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Holding Their Ground

March 2013

Mexican Farmers Fight Back Against Biotech Giants

“The Conquistadors came and they subjugated us and they killed us, but they couldn’t make us disappear because we always had corn. Through corn, we survived and we kept our feet in our territories. With corn at the center of our homes we kept our languages, kept writing our histories. We continued as villages, as families, as workers, as fighters, as a community with our own government, because we had and because we have corn.  Now, with the invasion of genetically modified corn they are trying to throw a mortal blow at our existence, the blow that they have not been able to throw in 500 years.”
–The Organizations and Communities of the Network in Defense of Maize (Translated from Spanish from the article El maíz, corazón de la esperanza de los pueblos—Corn, heart or the hope of the village—by Veronica Villa of the Red Maiz—Network in Defense of Corn)

As huge American Biotech companies Monsanto, DuPont, and ConAgra await imminent approval of their requests for permits to plant more than six million acres (an area larger than the size of El Salvador) in Mexico with GMO corn, resistance by peasant and indigenous organizations and their allies is mounting. If approved, this will be the first time commercial planting of GMOs has been allowed in the center of biodiversity of any crop.  Although the stakes at this moment could not be higher, this is not a new battle. When Cortez conquered Mexico in the 1500s, the Spaniards began an offensive against what they viewed as lowly corn, trying to force indigenous farmers to grow wheat instead. Their efforts failed, as have countless attempts throughout Mexico’s history to eradicate a “corn culture” in which corn is more than a livelihood, more than a food, but also an identity, a basis of religion, and a part of the family.

At stake today are indigenous and campesino (peasant) cultural rights; Mexico’s food sovereignty;  Mexico’s enormous biodiversity of corn adapted for countless climates, soils, and conditions; and the nation’s health (one of the types of corn they wish to grow, MON603, caused tumors—and other maladies—in rats in a recent peer-reviewed study by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini published in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology).

The Mexican Government seems to be convinced by biotech firms Monsanto, Dow, and ConAgra which hold that genetically engineered crops are necessary in Mexico to ensure that there is enough corn to feed the population, but the evidence does not bear out this argument. In 2009, 13 years after GE crops were first planted in the United States; Union of Concerned Scientists researcher Doug Gurian-Sherman published a study showing that GMOS crops do not produce higher yields than traditional crops.

One of the chief proponents of genetic engineering in Mexico is Victor Villalobos, now the head of the InterAmerican Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA).  Villalobos is a scientist who argues that biotechnology is the way forward for Mexico. In his 2008 book Tránsgenicos: Oportunidades y Amenazas (GMOs: Opportunities and threats) he promotes the use of GMOs as necessary to feed Mexico’s growing population. But just as numerous US government officials have been on Monsanto’s payroll (The Organic Consumers Association spells out the details of this revolving door), it seems that Dr. Villalobos is not as impartial as he would like to appear. The Henrich Böll Foundation published a report (see page 151) which shows Villalobos’ connection to Monsanto. When Villalobos was Sub-Secretary of Agriculture leading the way for the Mexican Government to approve experimental GMO corn plots, he was also on the board of the Mexican Company Grupo Pulsar whose subsidiary Seminis is now owned by Monsanto.

Though now on the fast track to commercializing GMO corn, at one time the Mexican Government took a more cautious approach. In 1999 the Mexican Government placed a moratorium on the commercial production of GMO corn in Mexico because the nation is the center for biodiversity for corn. In 2009, however, just months after a meeting with Hugh Grant, the head of Monsanto in Davos Switzerland, then-president Felipe Calderon ended the moratorium on planting GMO corn in Mexico although none of the reasons for the moratorium had changed.

In what has been a fairly successful effort to avoid contamination of indigenous corn with GMOs after the moratorium, small farmers in Mexico’s southern states have basically held in place their own de facto moratorium.  Peter Rosset, a technical advisor to the Via Campesina, explains that Peasant organizations have “a community agreement not to plant any seeds of unknown or non-local origin.” Further “they destroy any plants that grow with genetic deformities before they can produce pollen.” Rosset goes on to explain that while Mexican scientists were initially doubtful that this method would control GMOs, peasant organizations have since conducted their own studies and found that “the deformed plants in their fields were 3 times as likely to be contaminated as the non-deformed plants.” If GMOs are planted on the scale planned by Monsanto, Dow, and ConAgra, however, peasant farmers will likely be powerless to stop the cross-pollination of this “promiscuous” plant.

In addition to ending the moratorium, the Mexican Government has passed a series of laws aimed at ushering in the commercial planting of GMOs in Mexico while preparing the ground for a legal framework in which privatized seeds will take precedence over centuries of seed selecting and saving by indigenous and campesino farmers. First, the Biosecurity and Genetically Modified Organisms Law known in Mexico as the “Monsanto Law” lays out steps toward commercialization. The second law is the “Seed Law” which makes it illegal to sell or trade saved seeds. A third law, aimed at privatizing seeds did not pass this year as the Red Maiz (Network in Defense of Maize) fought back against the proposed law and ultimately won at least a temporary victory although the law will come up for vote again.

As these laws set the stage, the world now waits to learn the fate of Mexican corn. Peasants and indigenous farmers have organized and in January farmers from 20 states across Mexico held a Hunger Strike across from the Ángel De La Independencia Statue in Mexico City. The Strike culminated in a 5,000-person march from the statue to the Zócolo, Mexico City’s central square on January 31, 2013. The National Union of Autonomous Regional Peasant Organizations (UNORCA) a Grassroots International Partner organized the fast and the march in conjunction with the Via Campesina, also a Grassroots International partner. The groups have been joined by the Network in Defense of Corn as well as the urban worker organization El Movimiento Urbano Popular, the student group #YoSoy132Ambiental, the Central Campesina Cardenista, the Jóvenes ante la Emergencia Nacional, and Greenpeace. The march is the first protest of this scale against GMO corn in Mexico (there have been no equivalent marches in the United States). The marchers were overshadowed in the press because only 3 kilometers away the tragic explosion in the Pemex Building consumed media attention.

Ana de Ita of the Center for Studies of Change in the Mexican Countryside (CECCAM) explains that the organizations are now setting their sights on undoing the pathway to commercialization that Monsanto and its allies in the Mexican Government have established. To that end they have returned home from the capital to collect 150,000 signatures to demand a referendum to force congress to review and overturn the Biosecurity Law and the Seed Law.

Our partners are also preparing a legal strategy to demand that the Supreme Court review any permitting to ensure it doesn’t affect the constitutional rights of Mexican farmers. You can help by contributing to the legal defense fund today. These legal challenges are imminent and we need to get your support to the people on the front lines as quickly as possible. For these reasons, the deadline for gifts to the fund is Friday, March 22.

At stake is a way of living deeply rooted in corn’s long history as the basis for Mexican culture, identity, agriculture, and cuisine. The implications will be far-reaching in terms of human health, the environment, and all of humanities’ preparedness for climate change. As Monsanto, Dow, and ConAgra carry on their dealings behind closed doors, Mexico’s small farmers with the support of students, urban workers, scientists and citizens from all over the world, have held their own in their fields and taken the battle to the streets.

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