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On Corn and Culture
I n 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.
Since 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.
Along 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.
Thus, 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).
Indeed, 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.
Fittingly, 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.”
Despite 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.”
Cultural 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.
The 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.
On 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.
Still, 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.
But 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.
He 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.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.