Las Americas

Scenes from the Corn Wars


Here in this part of the world, the corn was born. The House of Maize is in our lands,” explained the earnest young Zapotec Indian leader. He was reading from the manifesto, “In Defense of Our Corn,” that had been hammered out by dozens of non-governmental and indigenous organizations the previous night deep in the bowels of the old stone Santo Domingo cathedral in the heart of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

“We are people of corn,” he continued. “Corn is our brother and sister. The foundation of our culture, the reality of our present, the center of our daily life. We will not allow you to violate it.”

The 18 prestigious scientists from the North American Free Trade Agreement Environmental Cooperation Commission’s special committee on genetically modified corn listened to those words with studied indifference. Or yawned. Or fidgeted. Or stared at the many flickering candles on the altar that Gonzalez’s co-conspirators had constructed to honor the sacred grain.

We are people of the corn in continual struggle against the dominating winds of your science. You have always depreciated our knowledge, repressed and ignored it. Now we demand to be heard.

The setting for this confrontation of cultures last month was Oaxaca’s fanciest schmanciest hotel, the Victoria, with its appropriately panoramic vistas of a city that the United Nations has designated as part of the patrimony of man- and woman-kind. Since the only indigenas seen on the Victoria’s well-manicured grounds are maids and gardeners, it’s likely that the management was unaccustomed to seeing so many Indian faces on the premises.

Out in the parking lot, two pick-up trucks had delivered a dozen members of the Ricardo Flores Magon Indigenous Council, which represents eight distinct Indian peoples from 23 communities in this heavily indigenous state. They were making a hullabaloo with their bullhorn and the colorful banners and flags that advertised their resistance. But this is private property, management insisted. You cannot stay here. The black-clad, tear gas- and baton-equipped Alpha Security rent-a-cops nervously prepared to enforce the eviction.

High above the city, in the Sierra del Norte, and in all the mountains and valleys of rural Oaxaca, Indian farmers were preparing for the spring planting. That, of course, was precisely what the standoff at the Victoria was all about—the corn seed that would soon be dropped into the freshly tilled fields.

“Time and again, you have sought to force us to abandon the cultivation of Maize. Instead of growing our own corn as our grandfathers have done since the beginning of our race, you want us to buy it all from the United States,” shouted the young Mixtec woman from the truck bed in defiance of the hotel management. Inside the Victoria’s upholstered grand salon, Aldo Gonzalez picked up the thread:

The official policy does not take our vision into account. Corn is not just another crop to us. It contains our past, defines our present, and is the beginning of our future. We shall continue to grow the corn our grandfathers have handed down to us.

Aldo Gonzalez is the youthful former municipal president of Gueletao in the northern sierra, a mountain town from which another Zapotec leader, Benito Juárez, once rose up in the early days of the Mexican republic. The sierra, sometimes demarcated on maps as the Sierra of Juárez, has been on fire ever since genetically modified corn was discovered growing in Olga Toro’s milpa (corn patch) up in Calpulapan, above Gueletao.

The contamination has been traced back to NAFTA-driven imported corn sold by Diconsa, the Mexican government’s rural food distribution chain. The Mexican-born microbiologist Ignacio Chapela broke the bad news of the corruption of Indian corn to the world in the November 2002 edition of the British scientific journal Nature. Under a full court press from Big Biotech, the journal recanted the article several months later (See “El Corrido de Ignacio Chapela,” March 26).

Nonetheless, since then, at least two Mexican government studies—one by the National Ecology Institute (INE) and another by an interdisciplinary bio-security commission—have confirmed Chapela’s findings. The INE report, which covered 4,000 samples collected from 184 corn-growing communities in Oaxaca and Puebla, revealed an average 7.6-percent contamination in all regions. Some regions reportedly registered as high as 60 percent. Neither report has ever been publicly released because Mexican government agricultural officials consider the obvious conclusions “inconclusive.”

The big liars of the market and the state appear among us disguised as “investigators” or “specialists.” They say our seeds are no good and our ways of cultivation are inadequate. They urge us to buy our seeds from them and learn their ways of killing the corn and the earth….

A dry, dead corn stalk towered over Aldo as he read the manifesto. “We found this in a backyard garden in Gueletao,” he later explained. “It contains not one but three different genetically modified strains—two of Bt (chemically engineered to resist caterpillar infestations) and one of Starlink.”

After 45 possible cases of allergic reaction were recorded by health officials, the U.S. Department of Agriculture refused to approve Starlink corn for human consumption. The presence of Starlink in Kraft Corporation “Taco Bell” brand taco shells in the spring of 2000 triggered the most massive recall of a packaged food item in U.S. supermarket history. Avantis, the European biotech corporation which developed the seed, was forced to buy up the entire U.S. Starlink-grown corn harvest that year. Now, suspect Starlink is showing up in U.S. corn exports to Japan and Korea. Aldo Gonzalez’s corn stalk only confirms the suspicion that Starlink has been loosed on Mexico.

“We have listened patiently to the scientists but now we are tired,” he said. “We will not listen to them anymore. Basta Ya with their lies!”

A flood of indignant brown faces followed Aldo to the microphones. “First you come and destroy our agriculture so you can sell us your poisons,” Cirilio Pena, a grandfather from a village on the Tehuatepec Isthmus protested. “You are trying to kill us like you killed your own Indians.” Shaking a fistful of seeds, he held back a sob. “This is the only legacy we leave to our children.”


Accused of being racists and imperialists and the artifacts of both ecocide and genocide, the distinguished scientists focused on their shoes. Peter Raven, a NAFTA maven and National Medal of Science laureate whom Time magazine has designated a “hero of the planet,” arranged and rearranged his pens.

“We have seen with sadness the complicity of the authorities who do the dirty work of the transnational corporations,” Aldo said. “Now we can no longer wait for the government to act. The threat to our corn is greater every day.”

The corn wars have raged in Mexico ever since Chapela’s discovery up in Calpulapan. But nowhere have they raged more pertinently than in Oaxaca and Puebla, where corn was first nurtured and domesticated 5,000 to 7,000 years ago to become the sustenance of the great central Mexican Maize cultures from Teotihuacan to the Toltecs and the Aztecs. To the south, the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, designated the Mayans as the people of corn. The modern-day Mayan Zapatista rebellion germinated during the setting of NAFTA corn quotas and exploded on January 1, 1994.

Ten years later, Mexico imports 6 million tons of corn from the United States, much of it genetically modified.

The Mexican government has tuned out the incessant Basta Ya! of Indian farmers demanding an end to such imports. One particular villain is Undersecretary of Agriculture for International Trade Victor Villalobos, who threatens to end a 1998 moratorium on the planting of GM corn in Mexico. At a meeting of Biodiversity Protocol signatories late last year, Villalobos vetoed the labeling of GM corn imports. Because grain monopolies like Cargill refuse to separate GM from naturally grown corn shipped to Mexico, Greenpeace activists have taken to hooking onto the anchors of ships carrying corn to Veracruz port to prevent the landing of potentially contaminated grain.

The dignity of the Indian people is contagious. To defend our corn is to defend the sun, the earth, the water, the wind. We will never relinquish the defense of our corn.

Oaxaca is not the only battlefront in the Corn Wars. As chair of the interdisciplinary biosecurity commission, Villalobos pushed legislation through the Mexican senate that would have purportedly “guaranteed” the nation’s corn supply by removing all obstacles to the importation of transgenics. But the bill was stalled this spring in the lower house following a hearing at which both Chapela and Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser, whose scuffles with Monsanto are legendary, testified (See “Monsanto Attacks!” November 9, 2001).

Decked out in a pin-striped blue suit and florid tie, the 73-year-old Schmeiser, the very portrait of avuncular gringo-ness, electrified the Mexican legislators with science fiction horror tales of Monsanto’s Gene Police, raids by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (“they always get their man”), blasted crops, deadly pesticides, and super-weeds. Monsanto’s persecution of Schmeiser for allegedly stealing wind-blown GM seeds that ruined his crops will be decided this June by the Canadian Supreme Court. A verdict that the St. Louis biotech titan cannot patent life forms like seeds and plants could knock the struts out from under the industry.

Percy Schmeiser arrived in Mexico fresh from sweet victory in northern California’s Mendocino County where, despite being outspent by the biotech industry 20 to one, activists overwhelmingly passed a measure establishing the first GM-free zone in North America. Adjacent counties are preparing similar measures that could bar GMOs from all of coastal northern California, another potential body blow to Big Biotech. Ironically, many Oaxacan Indian farmers, driven from their land by errant Mexican government agricultural policies that encourage heavy NAFTA imports, work in Mendocino’s many vineyards.

Meanwhile, back home, Luis Bustamante, director of Oaxaca’s official Institute of Ecology, has proposed similar legislation to the state congress, passage of which would make Oaxaca the first no-GMO beachhead in Mexico.

Last month’s hearing in Oaxaca was the fruit of complaints filed by 17 NGOs and indigenous organizations with the NAFTA Environmental Cooperation Commission. The preliminary report of the tri-national committee of prestigious scientists, which contains whole chapters that appear only in English, will be submitted to the NAFTA ministerial meeting in Puebla in June. But the handwriting is already on the wall.

Amanda Galvez, representing the biosecurity commission, and former National University rector José Sarukhan, both Villalobos proxies, insist that Mexico must relax its moratorium on planting GM corn or the nation will be left behind in the biotech derby.

For Galvez, the transgenic outbreak in Oaxaca is like “an experiment that is out of control—we must do everything to bring it back under control.”

Her assessment tends to underscore suspicions that the Mexican government, in complicity with the biotech industry, has targeted Oaxaca as a vast experimental station and its Indians as guinea pigs (conejillos de indios in Spanish) for the brave new world of genetically modified corn.

Despite the Indian outcry, it’s unlikely that the role of Maize in the Indian cosmovision will temper the scientists’ final recommendations in June.

In Oaxaca, we will exercise autonomy, the only legitimate sovereignty—that of the people—todefend our corn. In each community, each neighborhood and town, we will give battle in a peaceful and democratic way. Que Viva Nuestro Maize!

Confronted by transnational biotech conglomerates, the NAFTA czars, scientists who consider themselves little gods (“the optimization of risks” was a favored buzzword around the Victoria), and the complicity of their government, the Indians’ best weapon was their own corn. In Oaxaca, where 30 out of the 60 Mexican varieties of corn take root, there are 600 ways of preparing Maize but the most ubiquitous, of course, is the tortilla.

This past March, the women of Zaachila, out in the Zapotec district, rose before dawn and removed the corn from their great pots where the kernels had soaked overnight. They ground them on stone matates into 100 kilos of masa, which they then fashioned into bushels of warm tortillas. Then, after lugging the bulging baskets into the grand salon of the Hotel Victoria, they passed out piles to the NAFTA czars, their scientists, and their bureaucrats. “Take a taco,” one grizzled farmer named Ruben advised. “It will help you to feel more human.”

John Ross is the author of Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left, to be published by Nation Books.