissemination of vegetable GMO, especially in the most vulnerable countries, in other words, in those countries one immodestly calls "developing." The techniques of genetic engineering do not fall under the heading of heavy industry. In many countries, the competent researchers (if one dares to use the word "competent") who work in the laboratories that have quite opportunely been endowed by the International Fund or the World Bank in fact work without oversight. What desert storm will be necessary to exterminate the monsters that they will hatch? How many poor beggars will it be necessary to take hostage? Who will it be necessary to judge?

Beyond involuntary derision -- as beautiful as the fortuitous meeting of a unionized worker at Novartis and a committee of unemployed workers in the agora of a democratic city -- that one finds in the fact that such a subject comes before a criminal tribunal, I would like to address those who were shocked by the fact that I noted the properly royal [versallais] accents of Mr. Assistant-Prosecutor at the time of our appearance on 9 January [1998] in front of what not too long ago was still called a hearing of obvious offense.[8] Not being a specialist in the art of legal oratory, I was vividly impressed by the vigor of his remarks, which denounced the will to disturb public order and injure private property in our enterprise, at the very moment when, all over the country, there re-emerged (under the form of committees of unemployed workers) the dangerous classes, of which one no longer expected to see sudden eruptions. It is also necessary to repeat that we were interrogated during a brief solidarity shutdown in front of the Assedic[9] of Agen, which was surrounded by the CRS.[10]

Everything has been said. I will nevertheless add this: one asked me several days ago what I thought of the Canuts.[11] I think that one would have liked me to say that it was in vain that they were opposed to the irresistible march of progress. The Canuts broke the looms that replaced people, and we slightly denatured -- finally, too little, I am sorry to say -- Novartis' transgenic corn, because this industrial product (among others), if it were distributed, would contribute to the continued elimination of peasants. What is the difference? I do not see any, except perhaps that our gesture ended up giving the Canuts the reasons that they could not completely conceive back then.

A message of support that was sent to us appears to me to lucidly summarize all this. It says that, "in the suicidal version of capitalism, each step taken in the direction of 'progress' is merely a steps towards catastrophe. The extent of the disaster and the threat of its aggravation put into question in a vital fashion the very nature of a society dominated by market relations" ("Appeal for the Unification of Struggle"). It comes from a general assembly of unemployed workers held at Jussieu on 21 January [1998]. This is what makes one fact.

By initiating the first public trial of a transgenic plant, what else is proclaimed by this joyous and resolved crowd [outside the courthouse], the noise of which reaches us this afternoon, other than the fact that it also puts on trial a social order that no longer fears to announce that it is willing to assume the risk of poisoning humanity and the planet in the name of financial balance and the free circulation of commodities?

I have said many times that I assume all of my responsibilities. I will repeat it again. What we did in Nerac on 8 January was perfectly legitimate. I will continue to act according to what appears to me as legitimate even when the laws tardily admit it. Other trials in the near future and held elsewhere will prove that different conception about this subject will be radically opposed. Mine is clear. Your judgment will enunciate yours.[12]

Rene Riesel

[1] On the occasion of Riesel's appearance with Jose Bove and Francis Roux, two of his comrades from the Peasants' Confederation, at the time of the first trial of transgenic corn. (On 8 January 1998, these three men -- supported by 120 members of the Peasants' Confederation -- mixed non-modified corn in with Novartis' genetically modified corn and humidified it.)

[2] English in original.

[3] See letter from Guy Debord to Jaap Kloosterman, dated 6 March 1982.

[4] The Encyclopedia of Nuisances was founded in 1984 by Jaime Semprun and the ex-situationist Christian Sebastiani. In 1999, Rene Riesel would join the group that directed this journal, and in 2000 it would publish a book by him.

[5] Since Riesel would quite pointedly dismiss the relevance of Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) in an interview published on 3-4 February 1999, it is worth noting how similar this formation (au leurre central) is to one of this book's opening lines: "Readers will encounter certain lures [quelques leurres], like the very hallmark of the era."

[6] Another formulation very similar to Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle: "The simple fact of being without reply has given to the false an entirely new quality. At a stroke it is truth that has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to the status of pure hypothesis that can never be demonstrated. The false without reply has succeeded in making public opinion disappear: first it found itself incapable of making itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether. This evidently has significant consequences for politics, the applied sciences, the justice system and artistic knowledge."

[7] The idea that, in the absence of scientific consensus that an action or policy will cause serious harm to the general public, the burden of proof of the safety of such an action or policy falls upon those who advocate taking or enacting it.

[8] une audience de flagrant delit: a hearing for those caught in the act.

[9] The Association for Employment in Industry and Trade, a private organization.

[10] The French riot police.

[11] The Canuts were silk workers in Lyon who revolted in 1831 and 1834.

[12] On 18 February 1998, the Tribunal voted to convict the defendants and impose large fines upon them.

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