Zapatistas Versus Biopirates in Chiapas

SOIL UNDER SIEGE: Biopirates pillage Chiapas in search of the perfect

By:Lisa Sorg March 13, 2002 San Antonio Current

Editor's note: This is the first installment in an occasional series about
issues facing southern Mexico and its indigenous people.

The mud had consumed us. Our shoes were heavy like anvils, and as we
slopped through the soup of what the day before had been a dry, rocky gully
< also known as a road < we noticed red coffee beans ripening on the trees.
Each of us popped a bean in her mouth and sucked on the bitterness.

It had rained all night.

Steady, tiny drops tapped on the tin roof of our hut, but they couldn't
drown out the sounds of the mountains: Across a gorge, dogs bayed and babies
wailed; in the next room, a man poured himself a soft drink and listened to
a woman with a smoky voice sing a folk ballad on a battery-powered radio.

The Global Exchange van was waiting for us; 50 people from the farming
village of Las Abejas in Chiapas had loaded their children in the 12-seater
to weigh it down, and then with our intrepid driver Julio at the helm, they
rocked and shimmied it up the first, monstrous hill. Navigating the rest of
the mountain's treacherous, slippery switchbacks would be up to Julio. As
the van fishtailed, we tried to distract ourselves with the clouds that
grazed atop the trees, the lushness which draped the land from peak to
valley, and the green thickets that were punctuated by small corn plots
clinging precariously to the mountainsides. Finally, at the top, we passed
the Mexican Army, which conveniently had set up an outpost at the village

We were all farmers once.

For some of us, it's been six or seven generations
and our connection to the land is tenuous, at best. For others, when we
visit our parents or grandparents, we walk with them through the fields,
inhale dense clouds of pollen, crumple the black loam in our hands, and know
we're home. Yet few live closer to the land than the indigenous people of
southern Mexico, specifically Chiapas, where over thousands of years, they
have built cultures, languages, and lives around plants, animals, and
minerals, turning them into medicines, food, and tools.

Much has been made of the United States' and particularly Texas' connection
with northern Mexico: Politically, presidents Vincente Fox and G.W. Bush are
amigos; geographically, the two nations share a border that is porous to capital
but not migration; and economically, with the advent of NAFTA, the maquila belts
have allowed U.S. auto and electronics companies to hire cheap, malleable
workers, evade environmental and labor laws, and make billions of dollars.

But southern Mexico, too, is ripe for exploitation. Biodiversity and
traditional knowledge of plants and their medicinal properties are
supplanting petroleum as the area's primary natural resources. The U.S. and
global agro-pharmaceutical-chemical complex < with cooperation from the
Mexican government < has its talons in Chiapas, which Ryan Zinn of Global
Exchange's Chiapas office calls "the crown jewel of biodiversity," and is
second only to the Amazon jungle in its variety of plant and animal life.

The innocuously named "life sciences" industry is threatening life itself.

Through biopiracy < stealing plants to patent and later manufacture
profitable drugs < corporations such as Merck are undermining biodiversity.
By slipping genetically modified organisms into maize fields < the Mexican
government recently discovered Oaxaca plots tainted with
genetically-engineered traits < U.S. and other transnational corporations
are rocking the world's cradle of corn.

It's not just plants that are wiped out. While the conflict between the Zapatistas
and the Mexican government is complex, at its heart is the right of indigenous
people to control their lands and preserve their way of life. For transnational
corporations and the Mexican government to access these green goldmines,
the indigenous people must leave their lands; the military and paramilitary ensure
that they do so < either through intimidation or execution.

Pirates in the highlands

At COMPITCH, a Mayan Medicine Museum outside San Cristobal de las Casas,
indigenous workers and Dr. Antonio Perez Mendez cultivate plants and herbs.

In a rudimentary laboratory, they make tinctures, salves, and syrups that
cure or alleviate ailments that strike a people who are malnourished and
prone to parasites and respiratory diseases. "How the healers get this
knowledge is a gift from God," explains Perez. Contrast this with America's
lust for prescription drugs, some of which improve or extend life, but many
are cures of convenience, ones that help to take the edge off before you
head to the company Christmas party.

Yet, Americans' insatiability has prompted the pharmaceutical industry to
keep pillaging, patenting, and producing mother's little helpers, at huge
profit margins. While a recent bioprospecting expedition, the U.S-funded
ICGB-Maya Project was canceled due to pressure from COMPITCH,
companies, often in cahoots with universities and other private benefactors,
continue to send investigators to Chiapas to root around for plant species
in which they can isolate a chemical or property, patent it, and then cash in.

Sometimes companies, not sure what they're looking for, send in the locals
to harvest the plants for them. Although Mexico signed the Convention on
Biological Diversity (the U.S. refused, because it didn't want to recognize
the sovereignty of biological resources), nothing has been written into national
legislation that would enforce its tenets; these include acknowledging traditional
knowledge exists, getting prior permission from the Indians, and paying them for their

The indigenous people who work and live on the lands that yield
this pharmacological bounty are not compensated for the corporations'
commercial gain. Nor are the indigenous people allowed to determine what or
how much can be harvested. There are also cultural barriers to adequately
compensating the Indians for their resources. Most traditional knowledge has
not been commercialized, but exists as a collective, shared memory (missing
from the final version of the San Andres Accords is the provision for
communal ownership of natural resources).

The land, too, is often collective, and it is unclear who can consent to any
harvesting."Property owners are supposed to become partners with corporations,"
explained Juan Ignacio Dominguez, an environmental lawyer in Mexico. "But of
four cases in Mexico, none has included them." With a per capita income of
$3.13 a day, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico, and the indigenous
people can't afford patents for their plants and knowledge, the cost of
which can reach $1 million apiece.

Meanwhile, Pioneer, owned by DuPont, generates annual net sales of $1.85
billion, Monsanto $1.7 billion, and the Mexican company, Grupo Pulsar, which
owns Seminis and Asgrow (whose slogan is "turning discovery into profit"),
brings in a half-billion dollars each year. These companies also cross over from
agro-chemicals to pharmaceuticals to seeds to food < in effect controlling the
life cycle. French company Norvatis ranks No. 2 in global sales in agro-chem,
No. 4 in pharmaceuticals, and No. 3 in seed production. "A handful of corporations
control medicine and food < pillars of our survival," says Ernesto Ladesma, director of
Global Exchange's Chiapas office. "There is huge profit in controlling the

The new maquila zone

As the Mexican government has somewhat succeeded in fooling foreign
investors that the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas has been squelched,
corporations are not only lured by plants but also cheap labor, oil, timber,
water < and land. Two proposals, Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and the
Mesoamerican Biological Corridor are being touted as the keys to developing
the poor southern states.

While the plans are flying under the banner of development, they are actually
a way for corporations to set up tax-free, union-free maquila zones, (some
industrial, others agricultural) and carve their way through the isthmus from the
Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, displacing millions of indigenous people
in the way. The indigenous people see these plans as another way to strip them
of their autonomy.

In San Andrés, we met with several masked Zapatistas who
run the autonomous municipal council. "We have many needs, but we are in total
resistance to the government. We don't accept any state or federal funds until the
completion of the San Andrés Accords." We glimpsed how an agro-maquila could
work when we visited a Grupo Pulsar installation. The Mexican conglomerate
develops seeds and hybrids, and is a large testing ground for GMOs, although
the company tour guide said he "had no knowledge of it happening here." At
its Chiapas installation, where another of its subsidiaries,

Seminis, runs dozens of hothouses filled with tomato and pepper plants, workers
<primarily women < create seeds and hybrids. Employees aren't paid unless
they can coax 98 percent of the plants to germinate. The rank and file earn
46 pesos a day ($5), which is 12 pesos more than the average minimum wage in
Chiapas. Foremen earn 51 pesos a day.

There are no unions.

Seminis prefers to hire women, the guide explained, "because they have small
hands, they are artisans and are more disciplined with the plants." The PPP and the
Biological Corridor go directly against the San Andrés Accords, says Gustavo
Castro of CIEPAC, an organization dedicated to social justice. While the
Mexican government disputes the Accords, they guarantee indigenous people
have rights to their land. "One of the central objectives is to have farmers
leave land and work in factories," Castro noted. "The indigenous people's
power over water and energy resources threatens the PPP." The only way these
development plans can work is if the indigenous people are enticed off their
lands, abandoning the valuable resources to corporations or even the state
(already five hydroelectric dams have displaced 700,000 people).

If the Indians won't voluntarily leave or surrender, then the military or
paramilitary will see to it that they do. It's not clear why the villagers
at Las Abejas, who are not Zapatistas, were singled out, but in 1997, the
paramilitary slaughtered 45 residents, who were huddled in a hut, praying
for peace. The survivors fled their land; the government then set up a
refugee camp, where more than four years later, the displaced Indians live
on rocky soil and steep slopes prone to erosion. Still, the Mexican Army has
a station at the village entrance and patrols the nearby roads. About 70
percent of all Mexican Army active duty members are stationed where there
are the most indigenous people and most biodiversity. "There is a very
gradual trend in a military presence in those places with biodiversity,"
Ledesma said. "Now there is a direct correlation between biodiversity and
low-intensity military conflict." These villagers of Las Abejas, like their
fellow indigenous people of Chiapas and southern Mexico, face a
multi-pronged threat: from biopiracy, maquila zones, genetically engineered
crops, and of course, the military. Individually, these dangers could
irreversibly damage the fragile ecosystems and ways of life in the region.
Combined, they could lay it to waste.

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