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2-Plants: Genetic mutation of Mexican maize - Gene warfare in Oaxaca

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

TITLE:  Genetic Mutation of Mexican Maize
        Gene Warfare in Oaxaca
SOURCE: Counterpunch, USA, by Camelo Ruiz Marrero, translated by Tonio Solo
DATE:   10-12 Jul 2004 

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Genetic Mutation of Mexican Maize
Gene Warfare in Oaxaca

Scientists 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.

Alejandro de Avila, 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 States.

This 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 srping.

That 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.

The 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.

Enter genetically modified foods

In 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.

Already 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.

In 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.'

This 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.'

'The 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.'

The 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 with recommendations.

The 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 cafes?
To respond to demand for authentic participation, the CCA set up the
panel to carry out the symposium of March 11th.

In 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

Countdown to Oaxaca

One 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.

On 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.

In 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?

The 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.'

They 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.'

And 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.

Different languages

The 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.

The 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.

But 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.

The 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.'

Carmelo RUIZ MARRERO is a journalist based in Puerto Rico published in
Ecoportal and other media. He is the author of , 'Agricultura y
globalizacion: Alimentos transgenicos y control corporativo" published by
the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center. This
article was assisted by Tania Fernandez for EcoPortal.


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

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Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

P: +49-531-5168746
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