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MEXICO'S ANCIENT CORN
THREATENED BY FAKE SPECIES

http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2002-02-28/news_story3.php
MEXICO'S ANCIENT CORN THREATENED BY FAKE SPECIES

BY JOHN ROSS

calpulapan, oaxaca -- as indianfarmers 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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material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed
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