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2-Plants: Indian farmer voices on GE contamination of Mexican corn

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-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Nasty niblets - Mexico’s ancient corn threatened by fake species
SOURCE: Now online edition, Vol. 21 (27), Canada, by John Ross
DATE:   Feb 28, 2002

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Calpulapan, Oaxaca -- As Indian farmers in the remote Sierra del Norte of 
Oaxaca prepare the earth for the spring corn planting, they regard the 
seasonal mountain breezes with palpable suspicion. "Everyone is talking 
about the "transgenicos' (genetically modified corn) this year. Some say it 
travels on the wind and will poison the milpas," worries Rogelio Morales, a 
Zapotec Indian farmer and official of the Union of Organizations of the 
Sierra de Juarez, which represents farmers' groups in the Guelatao region.

The "milpa" Morales refers to is the traditional planting of corn, beans 
and squash in the same fields, the basis of the Indian diet throughout 
southern Mexico. "Without the milpa, our communities cannot survive," the 
Zapotec farmer warns, furrows forming on his broad brow. Farther up the 
twisty mountain highway, Nicolas Jimenez Jimenez, a toothless farmer from 
Azuni, leans up against a roadside storefront. Yes, he admits, he has heard 
of the "transgenicos," but only on the radio. "They say the gringos brought 
them here," he laughs nervously.

The recent and dread confirmation of contamination of native corn by 
genetically modified varieties in this sierra has long been in the wind. 
Last year alone, Mexico imported 13 million tons of basic grains from the 
U.S. and Canada; half of it -- 6 million tons plus -- was corn, a third to 
two-thirds of which is thought to have been genetically modified. 
Transgenic corn began flooding into Mexico five years ago under new import 
rules spelled out in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These 
imports are fast excluding Indians and other small farmers from Mexico's 
internal market.

In the U.S., 25 million acres are growing such genetically modified 
commercial corns as StarLink and BT-YieldGard (both designed to combat 
caterpillars) and Roundup-Ready (resistant to the herbicide Roundup), so it 
was just a matter of time before the modified corn crept across the border 
and into the Mexican milpa.

It's unclear exactly how much of the manipulated corn is piling into the 
Mexican marketplace. Greenpeace Mexico calculates that Big Corn -- Cargill-
Consolidated, Archer-Daniels-Midlands, Maseca-Gruma (all of which are 
barred from selling transgenic grains to the European Union and Japan, 
where commercialization is prohibited by law) -- is dumping its genetically 
modified corn on Mexico by the boatload. Up to 60 per cent of all shipments 
may be tainted.

These imports are supposedly destined for animal consumption; Mexico does 
not require Cargill and other transnational grain merchants to separate 
transgenic from natural corn. Agrarian observers agree that despite its 
supposed consignment as animal feed, a portion of the 6-million-ton corn 
import total (far exceeding NAFTA quotas) is diverted for human consumption 
and is planted in Mexican milpas.

The contamination of Mexican seed stocks -- at least 50 distinct families 
of corns and thousands of varieties -- by the transnational biotech cartel 
reads like the chronicle of a disaster foretold.

The first instances were recorded inadvertently in the autumn of 2000 in 
the Sierra del Norte municipality of Calpulapan, up the mountain and across 
the valley from Guelatao, when the biologist Ignacio Chapela, long-time 
adviser to a local indigenous organization, the Union of Zapotecos and 
Chinantecos (UZACHI), noted alien DNA in local corn samples during a lab 
training session.

Further testing substantiated the doctor's worst fears when the samples 
came up positive for transgenic contamination. "It was like when an AIDS 
test comes up positive. We had the bad news, but we couldn't determine the 
vector," Dr. Chapela recalls.

But what Chapela and the Indian activists were able to determine was 
frightening enough: four samples drawn from local milpas proved to be 27 
per cent contaminated. More disturbingly, one sample taken from the 
government Diconsa store in nearby Ixtlan de Juarez was 100 per cent bad. 
The field contamination was in fact tracked to a campesino who had mixed 
his seed corn with a lot bought at Diconsa. The findings were 
unprecedented. Dr. Chapela packed up his samples and headed for the 
University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches, for further testing.

Although speculation about the trail of the contamination focuses on 
Diconsa, Lilia Perez, a young Indian woman who heads up the UZACHI 
investigation team, insists that the mutant corn doesn't even have to get 
to the store to spread its dangers. "The Diconsa trucks are old and the 
drivers are careless. Corn spills off the trucks and the farmers scoop it 
up and plant it. Or else the wind blows the pollen into nearby fields."

For many months, the mutant corn of Calpulapan remained a closely guarded 
secret. "We did not want the name of the town to be known, because we 
worried that the SAGARPA (Secretariat of Agriculture) and the SEMARNAT 
(Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources) would come and burn 
our fields to get rid of the problem," relates UZACHI's Perez.

Confirmation of the Calpulapan contamination was announced in mid-September 
by the National Commission on Bio-security, and the government instigated 
its own probe into the level of contamination. Preliminary results were 
discouraging: in a survey of 20 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and two in 
neighbouring Puebla, only six were found to be clean. Even more alarming 
were 20 to 60 per cent GM readings in samples taken by the National Ecology 
Institute in six other widely scattered regions, from Oaxaca's Mixteca 
mountains to the state's central valleys.

"This is a tragic discovery. It literally alters the course of biological 
history," Dr. Chapela told this reporter during a February symposium at 
Oaxaca city's centuries-old Santo Domingo cloister. But to the Berkeley-
based biologist, the worst is yet to come: "Calpulapan is a wakeup call. 
Next come the second-generation GMs, seeds that grow one crop and go 
inactive. Then it becomes a question of control -- Mexican farmers will 
become dependent on Monsanto and Dupont and Navartis to grow corn 
cultivated here for thousands of years...." The biologist is particularly 
concerned that transgenic contamination will lead to the homogenization of 
Mexico's rich germ plasma. "Genetic memory is being threatened," he argues. 
Transgenic mutation can alter the genetic structure even of the wild corn, 
teocintle, the common predecessor of Mexico's abundant corn diversity. "The 
transnationals are trying to make Mexican corn the same as Iowa's. We 
cannot let that happen."

The response of president Vicente Fox and his cabinet to all this might 
easily be called cognitive dissonance. Environmental and Natural Resources 
secretary Victor Lichtinger concedes that commercialization of transagenic 
corn is a potential time bomb for native species, and he backed recent 
modifications of the penal code that make it a criminal offence to sell or 
release transgenics into the atmosphere. But he adamantly rejects the 
notion that the new regulation applies to the flood of U.S. and Canadian GM 
corn inundating his country.

Under the banner of "The Defence of Maize," over 400 representatives of non-
governmental organizations, environmentalists, social activists, academics 
and Indian authorities ranging from the Tzeltal nation on the southern 
border to the O'Odam people on the northern, gathered in Mexico City in 
late January to formulate a common defence and national strategy. Many 
Indian reps proudly displayed corn guarded in their communities for 
centuries, "the corn of our grandfathers," Maria Nana, a Nahua from 
Xochimilco in southern Mexico City, called it. Two days of lively 
discussion yielded a battle plan that includes demands the government shut 
the border to U.S. and Canadian corn, and for widespread testing in all 
corn-producing areas. The conference also called for the establishment of a 
network of seed banks throughout the country.


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