On Corn and Culture


Oaxaca in southern Mexico, farmers are no strangers to corn. The
crop was first planted in this region some 8,000 years ago and has
since nourished generations of indigenous and mestizo Mexicans.
Over 300 Oaxacan varieties of corn currently exist, a result of
centuries of careful crossbreeding and selection. Additionally,
the state of Oaxaca boasts Mexico’s largest indigenous population
and three quarters of indigenous caloric consumption still comes
from milpas, or communally farmed land, where corn is a staple crop. 

the signing of NAFTA, however, Mexico has drastically increased
its dependency on imported corn, from approximately one and a half
million tons in 1994 to six million in 2004. Despite a 1998 law
prohibiting the planting of genetically modified seeds in Mexico,
concerned environmental and political groups have been warning for
years that contaminated seeds from imported food products would
eventually find their way into milpas through inadvertent planting
and subsequent pollination. 

with 86 other nations, Mexico signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity
in 2000 as a partial attempt to regulate commerce of transgenic
crops. The Protocol took effect in 2003, but by 2004, Mexico’s
secretary of agriculture, Victor Manuel Villalobos, had already
signed a pact with the U.S. and Canada that discarded many of the
Protocol’s provisions. The pact stipulated, for example, that
any shipment of food products to Mexico from its northern neighbors
composed of 5 percent or less genetically modified products need
not be labeled “contaminated,” prompting Mexican academic
Silvio Ribeiro to call Mexico the “Trojan horse for multinational
corporations.” Today, approximately 40 percent of Mexico’s
imported corn is estimated to be genetically modified. 

when Ignacio Chapela, a Mexican-born biologist from the University
of California at Berkeley, discovered genetically modified corn
plants in the Sierra Juarez mountains in 2000, one could probably
have overheard an “I told you so”—albeit a marginalized
one— resonating from scientists and activists the world over. 

recent years, that voice has grown steadily into an international
campaign, thanks largely to the leadership of Greenpeace. But even
Maria Colín, a legal advisor and campaign coordinator for Green-
peace Mexico, told me, “Our work on the legislative and consumer
levels would be impossible without the people that work on local
anti-GMO initiatives, not to mention the organic corn farmers themselves.
Local work is the hope for the future of our campaign.” In
Oaxaca, several organizations of indigenous corn producers have
joined the fight to defend their crops from contamination, such
as the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca (UNOSJO).

it has become impossible to talk about corn in Oaxaca independent
of a cultural context. In March 2004, Oaxaca City organizers together
with indigenous farmers conducted a militant Forum in Defense of
Our Corn, in which they demanded the closing of the Mexican border
to U.S. corn shipments, increased testing of crops, and the continued
maintenance of community seed banks. In this way, the fight against
transgenic corn has become a global issue of the highest order while
relying on traditional local customs to sustain resistance. 

Chapela’s arrival in Oaxaca City on February 9 as host of an
earlier conference entitled Genetic Survival and Independence: Oaxaca
in the Transgenic World resembled as much a cultural heritage celebration
as an academic affair. In his keynote address to an audience of
several hundred students, concerned city dwellers, and campesinos,
Chapela stressed the gravity of the potential threat of genetically
modified crops to consumer health and indigenous livelihoods while
drawing eerie parallels between multinationals and Spanish conquistadors.
Although his displays at times resembled a sordidly entertaining
science fair DNA experiment, he made his point unequivocally: “Transgenics
will threaten human survival. I don’t think I’m exaggerating.” 

the implications of Chapela’s message, perhaps the most powerful
moment of the conference occurred when a representative from an
indigenous organization approached the stage with several bags of
corn and methodically laid each husk on a table in a symbolic display
of Oaxaca’s agricultural richness. Another farmer summarized
the situation effectively: “If we’ve been growing corn
for thousands of years, I think we own it.” 

fanfare aside, the main thrust of the conference was clearly toward
a legislative statement on the federal level banning imports of
transgenic food products to Mexico. Chapela cited anti-GMO initiatives
in Mendocino County, California and the state of Vermont as potential
examples for the Mexican Congress. 

conference couldn’t have come at a more ironic legislative
moment. On February 15, over the objection of approximately 100
scientists, academics, and organizations, the Mexican Congress passed
a new biosecurity law. Despite its hopeful name, the law calls for
an unprecedented deregulation of genetically modified food imports
to Mexico and hints at the possibility that multinationals like
Monsanto will eventually be permitted to sell seeds directly to
Mexican farmers, as they already do in the U.S., Canada, Argentina,
and much of the developing world. 

March 7, amid indignant fallout from the biosecurity law, I attended
a small, high profile conference on Oaxacan agriculture at the State
Institute of Ecology in Oaxaca City. While the local politicians
in attendance were opposed to the provisions of the federal law,
they had come primarily to brainstorm potential local measures to
resist transgenics, among them a state-level biosecurity law that
better protects Oaxacan farmers, an educational campaign to train
farmers how to patent their crops, and a government-sponsored seed
bank initiative. 

according to Issa Hinó- gosa, a grassroots organizer for the
Oaxaca City-based Society for the Defense of Our Corn, the apparent
greenness of an Oaxacan politician doesn’t necessarily reveal
his or her true colors: “Now that the issue has become fashionable,
some politicians have gotten involved for the publicity. When another
issue comes along, they’ll forget about corn. Things are uncertain,
but what’s clear is that government policy always ignores campesinos.”
Indeed, since the early 1980s, rural Oaxacan peasants have become
increasingly disillusioned with both federal- and state-level government
policy. This recent case appears to be no exception. 

do Oaxacan farmers have the power to beat Monsanto on the cultural
strength of their tortilla, or are they destined to become the next
collective Percy Schmeisser, a Canadian farmer sued by Monsanto
after genetically modified canola seeds had floated onto his land?
I asked Gustavo Esteva, one of Oaxaca’s most respected intellectuals
and a fierce development critic, if there was any hope in fighting
for the future of Mexican corn without the government’s help. 

pointed out that many successful cases of grassroots resistance
have transpired in recent Mexican memory. In 2002 residents of San
Salvador Atenco blocked government plans to construct an airport
in their municipality for nearby Mexico City. Later that year in
Oaxaca City, organizers defeated a proposition to open a McDonald’s
in their central plaza. “Such hope in ourselves is not an illusion,”
he asserted. “David can win over Goliath if he fights him in
his own territory.” 

Michael Ives
is a college student on leave for the semester turned freelance journalist.
He is currently living in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he volunteers with
local anti-GMO organizations and solar technology workshops.