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By Carmelo Ruiz Marrero
Since 2001, the furtive presence of this corn has been documented, growing on peasant farms, first in the fields of the southern state of Oaxaca and more recently throughout the country.
"In 1996, transgenic corn began to be cultivated in the United States and in about five years it came to constitute 30% of the entire national crop of that grain."
Scientists from Mexico, Canada and the United States met on March 11 at the Victoria hotel in Oaxaca for a symposium on the effects and possible risks of the presence of genetically modified (transgenic) corn in Mexico. Since 2001, the furtive presence of this corn has been documented, growing on peasant farms, first in the fields of the southern state of Oaxaca and more recently throughout the country. This finding may have serious implications for agricultural biodiversity, since corn is the third most important agricultural crop in the world (after wheat and rice), and Mexico is its center of origin and diversity.
Alejandro de Ávila, director of the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca, reported that the most recent archaeological studies indicate that maize was discovered and domesticated in Oaxaca 10,000 years ago, not 6,000 or 8,000 as was believed until recently. Corn is considered the greatest agricultural achievement of the human race and the greatest treasure that Christopher Columbus brought from the American continent to Europe. Today it is cultivated in the Mediterranean Sea basin, in Africa and even in China. But its center of diversity continues to be Mexico, where most of the thousands of varieties and strains that are the result of millennia of patient work and experimentation by farmers are grown. These varieties were developed seeking to highlight favorable traits such as their nutritional value, tolerance to acidic or saline soils, resistance to droughts, frost or strong winds, their immunity to diseases, and others. There is a variety that even fixes its own nitrogen. It is not at all strange to see in an indigenous community in the Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca more varieties of corn than in the entire United States.
This astonishing diversity leads agronomists from all over the world to travel to Mexico to obtain specimens to improve their maize varieties, which is why Mexico is the headquarters of the International Research Center for the Improvement of Maize and Wheat (CIMMYT). The cornfields of the Mexican peasants are, therefore, an irreplaceable resource of agricultural biodiversity, indispensable for human nutrition. A social or ecological disturbance in that area could compromise the viability of maize as food and endanger the world's diet. CIMMYT, with all its laboratories and seed depots, cannot replace the dense and complex rural web of social and ecological relationships upon which countless varieties of maize grow and are sustained.
That morning of March 11, while the guests arrived at the hotel and registered for the symposium of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, product of the parallel agreement of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the organizers and the private guards hired to provide security They looked tense and expectant. They knew that a protest was coming and that the protesters would arrive at any moment.
The day before, indigenous and environmental groups and progressive intellectuals had held an alternative forum called Defend Our Corn, Caring for Life. They feared that experts, generally favorable to the biotechnology industry and its transgenic products, would declare that genetic contamination of corn is a fait accompli and irreversible and that from now on Mexicans will have to get used to it. Participants agreed to attend the symposium the following day to present their concerns and concerns to scientists and bureaucrats. Their admission to the symposium was not confirmed yet, but they would go anyway.
Enter the transgenics
In 1996, transgenic corn began to be cultivated in the United States and in about five years it came to constitute 30% of the entire national crop of that grain. Mexican scientists and environmentalists expressed concern that this corn was entering Mexico as imports, with uncertain consequences for agricultural biodiversity. The government responded the following year by imposing a moratorium on the planting of GMOs. But the measure was never enforced and corn imports continued unchecked. The citizens were never told that this grain should not be used as a seed.
Already in 1999 the Mexican chapter of Greenpeace had analyzed samples of the US corn that was arriving in the country and they had tested positive for transgenic content. The government then formed an inter-institutional committee, the Intersecretarial Commission for Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms (CIBIOGEM) to examine the matter, which to date has not done anything, according to civil society groups. The CIBIOGEM website has not been updated since August 2003.
In 2001 it was found that transgenic corn had been used as seed and planted by farmers who had no idea what it was. "It is no wonder. It is contamination in the very center of origin of a crop of major importance in the world diet, which implies greater impacts than in other areas, since contamination can extend not only to native corn , but also their wild relatives, "warns Silvia Ribeiro, from the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group).
This gene flow "is polluting and degrades one of the greatest treasures of Mexico. Unlike the dispersal and gene flow between native maize and conventional hybrid varieties, it does not transfer genes from maize only, but also fragments of genes from bacteria and viruses (which they have nothing to do with corn), whose environmental and health effects have not been seriously evaluated. "
"The contamination of our traditional maize attacks the fundamental autonomy of our indigenous and agricultural communities because we are not merely talking about our food source; maize is a vital part of our cultural heritage," denounced indigenous leader Aldo González. "For us, native seeds are a very important element of our culture. The pyramids may have disappeared, they may have destroyed them, but a handful of corn seed is the inheritance that we can leave to our children and our grandchildren, and today we they are denying that possibility. "
The following year, environmental, indigenous, and peasant organizations filed a complaint with the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an intergovernmental body created to remedy environmental problems caused by NAFTA. The CCA accepted the complaint and appointed a multinational panel of 17 experts to investigate the problem and present a report with recommendations.
The panel received comments from the public, but only online, which outraged farmers and indigenous people. After all, how many Mixtec or Zapotec communities in the Sierra Juárez have internet cafes? In response to the claim for authentic participation, the CEC decided to hold the panel in Oaxaca to hold the symposium on March 11.
Meanwhile, the Fox government was doing its thing. At the end of last year, Víctor Villalobos, executive secretary of CIBIOGEM and coordinator of international affairs of the agriculture secretariat, signed an international agreement within the framework of the FTA that gives legal entry to transgenics to the country behind the back of the Senate and the public. no labeling requirements.
Countdown to Oaxaca
One month before the symposium, the seventh conference of the Biodiversity Convention took place in Malaysia, immediately followed by the first conference of the Cartagena Protocol, also in Malaysia. The Protocol, which came into effect last September, is an international agreement to address the possible risks of GMOs. During the conference, a stir was created when Professor Terje Traavik, from the Norwegian Institute of Genetic Ecology, presented a pilot study that points to dangers to human health inherent in transgenic crops and in the process of genetic engineering itself.
On the other side of the world the day before, in Washington DC, the Union of Alert Scientists (UCS) had presented a study indicating that the traditional varieties of seeds of corn, soybeans and canola of the United States, used as a reference and source of replenishment by agronomists and farmers, are contaminated with transgenic material. Taken together, the Traavik and UCS studies constitute a powerful challenge to the biotech industry.
At the Cartagena Protocol conference, the delegations of the signatory countries, after great difficulties and intense negotiations, overcame the pressures of the genetics transnationals and reached an agreement. The agreement would require that all transgenic products traded internationally be labeled. But that agreement came to nothing because at the last minute, just before it was signed, the head of the Mexican delegation, Víctor Villalobos from CIBIOGEM himself, said he found the text unacceptable. Even the members of the Mexican delegation looked at him astonished and open-mouthed. As the Protocol works by consensus, Villalobos managed to derail the hard-won progress, and thus the delegations had to go home with a diluted and emasculated agreement, which leaves the issue of labeling in the hands of governments. If each country is going to do what it pleases, then why an international agreement? Asked several observers.
The reaction of Mexican civil society was furious. In the forum on March 10, the participants signed a complaint against Villalobos, demanding his resignation. "We are ashamed to know that in international forums Mexico is currently being accused of doing the dirty work of transnational corporations to the detriment of other countries," the statement said. "Villalobos does not represent the feelings or the interest of Mexicans."
They also repudiated the "unbearable corruption" of officials who promote GMOs to swallow it. "We are not interested in finding out whether or not they receive money from the corporations, if they do it out of mercenary interest or out of ignorance and irresponsibility. We are not policemen. But we do not need further investigation to affirm without reservation that they do not represent us and that they are not capable of understanding our realities and aspirations, much less defend them. "
And to add spice to the tense atmosphere that was developing on the eve of the Oaxaca symposium, comes the news that the voters of Mendocino County, California, United States, had approved a measure against GMOs.
Finally, the protesters arrived at the Victoria Hotel: peasants, Greenpeace activists, representatives of indigenous peoples and committed academics and intellectuals, all entering to register for the symposium. The organizers wisely gave everyone admission and the conference room soon became a Tower of Babel. The scientists, bureaucrats, and journalists, who spoke English, Spanish or French, were now accompanied by indigenous people speaking Mixtec, Zapotec, Chinanteco or any of the dozens of pre-Columbian languages spoken in the region.
The differences between the two sides went far beyond the language barrier. It was a clash between totally different and incompatible ways of thinking and worldviews. The CEC panel members spoke in highly technical language, each confining themselves to their particular specialty. They intended to discuss ethical, technical, environmental and economic aspects separately.
But the indigenous people and their allies, with their holistic and comprehensive vision, did not accept that. It was unethical for them to look at the different aspects separately. They spoke about the millenary indigenous worldview, spirituality, culture, inalienable moral principles and duties, colonialism, neoliberalism, sovereignty and struggle. They presented questions about the risks of transgenics and questions about industrialized agriculture and the power of transnational agribusiness companies.
The protesters demanded an end to imports of corn, transgenic or not, and that the government fulfill its inescapable duty to take concrete measures to track down genetic contamination and stop it. "We request the solidarity and support of those who are waging, in other parts of Mexico and the world, a struggle similar to ours, so that the territories free of transgenics are extended more and more."
* Carmelo RUIZ MARRERO
Journalist based in Puerto Rico, collaborator of Ecoportal and other media.
Author of "Agriculture and globalization: transgenic foods and corporate control"
Work Published by the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center
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Collaboration of Tania Fernandez for EcoPortal