New Internationalist

The people of corn

Issue 374

Maize is Mexico’s lifeblood – the country’s history and identity are entwined with it. But this centuries-old relationship is now threatened by free trade. Laura Carlsen investigates the threat and profiles a growing activist movement.

Open export markets in agriculture play to the strengths of the world’s most powerful agribusiness interests – leading to growing landlessness, rural poverty and hunger. People have a right to food security. Governments should protect staple foods and small farmers from free trade agreements.

On a mountain top in southern Mexico, Indian families gather. They chant and sprinkle cornmeal in consecration, praying for the success of their new crops, the unity of their communities and the health of their families. In this village in Oaxaca people eat corn tamales, sow maize plots and teach children to care for the plant. The cultural rhythms of this community, its labours, rituals and celebrations will be defined – as they have been for millennia – by the lifecycle of corn.

Indeed, if it weren’t for the domestication of teocintle (the ancestor of modern maize) 9,000 years ago mesoamerican civilization could never have developed. In the Mayan sacred book, the Popol Vuh, the gods create people out of cornmeal. The ‘people of corn’ flourished and built one of the most remarkable cultures in human history.

But in Mexico and Central America today maize has come under attack. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Mexico has been flooded with imported corn from north of the border. The contamination of native varieties with genetically modified imported maize could have major consequences for Mexican campesinos, for local biodiversity and for the world’s genetic reserves.

A decade ago Mexican bureaucrats and entrepreneurs had it all figured out. NAFTA would drive ‘uncompetitive’ maize farmers from the countryside to work in booming assembly plants across the country. Their standard of living would rise as the cost of providing services like electricity and water to scattered rural communities would fall. Best of all, cheap imported maize from the US – the world’s most efficient and most heavily subsidized producer – would be a boon to Mexican consumers.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. There weren’t quite enough of those factory jobs and the ones that did materialize continued to be strung along the US border. And despite a huge drop in the price farmers received for their corn, consumers often ended up paying more. The price of tortillas – the country’s staple food – rose nearly fivefold as the Government jettisoned domestic subsidies and giant agribusiness firms took over the market.

Free trade defenders like Mexico’s former Under-Secretary of Agriculture Luis Tellez suggest: ‘It’s not that NAFTA failed, it’s just that reality didn’t turn out the way we planned it.’

Part of that reality was that the Government did nothing to help campesinos in the supposed transition. Nor did NAFTA recognize ‘asymmetries’ or create compensation funds for the victims of free trade – unlike what occurred with economic integration in the European Union.

Basically, Mexico adopted a sink-or-swim policy for small farmers, opening the floodgates to tons of imported US corn. Maize imports tripled under NAFTA and producer prices fell by half. The drop in income immediately hit the most vulnerable members of rural society. While more than a third of the corn grown by small farmers is used to feed their families, the rest is sold on local markets. Without this critical cash, rural living standards plunged.

Planners predicted that three million maize farmers would leave the land. The figures seem to be around half that. Some did migrate to factory jobs along the border but a huge proportion of the displaced work as farm labourers in the US.

‘Our biggest concern is that people are abandoning their farms,’ says Jesús León, president of the Ita Nuni Center of Integral Rural Development, a campesino organization in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. ‘They get so little from the sale and the family budget gets tighter and tighter. Out-migration is already high but it’s going to get worse.’

Rural poverty and hunger have soared under free trade – and placed a heavier burden on women...

Ironically, many of those who remain have opted to do exactly the opposite of what both planners and free-trade critics predicted – they’ve planted more corn. This year Mexico will produce a record 22 million tons of corn – at record low prices. Why this apparent blindness to ‘market signals’?

One factor is the $13 billion in remittances sent each year by migrants. Much of that money ends up subsidizing relatives back home who continue to grow maize. But there has also been an increase in irrigated maize in northern Mexico where large landowners dominate. Victor Quintanal, a leader of the farmer-run Democratic Front of Chihuahua points out: ‘Maize has become a crop of extremes – corn producers are either very rich or very poor.’ Quintanal notes that in his border state subsistence farmers have suffered as the concentration of land in the hands of large growers has intensified.

But the acreage in maize has also grown in the southern states where subsistence farming predominates. Partly it’s a survival strategy. When the price of crops like coffee drops and non-farm sources of income dry up, families grow more maize to feed their families.

‘Corn is important because it allows us to live at peace,’ says Sofia Robles from the Mixe Indian village of Tlahuitoltepec. ‘It’s our form of food security.’

Alberto Gómez, director of the National Union of Regional Campesino Organizations and a campesino from the western state of Michoacán agrees. ‘Maize is part of our culture but it’s also a strategic food supply. The Government has an obligation to protect small farmers who grow it.’

Import surges and falling producer prices are not the only threat to Mexican maize. The first evidence of genetically modified (GM) maize contamination appeared in 2001. And experts had been warning for years that the cross-pollination of GM corn with native varieties was only a matter of time.

Growing genetically modified maize is illegal in Mexico. But 99 per cent of imported corn in Mexico comes from the US and analysts estimate that at least a quarter of that is GM. The Government’s rural food distribution system, DICONSA, distributes this grain to remote villages throughout the country.

It is assumed the corn will be used as food for either animals or people. But the kernels are seeds and seeds reproduce. Being a promiscuous plant, GM corn cross-pollinates easily. Scientists and activists agree there is virtually no way to control this process once it starts.

What they disagree on are the risks. Local farmers worry that the plant adapted by their ancestors will be irrevocably changed through contamination – with unforeseen consequences.

Maize originated in Mexico and the land is home to a rich diversity of varieties that are protected and cultivated in situ. The risk of losing this irreplaceable genetic inheritance due to GM contamination is huge. Specialized organizations associated with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are charged with conserving genetic material. But they’ve been reluctant to respond due to the enormous political power of the biotech industry.

Initially the industry flatly denied GM contamination. Now it argues that contamination is a natural, innocuous occurrence and merely requires some monitoring of effects. But the giant seed companies hold the patents on GM varieties and would rake in a fortune if contamination becomes widespread. They can charge royalties even on non-intentional use of their products and the traditional system of saving seed from year to year would become technically illegal.

This is precisely what worries farmers like Alicia Blanco Prieto from the Oaxacan village of Mazatlán Villa de Flores. ‘Some say foreign corn is better because the ear is larger. But our corn is especially suited to conditions here. What will we do if we lose it? We can’t afford to buy seed every year.’

Maize is at the heart of indigenous and campesino identity. José Carrillo de la Cruz, a Huichol Indian from northern Jalisco, describes that relationship: ‘Corn is the force, the life and the strength of the Huichol. If there were a change, if someone from outside patented our corn, it would end our life and existence.’

The good news is that the free-trade threat to Mexico’s culture and food security has sparked a lively resistance. ‘In Defence of Corn’, a movement to protect local maize varieties, is not a membership organization but a series of forums and actions led by campesinos themselves. It’s a direct challenge to both free trade and the dictums of corporate science.

The group’s first forum called for a moratorium on maize imports, demanding that the ‘precautionary principle’ of the Cartagena Protocol, an international treaty on bio-safety, be enforced. Essentially this means that imports must be halted until there is scientific proof that GM maize poses no threat to native corn varieties.

Over 100,000 campesinos marched in the streets of Mexico City last year ‘in defence of corn’ demanding that the agricultural chapter of NAFTA be renegotiated to remove staple food crops (corn and beans). The Government has refused.

Lately the movement has changed tack and dedicated itself to building local and regional autonomy – In Defence of Corn is carrying out its own genetic testing and developing its own long-term projects.

In the Mixtec region campesinos have set up a ‘GM-free zone’ to assure a source of clean, native seed for themselves and other communities. Among the Huichols, the defence of corn has diversified into long-term efforts to reduce chemical use, guard against erosion, develop sustainable water use and restore forests.

The farmers’ tenacity and refusal to abandon the crop of their ancestors is impressive. But larger economic conditions continue to shape their lives. Rural poverty and hunger have soared under free trade – and placed a heavier burden on women left to work the land. The battle for food sovereignty continues. Movement leaders insist that the Government reassess its free trade policies and develop a real rural development programme.

Laura Carlsen directs the Americas programme of the Interhemispheric Resource Centre in New Mexico.

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