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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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.