from Mexico, Canada and the United States met on March
11th this year in the Hotel Victoria in Oaxaca for
a symposium on the effects and possible risks of the
presence of genetically modified maize in Mexico.
The furtive and growing presence of this maize has
been documented in small plots of land belonging to
rural workers first in the southern State of Oaxaca
and more recently throughout the whole country. This
discovery could have serious implications for agricultural
biodiversity since maize is the third most important
crop in the world after wheat and rice and Mexico
is the center of its origin and diversity.
de Ávila, director of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanic
Garden reported that the most recent archaeological
studies indicate that maize was discovered and domesticated
in Oaxaca ten thousand years ago, not six thousand
or eight thousand as had been believed until recently.
Maize is considered to be humanity's greatest agricultural
achievement and the greatest treasure Christopher
Columbus took back to Europe from the American continent.
Today, it is grown all around the Mediterranean, in
Africa and in China. But its center of diversity continues
to be Mexico, where the greatest part of the thousands
of varieties and stocks are sown which are the result
of millenia of patient work and experiment by campesinos.
These varieties were developed so as to bring out
favorable characteristics such as, among others, nutritional
value, tolerance to acidic or salty soils, immunity
to disease. There is even a variety which fixes its
own nitrogen. It is far from strange to see in an
indigenous community like Sierra Juarez of Oxaca more
varieties of maize than in the whole of the United
astonishing diversity leads agronomists from all over
the world to travel to Mexico to get specimens so
as to improve their own varieties of maize which is
the reason Mexico is the seat of the International
Center for Investigations for the Improvement of Maize
and Wheat (CIMMYT). The maize fields of the Mexican
campesinos are thus an irreplaceable resource of agricultural
biodiversity. Social or ecological disruption in that
area might compromise the viability of maize as a
food and endanger world food supply. The CIMMYT, with
all its laboratories and seed banks, could not replace
the dense and complex rural social and ecological
skein from which innumerable varieties of maize spring.
morning of March 11th, while the participants arrived
at the hotel to register for the symposium of the
Commission on Environmental Cooperation, which resulted
from the parallel agreement of the North American
Free Trade Area, the organizers and private security
guards seemed tense and expectant. They knew a protest
demonstration was imminent and that the demonstrators
would arrive any moment.
day before, groups representing indigenous people,
environmentalists and progressive intellectuals had
held an alternative forum called "Defending Our
Maize, Protecting Life". They feared that the
experts, generally favourable to the biotechnology
industry and its genetically modified products would
declare that the genetic contamination of maize is
an irreversible fact of life and that in future Mexicans
would have to get used to it. The forum participants
agreed to go to the symposium the following day so
as to present their arguments and concerns to the
bureaucrats and the scientists. Their admission to
the symposium was not confirmed, but they were going
to go anyway.
genetically modified foods
1996 the US began to grow genetically modified maize
and in five years it came to make up 30% of that crop's
national harvest. Mexican scientists and environmentalists
expressed concern that this maize might enter Mexico
through imports with uncertain consequences for agricultural
biodiversoty. The government responded the following
year by imposing a moratorium on the sowing of genetically
modified crops. But the measure was never complied
with and maize imports carried on without any regulation
at all. No one ever explained to people in Mexico
that those grains could not be used as seed.
in 1999 the Mexican branch of Greenpeace had analyzed
samples of United States maize that were entering
the country and had shown positive traces of genetic
modification. The government then formed the Interdepartmental
Commission on Bio-security and Genetically Modified
Organisms (CIBIOGEM) to examine the issue. To this
day it has done nothing according to civil society
groups. The web page of CIBIOGEM has not been updated
since August 2003.
2001 it was proven that genetically modified maize
had been used as seed and sown by rural families who
had no idea what it was. Silvia Ribeiro of the Action
group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC
Group) remarks, "And that's not all. You're talking
about contamination in the very centre of origin of
a crop with huge importance for world food supply,
which means significant effects in other zones since
the contamination can spread not just to the native
varieties of maize but also to their wild parents."
genetic flow "contaminates and degrades one of
Mexico's main treasures. In contrast to dispersion
and genetic flow between native maize and conventional
hybrid varieties, it doesn't just transfer maize genes
but also pieces of genes of bacterias and viruses
(that have nothing to do with maize) whose environmental
and health effects have not been seriously evaluated."
contamination of our traditional maize attacks the
fundamental autonomy of our indigenous and agricultural
communities because we are not just talking of our
food source; maize is a vital part of our cultural
heritage," declares indigenous leader Aldo Gonzalez,
"For us native seeds are an important element
of our culture. The pyramids may have disappeared
and been destroyed but a handful of maize is a legacy
we can leave behind for our children and grandchildren
and today they are denying us that possibility."
following year environmental, indigenous and rural
workers organizations took their case to the North
American Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CCA),
an inter-governmental body created to remedy environmental
problems caused by the Free Trade Treaty. The CCA
took up the case and named a multinational panel of
17 experts to investigate the problem and to report
panel took submissions from the public but only via
Internet, which outraged the rural workers and indigenous
peoples. After all, how many Mixteca or Zapateca communities
in the Sierra Juarez have internet cafés? To
respond to demand for authentic participation, the
CCA set up the panel to carry out the symposium of
the meantime, the Fox government did what wanted.
At the end of last year Victor Villalobos the executive
secretary of CIBIOGEM and coordinator of international
affairs for the Department of Agriculture signed an
international agreement as part of the Free Trade
Treaty behind the backs of the Senate and the citizenry
permitting legal entry to genetically modified products
into the country without labelling requirements
month before the March 11th symposium, the Seventh
Biodiversity Convention was held in Malaysia, followed
immediately by the first conference on the Cartagena
Protocol, also in Malaysia. The Protocol which entered
into effect last Septemberis an international agreement
to deal with the possible risks posed by genetic engineering.
During the conference a dispute broke out when Professor
Terje Traavik of the Norwegian Institute for Genetic
Ecology presented a pilot study which pointed to the
dangers for human health inherent in genetically modified
crops and in the very process of genetic engineering.
the other side of the world, the day before, in Washington
DC, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) presented
a study indicating that varieties of traditional United
States maize seeds, soya and canola used as a reference
and source of re-supply by agronomists and farmers
are contaminated with genetically modified material.
Taken together the studies of Traavik and the UCS
make up a damning critique of the biotechnology industry.
the Conference on the Cartagena Protocol, after many
difficulties and intense negotiations the delegations
of the signatory countries imposed themselves against
the pressures of the multinational genetic engineering
companies and reached an agreement. The agreement
required that all genetically engineered products
traded internationally should be labelled. But this
agreement came to nothing because at the last minute,
right before it was to be signed, the head of the
Mexican delegation, the same Victor Villalobos of
CIBIOGEM said that he found the text unacceptable.
Even the members of the Mexican delegation looked
at him openmouthed and dumbfounded. As the Protocol
works by consent, Villalobos managed to scupper all
the hard won progress and so the delegates had to
return home with a diluted, emasculated agreement
that left the matter of labelling in the hands of
individual governments. Various observers asked, if
each country is to do as it pleases what point is
there to an international agreement?
reaction of civil society in Mexico was furious. In
the forum of March 10th, the participants signed a
declaration against Villalobos demanding his resignation.
"We are ashamed that Mexico is accused in international
fora of doing the dirty work of multinational corporations
to the detriment of other countries," says the
declaration. "Villalobos represents neither the
feelings nor the interests of Mexicans."
rejected too the "intolerable corruption"
of officials who promote genetically modified organisms
like-it-or-not style. "We are not interested
in confirming whether or not they receive money from
the corporations, whether they behave out of mercenary
self-interest, ignorance or recklessness. We are not
the police. But nor do need more investigation to
be able to affirm unreservedly that they do not represent
us and that they are incapable of understanding our
reality and aspirations, much less defend them."
to sharpen the tense atmosphere that growing up around
the Oaxaca symposium, news arrived of the vote in
Mendocino County, California in the US approving a
measure against genetically modified foods.
demonstrators finally arrived at the Hotel Victoria:
rural workers, Greenpeace militants, indigenous peoples
representatives, academics and committed intellectuals,
all entering to register for the symposium. the organizers
wisely gave them all admission and the conference
hall promptly changed into a Tower of Babel. The scientists,
bureaucrats and journalists who spoke English, Spanish
or French were now accompanied by indigenous peoples
speaking Mixteco, Zapateco, Chinanteco or any other
of dozens of pre-Colombian languages that are spoken
in the region.
differences between the two parties went far beyond
language barriers. It was a clash between ways of
thinking and world views totally distinct and incompatible.
The members of the CEC panel spoke in a highly technical
language limiting themselves to their particular speciality.
They tried to discuss ethical, technical environmental
and economic issues in isolation from each other.
the indigenous peoples and their allies with an integral,
holistic vision did not accept this. For them it was
unethical to look at the various issues separately.
They spoke of their age-old indigenous cosmology,
spirituality, culture, inalienable principles and
duties, colonialism, neo-liberalism, sovereignty and
struggle. They raised the risks of genetically modified
products and questioned industrialized agriculture
and the power of the agribusiness multinationals.
demonstrators demanded the end of all maize imports,
genetically engineered or not, and that the government
comply with its inescapable duty to act to hold back
and stop genetic contamination. "We seek the
solidarity and support of all in Mexico and the world,
who have taken up a struggle similar to our own so
as to extend ever further the territories free from
genetically modified food."
Ruiz Marrero is a journalist based in Puerto Rico
published in Ecoportal and other media. He is the
author of "Agricultura y globalización:
Alimentos transgénicos y control corporativo"
published by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric
Resource Center. This article was assisted by Tania
Fernandez for EcoPortal.
by Toni Solo
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