In October, Dr Damián Verzeñassi, from the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the National University of Rosario (UNR) in Argentina, was among 30 experts who testified about the health impacts of GMOs and their associated pesticides at the Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague. During the Tribunal, a case was made against Monsanto for violations of human rights and “ecocide”, a term to denote crimes that irreparably damage the natural environment and human populations that depend on it.

On 8 November an Argentine newspaper reported that Verzeñassi had been locked out of his office at UNR. He had arrived to find the office had been chained shut.

NGOs and the public responded with outrage. International campaigning actions put massive pressure on the university’s administrators to stop the persecution of Verzeñassi.

On 14 November 2016 GMWatch was informed that these campaigns had been successful. The rector of the university ordered the Dean to stop all actions against Verzeñassi.

We’re delighted at this outcome, which is a tribute to all those who registered their protest.

However, for the sake of the historical record and so that others can learn what happens to university academics who threaten the interests of big agribusiness, we are publishing below an English translation of the statement published on 8 November, in the midst of the persecution, by the members of the team of the Institute of Socioenvironmental Health and Final Project of the Medicine Degree at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the National University of Rosario.

Ideological persecution at the National University of Rosario for denouncing agrochemicals and GMOs

Members of the team of the Institute of Socioenvironmental Health and Final Project of the Medicine Degree at the Faculty of Health Sciences of the National University of Rosario
Rebelión, 8 November 2016
English translation by Observatorio OMG; revision by Claire Robinson of GMWatch

Ricardo Nidd, Dean at the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the National University of Rosario (UNR), started an ideological and academic persecution against the teachers, graduates and students who support the “Socioenvironmental Health” and “Final Project” programmes, which work with families who have become victims of the dominant agricultural model based on GMOs and agrochemicals. Backing the Dean were regional officials and agribusiness companies. 

The teaching team coordinated by Damián Verzeñassi, from the Faculty of Medical Sciences at the UNR, has for the last six years been developing an experiment that is unprecedented in Argentine universities: health camps to evaluate the situation in urban and rural areas. Hundreds of students settle in the area for a week and conduct a population census. These camps, numbering 27 thus far, have turned into an overwhelming scientific proof of the agricultural model's consequences. This disturbs some political groups, agribusiness transnationals and (what a contradiction!) public university authorities.

During the last months the Socioenvironmental Health and Final Project teams, both coordinated by Verzeñassi, have been suffering pressure from the Dean, Ricardo Nidd. This escalation reached its peak last week, when Gastón Palacios, associate professor of the Final Project, was removed from his position of secretary for university extension. The outcomes of the health camps had been released to the media by Palacios during the previous days. The Dean also removed Giovana Bonisoli from the position of undersecretary of student welfare. Bonisoli is co-manager of the Socioenvironmental Health programme and ensures the inclusion of these topics in the medical curriculum. In Bonisoli’s case the Dean also offered sexist and misogynist insults.

This ended in other members of the Faculty Cabinet resigning in protest against such persecution.

Another fact to illustrate Dean Nidd's actions is that he ordered the office where all the information about the health camps is located to be shut with locks and chains. These documents constitute valuable evidence of the health situation of the 27 villages and towns in Santa Fe, Entre Ríos, Córdoba, and Buenos Aires. Access was denied to all the teaching personnel related to the programmes coordinating these camps.

This escalation of academic persecution took place while Verzeñassi was taking part in the historic International Monsanto Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands (to travel there, he used his unused past vacation days).

Dean Nidd met with sectors linked to the regional government and offered to let them coordinate the Final Project, which includes the health camps. We are afraid that the next step for the Dean could be to fire more teachers by not renewing their contracts at the end of the year, and also to dismantle the Socioenvironmental Health Institute and health camps.

From the Socioenvironmental Health Institute and the Socioenvironmental Health and Final Project programmes we are working on building a university which is open, democratic, academically excellent and, above all, at the service of the people. Health camps have become a very important and internationally recognised tool for that. Data collected at the health camps have shown the changes in the morbidity and mortality profiles in our region, which has been submitted to a constant poisoning process for years, since the arrival of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The impacts of this process in the life cycles of the people exposed to agribusiness has been revealed.

Teachers, graduates, and students understand the role of the public university: to be at the service of the people, free from pressure from political and/or corporate power. Unfortunately, defending the public university in this way—conducting epidemiological studies from and with the community, publishing the results which are the property of the people and no one else, has put many business and political interests in crisis. The pressure has increased during the last months. We are witnessing how regional authorities are uncomfortable with our work and how they suggest that the best thing for our Faculty would be for us to hide the health camps findings. Agribusiness representatives have taken the same attitude. Internal actors of university politics, who call themselves “revolutionary”, have helped this process along, acting alongside agribusiness-related organisations.

We have been accused of making public the health camp outcomes. We have been accused of travelling (even on our ordinary vacation days) to communicate the health situation of our land to other countries. We have been accused of being consistent with the principles of university reform.

Given the fast, genuine and massive response of solidarity from every corner of our country and Latin America, the chains have been removed from the office at this moment. However, access is still not possible at the rate that university work usually requires. We are worried about the future of the health camps, the possible intervention of the Dean against the Socioenvironmental Health Institute, and the ability of our teachers to continue in their jobs.

The signs of solidarity we have received renew our strength and beliefs.

We will keep working towards a future of caring about our ecosystems' health.

We will keep fighting for a democratic university at the service of the people, not of the corporations or governments.

Today, like yesterday, “The sorrows that remain are the liberties we lack”.

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