In defense of maiz

Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Mexico City: The contamination of Indian maiz in Mexico by US-grown genetically modified corn touches a common nerve for 57 distinct corn-growing indigenous cultures here whose struggle for justice and against 500 years of institutional racism, has troubled the reigns of this distant neighbor nation’s last three presidents. Now, nearly a decade after the largely Mayan Indian Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up in arms against the Mexican government in Chiapas, indigenous resistance remains a powerful political force, particularly in resource-rich southern Mexico, where the first finds of contaminated corn have been located.

The response of President Vicente Fox and his cabinet to Indian fears that transgenic contamination is tantamount to cultural genocide, might best be described as cognitive dissonance. Environmental and Natural Resource Secretary Victor Lichtinger cautiously concedes that commercialization of transgenic corn is a potential time bomb for native species and backed recent modifications of the penal code that make it a criminal offense to sell, distribute, or release transgenics into the atmosphere. But Lichtinger adamantly rejects the notion that the new regulation applies to the flood (perhaps 4,000,000 tons a year) of US and Canadian gm corn that is inundating the country.

The Environmental Secretary is seconded in this assessment by Secretary of Agriculture Javier Usabiaga, a longtime confederate of President Fox; both are neighbors and made their family fortunes in export agribiz. Usabiaga’s point man in the debate over transgenics, Victor Manuel Villalobos, labels Indians and environmentalists who seek to stem the transgenic tide as “environmental terrorists” and suggests that they have an “economic interest” in trying to stop the invasion. Villalobos, a member of the board of directors of Pulsar, Mexico’s major biotech conglomerate, is reportedly being pressured to resign his government post because of a possible conflict of interest.

The threat to Mexico’s Indian corn is primarily an Indian issue and indigenous organizations have taken the lead in sounding the alarm. The Union of Organizations of the Sierra de Juarez (UNOSOJO) and the Union of Zapatecos and Chinantecos (UZACHI), both militant Oaxaca Indian groups, were the first to detect the threat and bring the battle to the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an alliance of most of Mexico’s Indian peoples, formulated in 1996 as an outgrowth of the Zapatista rebellion.

Under the banner of “The Defense of Maiz,” over 400 representatives of nongovernmental organization, environmentalists, social activists, academics, and Indian authorities ranging from the Tzeltal nation on the southern border to the O’odham people on the northern, gathered in Mexico City in late January to formulate a common defense and national strategy in the battle against transgenic contamination of native corn. Many Indian representatives 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 up a battle plan that includes demands upon the Fox government to shut down the border to US and Canadian corn, and for widespread testing in all corn-producing areas — some NGOs are already distributing test kits. The conference also called for the establishment of a network of seed banks throughout the country to safeguard endangered local corns. Seed stocks at the nation’s most secure repository, the Commission for the Improvement of Wheat and Corn in Texcoco, just outside Mexico City, are rumored to have been contaminated.

“Here in Guelatao, we take great care to protect our seeds. Vale la pena (It’s worth the trouble.)” Rogelio Morales of Union of Organizations of the Sierra de Juarez (UNOSOJO) instructs a US reporter. The region is divided into cold, temperate, and hot zones depending upon proximity to the Manzanilla river a thousand meters below, and the seeds are separated and guarded accordingly.

“After we harvest in November, we hang the biggest ears up in the tapanco (attic). When we get ready to plant, we split the ears in half. The kernels nearest the center are for the cold lands, the next for the temperate zone, and the last for the hot lands down by the river. Our ancestors protected the seed corn in the same way. . . ”

Further up the mountain highway in Calpulapan where the first contamination was detected, the Union of Zapotecos and Chinantecos (UZACHI) is also shoring up resistance to the plague. A local seed bank was established several years ago and now Lilia Perez, a young Indian activist, sees a kind of perverse business opportunity in the panic that has ensued since UZACHI’s discovery was first made public. “Many people are going to need pure Indian seed now” contemplates Perez who plans to sell the seed corn on the Internet.

Further south, defense of native corn has become a hot political issue in largely Mayan Chiapas — the Mayans are historically known as “the People of Corn.” In the vanguard of this new resistance are highland and jungle-based communities associated with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, an aggregation that does not much trust the “mal gobierno” (bad government) with which it is still technically at war and whose neoliberal economics the rebels blame for transgenic terrorism.

To combat the spread of genetically modified corn, Zapatista autonomous municipalities grouped around the Oventic ejido in the mountains above San Cristóbal de las Casas have formed “Mother Seed,” an enterprise designed to protect Mayan corn from transgenic depredations.

The Zapatistas sort and store their maiz in clay pots to which ash and eucalyptus leaves are added. The pots are then covered with brilliant swatches of woven Mayan cloth and tied down with twigs. The collection will soon include bean and calabash seeds as well. The development of the seed bank is also being integrated into the curriculum of Oventic’s Primero de Janero Insurgent middle school. Built and operated by the community and North American volunteers, Indian students are now contributing farmers’ lore, local recipes, and planting and harvest songs to the project.

“Some of our students think the modern world is better,” muses Comandante Amos, who oversees the EZLN’s Oventic Education Commission. “We are trying to teach them not to abandon their roots. . . ”

CONNECT: John Ross is the author of The War Against Oblivion, covering eight years with the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, and Indian resistance in Mexico. “In Defense of Corn” is part of an ongoing series looking at the globalization of agricultural production in southern Mexico. You can find Mexico Barbaro at

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