Thursday, 11 Mar 2004

OAXACA CITY, Mexico

Today is the long-awaited Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s Maize and Biodiversity Symposium, held right here in the Victoria Hotel. The private-sector guards hired for the activity and the CEC personnel have been uneasy. They knew protesters would arrive at 8 a.m.

In order to understand the protest, a brief history is called for: In 2002, some Mexican indigenous organizations petitioned the CEC demanding action against the genetically modified corn that was sneaking into their fields. The CEC accepted the petition and appointed a 17-member expert committee to look into the matter, write a report, and make recommendations. The petitioning groups complained that the committee was stacked with pro-biotech scientists and that it was accepting public comments only via the Internet (how many Internet cafes are there in the Indian villages in the highlands of Oaxaca?).

The symposium’s stated purpose is to broaden public input into the committee’s work. Oaxaca is definitely the most appropriate place for this event — this is where corn was first discovered and domesticated some 10,000 years ago, and where furtive GM corn was discovered in 2001, and it’s the home of the indigenous peoples that brought the GM-corn issue to the CEC’s attention.

The symposium was originally to include a field trip up to the highlands of the nearby Sierra Juarez, to visit the corn fields and communities affected by GM corn. But, citing logistics difficulties, the CEC decided instead to scrap the field trip and hold all the activities in the luxurious Hotel Victoria. The indigenous peoples were pissed. Now they had to go through the trouble and expense of traveling to Oaxaca City to present their concerns and grievances to the committee. And to make matters worse, their admission to the symposium was still unconfirmed.

The CEC averted a crisis by allowing them all in. The conference hall was soon a tower of Babel, as scientists, reporters, and bureaucrats speaking in English, Spanish, and French were joined by Indians speaking in Mixtec, Zapotec, and many other of Oaxaca’s 70-plus native tongues. That these impoverished yet proud Indians — many of whom do not know a word of Spanish — were allowed to enter Oaxaca’s most luxurious hotel was an event in itself.

The environment in the conference room was soon polarized into camps of opponents and supporters of biotechnology, the former vastly outnumbering the latter. The cognitive chasm between the camps was not just linguistic, but related to their ways of thinking and looking at the world.

The scientists and experts spoke in highly technical language, and each one stuck strictly to his or her area of expertise.

But during the question-and-answer period, the indigenous peoples talked of ethical principles, of sovereignty to rule their own destiny, of the sheer immorality of the patenting of life forms, of culture, and of spirituality. Some of their leaders, even as they spoke of ancient traditions and invaluable heritage, were very well-informed about the science of biotechnology and the workings of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization.

At the end of the day, one of the protesters asked those opposed to the presence of GM corn in Mexico to stand up and say in one voice, “No al maiz transgenico en Mexico!” (No to GM corn in Mexico!) A large group stood up and said the words.

The experts and CEC staff, however, remained seated and quiet.