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Synthesis/Regeneration 32   (Fall 2003)

Future of Indigenous Agriculture: A Challenge to Us

by Ana Ruiz Diaz, Coordinator
of the Permaculture Network of Mexico

The contamination of heirloom varieties of corn in Mexico by genetically modified corn imported from the USA is a very serious matter for peasants. Small farmers depend on corn for their basic food supply. This contamination was discovered and published by Ignacio Chapela and David Quist in the Fall of 2001. Their findings were corroborated by at least three studies performed by the Mexican government. There will be other contaminations of this sort. Genetic modifications may be found in potatoes and soybeans very soon.

Information on genetic modified organisms is very complex, and often not written in Spanish. In Mexico, we have studied and translated many articles and manuals written in Asia, Canada, Africa and the US. We need to listen and learn from other leaders about their food systems and development of biotech crops in their geographical regions.

As a result of my experience, training and research, I have developed a deep respect for peasant knowledge and accomplishments. Several people have help us to understand the importance of diversity in the food chain. Some such people are the Huicholes, Tzotziles and Mijes, Indians native to the craddle of corn in Jalisco, Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico. I wish to make other people aware of this ancient wisdom and to hope for a science that is as wise.

The keepers of corn: Who are Huicholes?

The Huicholes are Indians living in the hills of Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima. They are custodians of the candles of life; of the heart of corn. The Huichol people are but a few thousand Indians, threatened by alcoholism, bad health and greedy neighbors. This culture has the traditional role of keeping light and corn.

They also, however, kill or disrupt wild species that are no pests of corn, yet visit and use a little bit of it...

As with other living beings, corn has two relatives who are essential part of the family: a perenial and an annual wild corn, the teocintle. Seed banks all over the world treasure the value of these ancient living relatives of corn. These seeds have been bred for ten-thousand years and are known as heirloom varieties of white, yellow, red, spotted, and black corn. Huichol culture has a sacred trilogy, it is deer, peyote and corn. Huicholes discover early in their lives the interdependence of corn, deer and peyote. They learn by heart the rules to respect and to be cautious of the desert, the wild and the gift of growing corn.

GM agronomic practices are a significant threat to the genetic integrity of crops as precious as corn. Genetically modified plants are toxic insecticidal plants that damage or kill the targeted pest. They also, however, kill or disrupt wild species that are no pests of corn, yet visit and use a little bit of it, such as wasps, lacewings and lady beetles. These beneficial species are being hit by GM tissue and pollen. The insects get pollen as food and take extra pollen to fertilize other plants. Insects regulate other insect populations and are key elements for health of ecosystems and to make possible the harvest of food.

Dealing with biotechnology in agriculture and industrial foods is, in itself, an internal affair that needs answers by citizens and governments in each country. We are witnessing a simultaneous drive in the world to build a cautionary regulation for health and food, and of the methods by which food is grown, raised, packaged, shipped, and processed.

In the last 10 years, corporations have infiltrated virtually all businesses in medium and large towns in the country in Mexico. They are supplying pesticides and seed to agribusiness, sweatshops and “and selling” to small farmers. Monsanto, DuPont, Aventis, and Bayer are the bigger sellers. Cargill, in just three years, has become the biggest corn distributor.

The search and purchase of microorganisms and other valuable species for industrial uses, called bio-prospecting, is placing ancient knowledge in the market; a trend that puts in jeopardy the social, moral and economic balance of very poor communities. It jepordizes the stability of “genetic resources” themselves. Many countries, such as Mexico, are building the legal framework for genetic resources access. The international trade commitments, the intellectual property rights and patents held by biotechnology corporations are intimidating food producers and government officials in Mexico.

What are farmers asking?

The group El Campo No Aguanta Mas (“The farmers of the country can stand no more”) has united hundreds of farmer groups, even the National Confederation of Peasants (CNC), that has usually been PRI oriented. [PRI is the traditional ruling party of Mexico. -ed.] They have summarized and consensed their national demands to three:

The Farmers’ Movement is arising, demonstrating in main cities, in the borders, every day asking for fair trade and to give preference to domestic food supplies.

What is the government doing?

Our Inter Ministerial Commission on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms, (CIBIOGEM), was created late in 1999. The Commission has 13 members who are scientists of biotechnology, researchers of the CIMMyT the International Center of Improvement of Wheat and Corn, of the Advanced Technology Research Center, Cinvestav, National Commission on Science and Technology, CONACyT, Agriculture, Ecology, Health and Education Ministeries. Their recommendations to speed the entrance of GMO’s in Mexico were disregarded.

… bio-prospecting, is placing ancient knowledge in the market.

The La Jornada newspaper reported on August 13, 2002 that all 13 members of the Council of CIBIOGEM resigned in protest. However CIBIOGEM and the Ministry of Agriculture just passed a bill in the Senate to impose a new law that allows commercial scale crops of GM, on April 24, 2003.

The data we have now confirms the importance of biodiversity for tropical cultures. Information derived from the research of independent groups and scientists in Mexico made us understand the ways in which ways diversity is threatened by unregulated imports of genetically modified seeds. The total yield of a crop in the tropics is much more that the total tonnage of grain. The real harvest includes hundreds of weeds that nurture animals and people, weeds that are considered pests and eradicated by biotech agriculture. Crops and weeds provide pollen and plant tissue for beneficial insects like bees that are affected by the toxins present in transgenic plants.

We know that the dynamic duo of government with TNCs is doing business beyond common sense. They are crossing thresholds, ignoring borders and natural edges. It is very urgent to meet TNC operators, Bio-tech CEOs, managers of research projects, and dialogue with them. It is very important to be vigilant. We must know what are they doing and with who’s help.

Implications of biotechnology corporations

We have to trust that each of our efforts works as a balance to this dangerous and ill-advised folly. If they continue spreading GM corn, they are going to kill the cultural heart of farms and farming. We do make a difference for the future of traditional agriculture. We can make a difference for small farmers. We will make a difference, fair trade and safe food.

This article is based on the author’s presentation at the May 16–18, 2003 Biodevastation 7 Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.

[6 sep 03]

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