The Future of Indigenous Agriculture

Presentation at Biodevastation 7 Conference
May 18, 2003

The Future of Indigenous Agriculture: A Challenge To Us

The contamination of heirloom varieties of corn in Mexico by genetically modified DNA of corn imported from the USA, is a very serious matter for peasants, for small farmers that depend on corn for their basic food supply. This was discovered and published by Ignacio Chapela and David Quist in the fall of year 2001. Their findings were corroborated by at least 3 studies performed by the Mexican government. What has happened with corn will spread into other varieties and may be proved also for potatoes and soybeans very soon.

Information on genetic modified organisms is very complex, often not written in Spanish. In Mexico we have studied and have translated many articles and Manuals written by some of you in Asia, Canada, Africa and the US. We need to listen and learn from other leaders about their food systems and development of biotech crops in their geographical regions. My experience training and researching agriculture has developed in me a deep respect for peasants' knowledge and accomplishments.

Several people have contributed to define and help us to understand the importance of safe conditions of diversity in the food chain. Among them the Huicholes, Tzotziles and Mijes, Indians native to the cradle of corn in Jalisco, Chiapas and Oaxaca, Mexico. I wish other people to be aware of this ancient wisdom and hope for a science that is as wise.

The keepers of corn

Who are Huicholes?

They are Indians living up in the hills of Jalisco, Nayarit and Colima… they are custodians of the candles of life, of the heart of corn. Huichol people are a few thousand Indians, threatened by alcoholism, bad health, greedy neighbors. This culture has the command to keep light and corn. As other living beings, corn has two relatives who are essential part of the family, a perennial and an annual wild corn, the teocinte. Seed banks all over the world treasure the value of these ancient living relatives of corn and of the seeds that have been bred for ten thousand years and are known as heirloom varieties of white, yellow, red, spotted and black corn. Huichol culture has a sacred trilogy, it is deer, peyote and corn, they believe that their well being on the daily level and the transcendent realm depends on the integrity of the three. Huicholes discover early in their lives the interdependence of corn, deer and peyote, they learn by heart the rules to respect and to be cautious of the desert, the wild and the gift of growing corn.

GM agronomic practices are a significant risk to the genetic integrity of crops as precious as corn. Genetically modified plants are toxic insecticidal plants that damage or kill the targeted pest and also kill or disrupt wild species that are no pests of corn, yet visit and use a little bit of it, such as wasps, lacewings and lady beetles. These benefic species are being hit by GM tissue and pollen. The insects get pollen as food and take extra pollen to fertilize other plants. Insects regulate other insect populations, and, indeed, are key elements for health of ecosystems and to make possible the harvest of food.

Dealing with biotechnology in agriculture and industrial foods is, in itself, an internal affair that needs answers by citizens and governments in each country. We are witnessing a simultaneous drive in the world to build a cautionary regulation for health and food, and of the methods by which food is grown, raised, packaged, shipped and processed. Corporations have flooded in the last 10 years virtually all businesses in medium and large towns in the country in Mexico and are supplying pesticides and seed to agribusiness, sweatshops and "ant selling" to small farmers. Monsanto, Du Pont, Aventis, Bayer are the bigger sellers. Cargill, in just three years, has become the biggest corn distributor.

The search and purchase of microorganisms and other valuable species, for industrial uses, called bio-prospecting, is placing ancient knowledge in the market; a matter that puts in jeopardy the social, moral and economic balance of very poor communities and therefore jeopardizes the stability of "genetic resources" themselves. Many countries, such as Mexico, are building the legal framework for genetic resources access. The international trade commitments, the intellectual property rights and patents held by biotechnology corporations are intimidating food producers and government officials in Mexico.

What are farmers asking facing the contamination of corn? The group El Campo No Aguanta Mas (The farmers of the country can stand no more) has united hundreds of farmer groups, even the CNC, the national confederation of peasants, that has usually been PRI oriented; they have summarized and condensed their national demands to 3:

– To stop corn imports; to consume local corn.

– To renegotiate the agricultural chapter in NA Free Trade Agreement. To take corn and beans out of NAFTA.

– Farmer's movement is arising, demonstrating in main cities, in the borders, every day asking for fair trade and to give preference to domestic food supplies.

What is the government doing?

Our Inter Ministerial Commission on Biosafety and Genetically Modified Organisms, CIBIOGEM, was created late in 1999 and has 13 members who are scientists on biotechnology, researchers of the CIMMYT the International Center of Improvement of Wheat and Corn, of the Advanced Technology Research Center, Cinvestav, National Commission on Science and Technology, CONACYT, Agriculture, Ecology, Health and Education Ministeries. Their recommendations to speed the entrance of GMO's in Mexico were disregarded. La Jornada Newspaper reported on August 13 of 2002 that all 13 members of the Council of CIBIOGEM resigned in protest. However CIBIOGEM and the Ministry of Agriculture just passed a bill in the Senate to impose a new law that allows commercial scale crops of GM, on April 24th, of this year 2003.

The data we have now, confirms the importance of biodiversity for tropical cultures. Information derived from research of independent groups and scientists in Mexico made us understand in which ways diversity is threatened by unregulated imports of genetically modified seeds. The total yield of a crop in the tropics is much more than the total tons of grain you get; the real harvest includes hundreds of weeds that nurture animals and people, weeds that are considered pests and eradicated by biotech agriculture. Crops and weeds provide pollen and plant tissue for beneficial insects like bees that are affected by the toxins present in transgenic plants.

We know that the dynamic duo of government with TNCs are doing business beyond common sense, crossing thresholds, ignoring borders and natural edges. It is very urgent to go meet TNC operators, Bio-tech CEOs, managers of research projects, and dialogue with them. It is very important to be vigilant. We must know what are they doing and with who's help… What are the research, the legal, the social, the development considerations of biotechnology corporations? We have to trust that each of our efforts works as a balance to this dangerous and ill-advised folly. If they continue spreading GM corn, they are going to kill the cultural heart of farms and farming. We do make a difference for the future of traditional agriculture. We can make a difference for small farmers. We will make a difference, fair trade and safe food.

About our group

For years in the Permaculture Network of Mexico, we have taught how to work together with Nature's Technology to restore soils and to work with regional people, elements, plants, we learn and share with passion our bioregional perspectives and products. As trainers of organic farming, to grow food without damage to health, water, earth, and forests, we love the inherited cultural diversity of our country and like very much to envision our next generations. In 1998 we organized the first independent Seminar on citizens facing Intellectual Property Rights on Seeds and Medicinal plants in The Institute of Advanced Studies of the West, ITESO in Guadalajara, Jalisco. Peasants, students, men and women, scientists, came, we learned about the history and value of corn, the threats and risks derived from the agreement on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) and together wrote our common Statements. Many groups of our society and government responded and several meetings were convened to discuss the transgenics technology in the following year.

We asked for a moratorium of GM crops and commercialization of transgenic food in November of 1999; we asked to stop USA corn imports; one month later our government cancelled the applications of permissions (placed a moratorium) for experimental tests of GM crops in Mexico. The Mexican Senate invited me and Maite Cortes as citizen's representatives to be speakers in the National Seminar of Biosafety Considerations, March of 2000. Several Peasant groups, lawyers and Universities have invited us to present workshops on food safety, bioprospecting, transgenics and pesticides in the food processes.

With the incredible international participation of PANNA researchers (Pesticide Action Network of North America) we organized a second seminar on Food Safety in Jalisco on October of 2001. Again we invited independent researchers and officials of the government to discuss the state of affairs on imports of GMO s, on bioprospecting Covenants with transnational corporations, the advance of TNC support to universities and the several drafts written and discussed currently for a legal framework of biotechnology products and activities in Mexico. We organized in the spring of 2001 a national and international legal protest against the corn patent by Du Pont Corporation, under the guidance of Misereor and Greenpeace Germany, at last the European patent Office revoked the patent in January of 2003. We have written two books for people to learn how to participate in the safety of our food system.

Anna Ruiz Diaz is coordinator of the Permaculture Network of Mexico
Mexico DF, bioregion del Anahuac

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