Carmelo Ruiz is a Puerto Rican journalist, a research associate of the Institute for Social Ecology, a fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, and a senior fellow of the Society of Environmental Journalists. This week he is attending the Maize and Biodiversity Symposium..

Tuesday, 9 Mar 2004

OAXACA CITY, Mexico

So here I am in the Mexican state of Oaxaca after three plane trips (San Juan to Houston to Mexico City to Oaxaca). This is my first trip to Mexico. I’m here to attend an international scientific symposium on the effects of genetically modified corn, organized by the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, a body created through the NAFTA environmental side agreement.

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On Thursday, the CEC will present its report on the biotech corn controversy. Most of my Mexican sources tell me they expect nothing short of greenwash, or at best a wimpy attempt to please both supporters and opponents of genetically modified crops. They also expect the report to be long and extremely technical in nature.

Apparently anticipating such a possibility, civil society groups, peasants, indigenous peoples, progressive organizations, NGOs, and environmental groups like Greenpeace Mexico are coming to Oaxaca tomorrow to give the scientists and bureaucrats a piece of their mind. It promises to be a very interesting exchange.

A little background is in order: GM corn was found to be growing in Mexico back in 2001. (See an article I wrote about this for CorpWatch.) This was a most startling discovery since planting GM crops had been illegal in Mexico since 1998. But there it was, aggressively cross-breeding with local varieties grown by indigenous peoples and campesinos.

University of California researchers Ignacio Chapela and David Quist made the discovery and published it in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. For their efforts, they were subjected to a campaign of vicious attacks that included slanderous anonymous emails.

However, Chapela and Quist’s discovery has been vindicated beyond a shadow of a doubt. Now, what will the effects of this biotech corn be? Are the biotech corporations right when they say there’s nothing to worry about?

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We’ll see what the CEC report has to say. Anyway, gotta go to bed now. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.

Wednesday, 10 Mar 2004

OAXACA CITY, Mexico

Today I went on a press tour organized by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. There were about 20 journalists, all apparently Mexican except me. Our first stop was a facility of INIFAP (National Investigations Institute of Forests, Agriculture, and Livestock) just outside of Oaxaca City.

The main speaker, Professor Jose Sarukhan, is a member of CEC’s advisory committee. He gave us an informative and concise presentation on the history of corn, which was first discovered and domesticated some 10,000 years ago, precisely in this region.

He acknowledged that the genetically engineered corn showing up in Mexico, an insecticidal variety known as Bt, is actually useless here, since it was designed to fight pests that do not exist in Mexico. His main point on biotech was that the technology is not intrinsically bad. He said the corporations have vested interests and are heavy-handed in their push to make every farmer adopt biotech seeds, but he also chastised opponents for allegedly being xenophobic and opposed to change.

Sarukhan concluded that even if biotechnology presents some problems, Mexico should not turn its back on it lest it be left behind in the world economy. As far as he is concerned, there are no intrinsic risks to genetic engineering.

Our lunch stop was simply amazing: the Itanoni restaurant in downtown Oaxaca City. Its owner, Amado Ramirez, is carrying out one of the most exciting and important agro-ecological endeavors in Mexico today. All the tortillas and corn products served in his restaurant are made from traditional seeds that he saves and plants. Most other restaurants, millers, processors, and retailers don’t do such a thing, preferring instead to buy corn from the cheapest source, even if it’s of inferior quality.

Seed saving is an increasingly rare activity in Mexico, especially since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. In the past 10 years, Mexico has been flooded with cheap corn from the U.S. (some 30 percent of it genetically modified), making it uneconomical for many Mexicans to engage in the age-old practice of seed saving.

But Ramirez has gone against the tide, by saving and planting countless corn varieties. The difference between his restaurant’s tortillas and those served elsewhere is simply unbelievable. As we ate, he told us about the spiritual and cultural importance of corn for the Mexican people. If you are ever in Oaxaca, you must eat at Itanoni!

In the afternoon some of us split from the group and attended an alternative counter-forum called In Defense of Corn. It was organized by environmentalists, progressive intellectuals, and indigenous peoples as a counterpart to CEC’s symposium on genetically engineered corn, which takes place tomorrow.

When I saw Mixtec Indians wearing Greenpeace T-shirts with anti-biotech slogans, I knew I had come to the right place. The feeling among speakers, organizers, and attendees was that tomorrow’s CEC symposium will be nothing but a whitewash (or greenwash), and that its conclusions will be generally favorable to the biotech industry.

Tomorrow is the really big day. The CEC symposium will take place at the Victoria Hotel, where I’m staying. The protest groups that organized this counter-forum are going to be there and will demand to be heard.

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.

Friday, 12 Mar 2004

OAXACA CITY, Mexico

Today the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation met at the Victoria Hotel to discuss general business — environmental matters from all of North America, including, but not limited to, genetically engineered corn in Mexico.

Most of yesterday’s protesters were back, intently listening, checking out the CEC at work. The panel appointed to study the GMO corn issue will present its final report in a few months; after that it will be up to the governments of the NAFTA member countries (Mexico, the U.S., and Canada) to act on its recommendations. The panel’s capacity is purely advisory; it cannot order governments to do what’s right.

There is a pervasive feeling of pessimism, even cynicism, among the indigenous representatives, environmentalists, and organic farmers who have been meeting, rallying, and confronting the CEC in the last couple of days. Not a single one of them has any optimism about the ultimate outcome of the panel’s inquiry. They fear it might conclude that the GMO contamination of Mexican corn is irreversible, that no one in particular is responsible, and that Mexicans should get used to it.

In the afternoon, I took a stroll down the streets of Oaxaca City with my journalistic colleague Karla Peregrina, of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. I’m looking for an Internet cafe to send my latest dispatch to Grist; Karla tells me I should have no difficulty finding Internet access here. While she explains Mexican politics to me and I explain Puerto Rican politics to her, we walk across the zocalo (town square) under the shade of gorgeous trees. The weather is beautiful and the abundant jacaranda trees are in their flowering season, their purple flowers a real treat to look at.

We pass people of all ages going about their business: children in school uniforms walking in groups and talking to each other; tourists speaking Spanish, English, German, and Italian; a 7-year-old mestiza girl sitting on a sidewalk playing the accordion with the mastery and virtuosity of a seasoned musical veteran. On a street corner, an Indian woman speaks in her native tongue into a cellular phone.

The town market is as different and distant from the U.S. shopping mall experience as any place of commerce could ever be. Vendors in their booths sell beef, pork, shrimp, poultry, fish, corn, guavas, mangos, papayas, peppers of various colors, crafts, fabrics, handmade clothing, and so much more. One of the stalls is staffed by a teenager listening to a grindcore death metal band called Slipknot. Food stands sell all sorts of traditional dishes, from tortillas and enchiladas to tlayudas, tomatadas, enmoladas, coloraditos, yolk bread, and tamales. Walking vendors offer you everything from finely crafted wooden toys, bookstops, and backscratchers to chapulines (dead bugs — I hear they’re tasty when dipped in chili sauce).

While walking toward the Santo Domingo museum I find an Internet cafe at last, where they charged me something like $2 or less for an hour of access. After sending the dispatch and walking some more through the tourist section between Santo Domingo and the zocalo, I begin to see Internet cafes all over the place. Karla was indeed right. Oaxaca City is well-connected to the wider world.