Monday, October 15, 2018
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“Without corn, there is no country”
John Ross
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Mexico’s maíz in peril of being relegated to a museum.

Even as the bounties of the November corn harvest fill the granaries of Mexico’s small Indian and Mestizo corn farmers, threat of extinction pervades one of the most ancient of the world’s corn cultures. Now with hundreds of varieties of native corn under siege from massive NAFTA-driven imports, much of it genetically modified, the last sanctuary for truly Mexican maíz may well be in a museum (LP, March 25, 2002).

The first corn, Nahuatl legend has it, was the gift of the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl, who one day spied an ant carrying a kernel from the underworld and descended there to rescue the corn for the first peoples. The Aztecs made maíz their religion, sacrificing virgins and warriors to insure abundant harvests.

Revolutions are fought over corn in Mexico — the 1910-19 Mexican revolution was waged by landless Indian corn farmers, and the Zapatista rebellion exploded in Chiapas in 1994 as NAFTA corn quotas threatened ruin for indigenous Mayan campesinos. Not only are the nutrition and livelihood of Indian peoples based on corn, but so is their culture and identity – the Mayans are known as ‘the People of the Corn.’

Nonetheless, despite such deep roots, in 2002, Mexico imported 6 million tons of NAFTA corn, all of it lavishly subsidized by governments north of the border where $21,000-per-acre handouts to US corn farmers have allowed them to dump their product in Mexico at 20 percent below cost, cutting campesinos with small plots out of the internal market (LP, Dec. 3, 2001 and Jan 15,2003). Mexico’s newly-privatized grain distribution system is now dominated in many agricultural regions by the transnational Cargill Corporation and Maseca, the world’s biggest tortilla maker, a third of which is owned by the powerful biotech transnational Archer Daniels Midlands.

Frustration at not being able to get a price for their maíz is pushing Mexican farmers out of the ‘milpa’ (corn patch) and into the migration stream north. Since NAFTA was inked by then presidents George Bush and Carlos Salinas in 1992, over 3,000 Mexicans, many of them displaced farmers, have died trying to cross the northern border in pursuit of gainful employment (LP, April 9, 2003).

But even more insidious than the wholesale dumping of NAFTA corn here, it is what’s being dumped that is driving Mexican corn into the museum. According to Greenpeace estimates, as much as 4 million of the 6 million tons of corn flooding south across the border may be genetically contaminated. Because North American growers are barred by law from shipping transgenic corn to Japan and the European Union, Greenpeace’s Humberto Magallones calculates that Mexico is getting a double dose of the tainted maíz.

Moreover, the rapid spread of genetically-modified corn alarms defenders of Mexican maíz. Although genetically modified imports date back no more than five years, gm contamination of native stocks is being detected in remote Oaxacan Indian villages such as Calpulapan in that state’s Sierra del Norte. Biologist Ignacio Chapela of the University of California at Berkeley first found transgenic maíz in 2001. Subsequent studies by Mexico’s National Ecology Institute in 22 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and Puebla turned up gm-contaminated corn in 16 of them, some with levels as high as 60 percent.

The transgenic assault on Mexican corn has Greenpeace up in arms. Militants invaded the sacrosanct precinct of the World Trade Organization in September to fling seed corn at US trade representatives, and the Greenpeace ‘Arctic Sunrise’ eco-trawler, hooked onto the anchor of a Liberian freighter hauling 4,000 tons of suspect gm corn from New Orleans to Veracruz, during the September summit (LP, Sept. 24, 2003). The corn, which Greenpeace alleges violates the just-activated Cartagena bio-diversity protocols, was eventually unloaded under Mexican Navy supervision in Veracruz port.

Although the biotech industry extols gm modified crops as a solution to world hunger (LP, Aug. 20, 2001), the bad rap here is that transgenic corn homogenizes the many diverse strains that thrive in Mexico, thereby threatening millions of years of biological history with obliteration. "The diversity of our corn is its strength," sociologist Guillermo Bonfil wrote 20 years ago, before gm corn became a menace to bio-diversity.

Although planting gm corn in Mexican soil was suspended three years ago pending further study of its domestic impacts, biotech giants are putting on a full-court press to get the Mexican government to relax restrictions.


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