calpulapan, oaxaca -- as indianfarmers in the remote Sierra del Norte of Oaxaca prepare the earth for the spring corn planting, they regard the seasonal mountain breezes with palpable suspicion. "Everyone is talking about the "transgenicos' (genetically modified corn) this year. Some say it travels on the wind and will poison the milpas," worries Rogelio Morales, a Zapotec Indian farmer and official of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra de Juarez, which represents farmers' groups in the Guelatao region.
The "milpa" Morales refers to is the traditional planting of corn, beans and squash in the same fields, the basis of the Indian diet throughout southern Mexico. "Without the milpa, our communities cannot survive," the Zapotec farmer warns, furrows forming on his broad brow. Farther up the twisty mountain highway, Nicolas Jimenez Jimenez, a toothless farmer from Azuni, leans up against a roadside storefront. Yes, he admits, he has heard of the "transgenicos," but only on the radio. "They say the gringos brought them here," he laughs nervously.
The recent and dread confirmation of contamination of native corn by genetically modified varieties in this sierra has long been in the wind. Last year alone, Mexico imported 13 million tons of basic grains from the U.S. and Canada; half of it -- 6 million tons plus -- was corn, a third to two-thirds of which is thought to have been genetically modified.
Transgenic corn began flooding into Mexico five years ago under new import rules spelled out in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These imports are fast excluding Indians and other small farmers from Mexico's internal market.
In the U.S., 25 million acres are growing such genetically modified commercial corns as StarLink and BT-YieldGard (both designed to combat caterpillars) and Roundup-Ready (resistant to the herbicide Roundup), so it was just a matter of time before the modified corn crept across the border and into the Mexican milpa.
It's unclear exactly how much of the manipulated corn is piling into the Mexican marketplace. Greenpeace Mexico calculates that Big Corn -- Cargill-Consolidated, Archer-Daniels-Midlands, Maseca-Gruma (all of which are barred from selling transgenic grains to the European Union and Japan, where commercialization is prohibited by law) -- is dumping its genetically modified corn on Mexico by the boatload. Up to 60 per cent of all shipments may be tainted.
These imports are supposedly destined for animal consumption; Mexico does not require Cargill and other transnational grain merchants to separate transgenic from natural corn.
Agrarian observers agree that despite its supposed consignment as animal feed, a portion of the 6-million-ton corn import total (far exceeding NAFTA quotas) is diverted for human consumption and is planted in Mexican milpas.
The contamination of Mexican seed stocks -- at least 50 distinct families of corns and thousands of varieties -- by the transnational biotech cartel reads like the chronicle of a disaster foretold.
The first instances were recorded inadvertently in the autumn of 2000 in the Sierra del Norte municipality of Calpulapan, up the mountain and across the valley from Guelatao, when the biologist Ignacio Chapela, long-time adviser to a local indigenous organization, the Union of Zapotecos and Chinantecos (UZACHI), noted alien DNA in local corn samples during a lab training session.
Further testing substantiated the doctor's worst fears when the samples came up positive for transgenic contamination. "It was like when an AIDS test comes up positive. We had the bad news, but we couldn't determine the vector," Dr. Chapela recalls.
But what Chapela and the Indian activists were able to determine was frightening enough: four samples drawn from local milpas proved to be 27 per cent contaminated. More disturbingly, one sample taken from the government Diconsa store in nearby Ixtlan de Juarez was 100 per cent bad. The field contamination was in fact tracked to a campesino who had mixed his seed corn with a lot bought at Diconsa. The findings were unprecedented. Dr. Chapela packed up his samples and headed for the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches, for further testing.
Although speculation about the trail of the contamination focuses on Diconsa, Lilia Perez, a young Indian woman who heads up the UZACHI investigation team, insists that the mutant corn doesn't even have to get to the store to spread its dangers. "The Diconsa trucks are old and the drivers are careless. Corn spills off the trucks and the farmers scoop it up and plant it. Or else the wind blows the pollen into nearby fields."
For many months, the mutant corn of Calpulapan remained a closely guarded secret. "We did not want the name of the town to be known, because we worried that the SAGARPA (Secretariat of Agriculture) and the SEMARNAT (Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources) would come and burn our fields to get rid of the problem," relates UZACHI's Perez.
Confirmation of the Calpulapan contamination was announced in mid-September by the National Commission on Bio-security, and the government instigated its own probe into the level of contamination. Preliminary results were discouraging: in a survey of 20 corn-growing regions in Oaxaca and two in neighbouring Puebla, only six were found to be clean. Even more alarming were 20 to 60 per cent GM readings in samples taken by the National Ecology Institute in six other widely scattered regions, from Oaxaca's Mixteca mountains to the state's central valleys.
"This is a tragic discovery. It literally alters the course of biological history," Dr. Chapela told this reporter during a February symposium at Oaxaca city's centuries-old Santo Domingo cloister. But to the Berkeley-based biologist, the worst is yet to come: "Calpulapan is a wakeup call. Next come the second-generation GMs, seeds that grow one crop and go inactive. Then it becomes a question of control -- Mexican farmers will become dependent on Monsanto and Dupont and Navartis to grow corn cultivated here for thousands of years...."
The biologist is particularly concerned that transgenic contamination will lead to the homogenization of Mexico's rich germ plasma. "Genetic memory is being threatened," he argues. Transgenic mutation can alter the genetic structure even of the wild corn, teocintle, the common predecessor of Mexico's abundant corn diversity. "The transnationals are trying to make Mexican corn the same as Iowa's. We cannot let that happen."
The response of president Vicente Fox and his cabinet to all this might easily be called cognitive dissonance. Environmental and Natural Resources secretary Victor Lichtinger concedes that commercialization of transagenic corn is a potential time bomb for native species, and he backed recent modifications of the penal code that make it a criminal offence to sell or release transgenics into the atmosphere.
But he adamantly rejects the notion that the new regulation applies to the flood of U.S. and Canadian GM corn inundating his country.
Under the banner of "The Defence of Maize," over 400 representatives of non-governmental organizations, environmentalists, social activists, academics and Indian authorities ranging from the Tzeltal nation on the southern border to the O'Odam people on the northern, gathered in Mexico City in late January to formulate a common defence and national strategy. Many Indian reps 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 a battle plan that includes demands the government shut the border to U.S. and Canadian corn, and for widespread testing in all corn-producing areas. The conference also called for the establishment of a network of seed banks throughout the country.