Transcript

Made of Corn

Aired May 20, 2020

Male voice: In Mexico, all Mexicans but especially Indigenous communities in the mountain, we are made of corn. That for them, it’s not a plant. It’s a God.

***

GORDON KATIC: I’m Gordon Katic. This is Cited

[CITED THEME]

GORDON: This is episode two of a two part series. If you haven’t listened to the first episode, I would highly recommend you do, because this one will just make a lot more sense to you. w. On that episode, Berkeley grad student David Quist and his supervisor Ignacio Chapella had stumbled upon a discovery in Oaxaca, Mexico…

David:  Positive transgenic DNA. like bright as mycontrol.  And that was just an oh shit moment. For me.


Ignacio: In an office that was not really an office but felt more like a makeshift interrogation place. How is this going to work? Are they going to push me out of the window?

 

Nick:  I stayed involved for a little bit until he called me and the members of my department corporate whores.

 

Ignacio: Softly spoken words behind closed doors to simply get rid of me from the campus.

David: Can I talk to you off the record? Politically, there is no way in hell that you’re going to get funding from our agency.

GORDON: These two episodes are exploring an idea called the precautionary principle.
It’s an environmental idea that is supposed to tell us how to deal with risk under conditions of scientific uncertainty. Last week, David and Ignacio had identified a risk: that GM corn could compromise biodiversity, and threaten to wipe out generations of Indigenous  farming traditions. 

But there is still scientific uncertainty: as we heard in the last episode, the jury is still out about David and Ignacio’s paper. So this episode: the precautionary principle has its moment to shine. So what happens when lawyers and activists try to actually apply it?

Producer James Frederick takes us back to Oaxaca, Mexico…  where thousands of Indigenous farmers take to the streets

[SOUND OF PROTEST]

 

JAMES FREDERICK: Environmental activists in Mexico responded to David and Ignacio’s findings with alarm. Not only were they worried that GM corn could destroy generations of Indigenous farming techniques, but another big piece of this was timing. Mexico had recently become part of NAFTA.

GORDON: It’s the early 2000s, NAFTA is almost a decade old. And in that time, it’s taken out a lot of small, rural farmers. Since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, cheap US imports drove the price of corn in Mexico down by 70 percent. That devastated rural families. 

[SOUND OF PROTEST FADES]


JAMES: Enter Aldo Gonzalez, the campesino and Indigenous activist you met last episode. He helped create the Red de Defensa del Maiz, the Corn Defense Network. They start traveling across the Mexican countryside, organizing farmers against NAFTA and GMOs.  

Aldo: Entonces dijimos, vamos a resistir desde la comunidad, invitando la gente del campo que sigan sembrando sus maíces nativos, y que se opongan con los hechos a la entrada de transgénicos.

He says, “We decided that resistance would start inside farming communities. We’d encourage people to keep growing their native corn and get them to actively oppose the arrival of transgenics.” 

[SOUND OF ANTI-NAFTA PROTEST CHANTS]

GORDON: The message raced through rural Mexico. “NAFTA”, “GMOs”, “Monsanto”: These all became dirty words. 

[PROTESTERS CHANT: “SIN MAIZ, NO HAY PAIS. FUERA LOS TRANSGÉNICOS DEL PAÍS”]

GORDON: In January 2003, 40,000 farmers marched through Mexico City, demanding a renegotiation of NAFTA and investment in rural farming. You can hear people there chanting “Without corn, we have no country. Get transgenics out of our country!” 

 

[FADE OUT PROTEST]

Pablo: Here in Mexico, everybody, from the President to the farmers in the mountain, all of us every day eat corn. Every day.[laughs]

 

JAMES: This is Pablo Uribe Malagamba. While Aldo and the farmers were out protesting, Pablo was at a desk, pouring over GMO lawsuits from around the world with other environmental lawyers.

 

Pablo: This was my first case, important case that I raised. I was very young. I have something like 21 years, something like this...

JAMES: He had just started working at a small, non-profit environmental law firm, when he got a call from...

Pablo: Greenpeace. The Greenpeace team in Mexico. 

JAMES: As a young, idealistic lawyer, Pablo was a little starstruck. One of the biggest environmental groups on the planet was asking him to figure out how they could get Mexican courts to stop transgenic corn from being farmed. But Pablo quickly realized how big a challenge they faced.

Pablo: In the local Mexican court, it would be pretty impossible. Because in that moment we have to prove the link between the driver of the environmental impact and the effects of these environmental impacts. And prove these two things was really impossible.

 

JAMES: Basically, a class action lawsuit would require lots of scientific proof that these transgenes were destroying Indigneous crops. Remember that question from the 1st episode? Could GM corn push out the Indigenous corn, and impact the biodiversity of the region? The GMOs had just been discovered-- and there was no clear evidence about what the broader environmental impact might be.

 

Pablo: The scientifics didn’t really have a consensus about the impacts of transgenics in the world. Not only in Mexico, in the world. Because that’s the way that science works, no?

JAMES: But Pablo and his colleagues had an unlikely resource. NAFTA

GORDON: NAFTA is why GM corn ended up in Oaxacan soil. BUT, NAFTA also created the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Or the CEC. The CEC is basically for arbitration - it studies the law and science, and settles environmental disputes between Canada, the US, and Mexico.

 

CEC VIDEO: Promoting public participation is at the core of the CEC’s mission….

JAMES: Through the CEC, Pablo could sue the Mexican government for violating environmental law by allowing transgenic corn into the country. Except there was one little problem…

Pablo: Mexico in this moment didn’t have any regulations for transgenics. ANY regulations about transgenics.

 

GORDON: Transgenics exist in a kind of legal gray area. Yes, there was a moratorium on commercial GMO farming. But GMO experiments were allowed. And the government wanted to allow more GM corn planting in the country. But there were no regulations around that. So, there was nothing to sue over.  

JAMES: They had one more option: file a petition to the CEC and force it to conduct an environmental study with recommendations about how to proceed. Pablo joins forces with two other environmental organizations and 21 Indigenous communities-- including Aldo’s hometown.

 

GORDON: They petition the CEC: They ask them to declare what risks there might be to Indigenous maize. Based on those risks should GM planting be allowed, or should it banned outright? 

JAMES: The CEC agreed. They would convene a group of experts to study potential impacts of genetic modification on Mexico and its maize. 

GORDON: But at the same time, pro-GMO lobbying in Mexico was really gaining power and refining its message.

Pablo: That the transgenics are the best invention of the 21 century and this will change how we feed, our health, how we live…

GORDON: The pro-GMO camp was saying: Mexico is importing more corn every year. But it could be self-sufficient if each farm were more productive, with modern agricultural techniques. Corn yields in American and Canadian farms were about three times the yield per hectare. So lets bring in transgenics. Mexican farmers will just get higher yields!

 

JAMES: The Mexican government agreed with this argument. They supported bringing GMO farming, and they hoped to modernize the Mexican countryside.

 

GORDON: But farming on U.S. mega farms is pretty different. Would that even work in Mexico? Do we want that? And most importantly, what would it risk? That last question is what the CEC has been studying. And in March, 2004 they finished their report.

 

Pablo: So, it was taken by the CEC secretariat and the ministers because of all the pressure, the international pressure, agreed to start the publication of this report. 

JAMES: The CEC’s plan was to hold a big community meeting in Oaxaca to present the results. And it wanted all involved parties there: scientists, lawyers, government officials, and representatives of the companies involved like Monsanto and Novartis. But by far, most of the people there were local Oaxacans, people from campesino and Indigenous groups -- ya know, people who actually grow corn. Pablo and Aldo, the lawyer and the activist, these two guys who don’t even know each other but have been part of the same fight for years, are finally in the same space.

Aldo: Dijimos, tenemos que dar una opinión aunque esto no va a solucionar el problema. Pero damos una opinión sobre todo porque habíamos estado hablando del problema de contaminación ya durante varios años...pero la gente pensaba que estábamos locos.

 

JAMES: Aldo says, “As Indignous communities we decided we had to attend, even though we didn’t expect this to solve any problems. Mostly, I wanted to go because I’d spent the last several years talking about the risks of transgenics and everyone was calling me crazy.”

Aldo was still skeptical of the CEC. After all, the CEC, which was suddenly supposed to be their saviour,  was part of NAFTA -- a deal that had gutted small Mexican farmers. But he hoped, maybe, his concerns would be validated.

Pablo was so excited.  Without him, it’s unlikely any of this would be happening. Remember, he’s the young lawyer. And it was his petition to the CEC that started all this. He thinks: finally Indigenous communities have a chance to speak to the international experts that have so much power over the fate of their corn.

Pablo: It was really interesting. Because in the proceeding, imagine, it was the most important scientifics talking about transgenics. White men with huge scientific titles, with PhD, post PhDs, post-post-post PhDs. And then came Aldo who was the representative of the Indigenous communities, pretty young, really really young. But really brave. Really brave and with a really huge personality….

JAMES: Aldo reminds everyone who’s turf they’re on.


Pablo: So he take the microphone. And he says that you have to understand that all of Mexicans but especially Indigenous communities in the mountain, we are made of corn. That for them, it’s not a plant. It’s a God.

JAMES: Aldo’s looking right at these representatives of the companies and says, ‘You wanna come in here and impress us with the work you did in some lab? But we and countless generations of our ancestors actually created the corn you’re working on. We should be appreciative of you?’ Says Aldo. ‘No, you should be thanking us.’ And then he tells them they’re not welcome in Oaxaca and the only solution is banning GMOs. 

GORDON: The panel is only representing their findings about the risks of GM corn planting. But Aldo, Pablo, and the folks in the room --they’ve had enough--they want GMOs of all sorts totally out of Mexico.

Pablo: This speech and this message that Aldo bring to us was so powerful. For me as a young lawyer, it was blowing my mind. 

JAMES:  I did ask Aldo about his speech but -- and maybe he was just being humble --  he didn’t really remember it.

But Pablo did. 

 

Pablo: [laughs] It was fantastic, no?

JAMES: And then, the CEC actually presents its results, including...

[insanely fast reading of very technical jargon]
"Research is needed to determine the consequences of gene stacking (multiple novel genes, including transgenes) via gene flow on the fitness and yield of recipient plants, because the cumulative effects of multiple genes may have different consequences than single genes, and this could influence the persistence of transgenes in recipient populations of landraces"

GORDON: Basically, the CEC is saying more research is needed. We just don’t have definitive answers to the questions Ignacio and David originally asked, like whether transgenes could overpower these native Oaxacan strains. 

But the study makes one important point throughout: that there might be a risk of transgenic corn irreversibly changing Mexico. And the CEC said, well…

Pablo: Even though this is not proved in the lab, we don’t have all the links to prove this, the reasonable doubt is enough to control the impact because of the...uh…

JAMES: Listen up, because this phrase is important.

Pablo: ...Precautionary principle

GORDON: Remember, the idea is even if you lack definitive scientific evidence, if the risk is too great, perhaps you should proceed with caution. Perhaps you shouldn’t proceed at all. That’s what happens here.

JAMES: The CEC’s advice was to strengthen the moratorium on farming GM corn. It should stay in place - until there is more research made available to Indigenous farmers.  The report says this isn’t a simple scientific question. It says the introduction of transgenic corn farming had the potential to disrupt centuries, millennia of tradition, culture, and heritage in Mexico.

GORDON: The CEC takes us all the way back to where we started the first episode. Rio. The Earth Summit. They’re citing the very precautionary principle that world leaders agreed to at that summit, in 1992. But again, just like Rio, the CEC’s report is like a statement of principles, it’s a non-binding recommendation. 

But it does give Aldo something tangible, something to argue with. Something that he can use to push back against GM corn planting.

Aldo:Yo creo que después de la reunión finalmente aunque no resolvió el problema si nos fortaleció. Porque lo que ya habíamos estado diciendo lo reafirmaron los científicos. Entonces dijeron, no son mentiras lo que están diciendo.

JAMES: Aldo says the meeting didn’t do anything to resolve the problem but we there left there feeling strong because our concerns about GM corn had been validated by a team of scientists.


***

GORDON: The Mexicans AND Americans both hated the CEC’s report. 

The U.S. government said it, quote, “ignored science”. The Mexicans thought all this cultural stuff was just too squishy. It was, quote, “not objective”. 

And both governments thought the CEC needed to consider the economic benefits of GM corn. 

This argument, it might have worked for other crops, in fact, it has. There is GMO farming in Mexico, especially when it comes to soy and cotton. But corn is just different. And to understand why, we need to go back to Santa Gertrudis. The little farming village in Oaxaca, where our story began. 


[SOUND OF CREEK RUNNING THROUGH TOWN]

Alongside the creek that runs through the middle of town, there’s a small elementary school, a church, a simple concrete municipal government building, and yes, a Diconsa food store, that at some point may have sold GM corn.They say they’ve stopped selling imported American corn years ago.

JAMES: Six local farmers left work for the day to meet me and Aldo and talk about corn. I start with what I thought would be a pretty simple first question.


‘Why is corn so important?’ But they seem confused, as if this gringo’s question is so obvious it doesn’t even need to be asked.

Carlos Hernandez, a kind of elder of the town who’s been farming here for 50 years, takes pity on me. 

 

Carlos Hernandez: Si no hubiera maíz, no vamos a vivir.

JAMES: He says, “If there weren’t corn, we wouldn’t live.” 

The news of David and Ignacio’s paper all those years ago really startled these farmers, who already didn’t trust these so-called improved seeds. 

Carlos: Me trae otro maíz que vamos a decir que sea un mejorado. Como que no sería correcto para mi. A lo mejor la tierra no va a producir. O que cosa tendremos que hacer para que produzca. Ya tenemos nuestro maíz, el criollo como decimos. 

 

JAMES: Hernandez says, “The idea of bringing some kind of ‘improved’ seed just seems wrong to me. Maybe the soil won’t take it. What do I have to do differently so it grows? We already have our own seeds, we know how to grow them and they grow well here.”

The GMO pitch of better yields or improved resistance to drought or infestation just doesn’t work here.
One of the farmers, Neon Cruz, told me they already have all the knowledge they need.

Neon Cruz: Una milpa nosotros trabajamos desde las 12 anos que nacimos. Es la herencia que nos dejo nuestros papás que trabajan en la tierra. 

 

JAMES: “We started working the milpa when we were 12 years old,” he says. “It’s the inheritance our fathers left us with. And they taught us how to do our own seed improvements.”

Margarito, the farmer we met at the beginning of last episode, perks up at this, and pulls out his cell phone to show me a picture. 

Margarito: Es la selección de la semilla. Agarrar la parte del medio, las partes más grandes. En la mazorca selecciona las semillas, el más grueso en medio.

 

JAMES: He points to a stubby, thick corn cob that splits into two cobs halfway up. And there in the middle are the thickest, biggest seeds, he says. Those are the ones he saves to be planted next season. Think of it as his version of genetic modification. 

Looking around -- this quiet little town surrounded by pine forests pocked with little milpas all over the hillsides -- It’s about as far from a GMO lab or American corn farm as you can get. 


***

GORDON: There’s a lot of scientific expertise behind the lab-made GM corn. And I’m sure those scientists know more about corn genetics than Carlos and Neon — I mean, obviously, these Indigenous farmers don’t have PhDs in molecular biology.

But that’s not the important question here. The important question is who is the expert when it comes to Oaxaca?
Indigenous farmers have been here for millennia, you don’t think they know a thing or two about corn and how to grow it? Of course they do— so despite the American scientists, and you know, no disrespect to them, But these farmers, guys like Aldo and Margarito, they’re experts too. In fact they’re the experts. And they’ve got all they need, thank you very much.

 

***

 [SOUND OF RUSHING CREEK]

JAMES: There’s another element to this story. And it’s not just yields, or biodiversity, or tradition. Their maize is more than just a crop-- it’s the foundation of a unique way of life. 

Carlos: Aquí el terreno es comunal. Yo en mi caso, no cobran renta ni nada. Pero ya depende de uno. Porque si no damos algo, nos hace falta....

JAMES: “All land here is communal”, says Carlos. “On my land, I just work it. There’s no rent to pay or anything. But if you have land, that means others depend on you. So you have to do your part or we all lose out.”

These farmers band together on those labor-intensive planting and harvest days, sharing the load. It’s understood that if one farmer has a bad harvest, others share theirs. 

 GORDON: In Mexico today, roughly half of land is still under communal ownership, a system that’s been in place, in some form, for centuries, since before the Spanish even arrived. It’s the way most small towns still operate. This is exactly what the CEC was talking about when they said corn was more than just a crop. It’s a way of life.

[SOUND OF VERONICA VILLA CHATTING]

This is Veronica Villa. She works with ETC Group, an environmental sustainability organization that’s been working on this corn issue for years alongside Aldo.

 

Veronica: Últimamente me ha dado cuenta que también damos mucho por obvio pero muchos países han pasado por procesos donde han quedado muy lejano las comunidades sobreviven de lo que cultivaban. ....

Translation: I’ve recently realized that Mexicans sometimes take for granted that our rural, Indigenous communities hold a rare place in the world. Most countries have gone through industrialization which separated rural people from agriculture but much of Mexico has resisted that.
Many Indigenous communities here can get all their basic necessities from the land and have communal systems that allow them to sustain one another without outside support. And this means autonomy.
They don’t have to be at the whims of electoral politics. It’s a bigger structure that exists around the country that allows Indigenous communities to decide whether or not they want to be involved in the political system. Because either way, they know they can survive without it.
This is a very subversive idea. This fight for land rights and corn is an ongoing battle between the centralized government and communities that are able to be autonomous.

 

JAMES: Think about it this way: farmers like Carlos and Margarito don’t really have to participate in the wider economy. Their milpas, anchored by their corn plants uniquely designed to this region, give them and their families basically all the food they need to survive. They can make some pesos on whatever they have left over, but they don’t have to rely on a salaried job or the marketplace to feed their families. 

 

GORDON: This is what Veronica means by autonomy.  And it all starts with maize, the backbone of their milpa. If they have to start buying SO-CALLED “improved seeds,” and the fertilizer, and pesticide, and whatever else comes with it-- they’ll need to enter that wider economy. And then that autonomy is gone.


JAMES: So they’re not willing to risk it. They’ve spent generations protecting the rich biodiversity of Mexico. Generations fine-tuning corn strains to grow almost anywhere. And generations maintaining their autonomy as Indigenous farming towns. And they’re not gonna stop. 

***

GORDON: In the mid-2000’s it all came to a head. 

JAMES: Even though the CEC report told the Mexican government to be cautious, the government insists it could introduce GM corn farming and protect native species.

[SOUND OF 2005 CONGRESSIONAL VOTE]

So in 2005, congress is about to vote on the Genetically Modified Organisms Biosafety Act. This would take Mexico out of that legal gray area of moratoriums and explain exactly how GMOs could be created, imported, sold, and planted in Mexico.

[PROTEST DRUMMING]

Activists were furious and started calling this the “Monsanto Law”.

[ANTI-MONSANTO CHANTING FROM PROTEST]

 

Pablo: Of course the biosecurity act, I don’t like it. It’s an awful piece of law. [laughs] 

JAMES: People like Pablo say the law will put profits over the environment, biodiversity, and local farmers. He says it favors large multinationals like Monsanto, who already control the transgenic seed market. So Pablo wants to reform it. And he works to squeeze in some very important language:

Pablo: We introduce, and we fight really tough to introduce, the precautionary principle in this biosecurity act. 

 

GORDON: Everyone can see it, the bill is going to pass, the government has decided to regulate GMOs, not ban them. And as the nitty gritty of the bill’s  language is being debated, environmental lawyers like Pablo figure some precautionary principle language is maybe the best thing they can do.

 

Pablo: Let’s say, ok, that if the government want to authorize any kind of transgenic investigation or transgenic liberation into the ecosystem, the government has to have the technical and scientific proofs that all the environmental and health impacts are controlled. 

JAMES: So, written into this hated law is:
Con el fin de proteger el medio ambiente y la diversidad biológica, el Estado Mexicano deberá aplicar el enfoque de precaución conforme a sus capacidades, tomando en cuenta los compromisos establecidos en tratados y acuerdos internacionales de los que los Estados Unidos Mexicanos sean parte. Cuando haya peligro de daño grave o irreversible, la falta de certeza científica absoluta no deberá utilizarse como razón para postergar la adopción de medidas eficaces en función de los costos para impedir la degradación del medio ambiente y de la diversidad biológica. Dichas medidas se adoptarán de conformidad con las previsiones y los procedimientos administrativos establecidos en esta Ley”

...the phrase “precautionary focus” appears six different times as a guiding principle of using GMOs.

 

GORDON: It’s a small victory; and maybe, just maybe, this will give them the argument they need to stop GM corn planting. 

But at this point in the story-- we’re not just there yet. There’s no widespread commercial GM corn planting. The law has just set the broad parameters. There’s more details to figure out. It’s not until 2009 that this changes. Mexican president Felipe Calderon has a meeting with Hugh Grant. 

JAMES: No, not everyone’s favourite British rom com star. This Hugh Grant is the President of Monsanto. 

GORDON: And two months later: Calderone lifts the moratorium. GM maize can be commercially planted in Mexico.

[TAPE OF PROTESTS]

JAMES: The response was intense. These weren’t just little protests out in the countryside. There were huge protests in Mexico City and all over the country. Greenpeace was doing all sorts of wild stuff, like when one of their activists who rappelled into the Mexican senate to protest the regulations.

[SOUND FROM GREENPEACE SENATE PROTEST]

Some of the country’s best known artists and musicians, like Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, the singer Lila Downs, Ruben Albarran from Cafe Tacuba, these huge personalities in Mexico became spokespeople for the opposition.  

[SONG: “Sin Maiz, No Hay Pais”]

That’s Mexican rock band Botellita de Jerez with their song “Sin Maiz, No Hay Pais”, which means “Without corn, there’s no country.” This was the slogan of this whole native corn movement. This battle over corn was front and center of the public consciousness.

But, Monsanto, Pioneer, DowAgrosciences, these behemoths of the US corn industry-- they’ve all been granted permits to experiment with genetically modified maize in northern Mexico. Mexico’s moving towards full-scale commercial farming.

Veronica Villa says she felt pretty pessimistic at the time.

 

Verónica: Es muy aplastante. Y en algún momento grandes organizaciones campesinas protestaron pero no solamente por el maíz sino por la política agrícola y diversas cosas...Había otro compañero de otro organización campesina que me dijo, ‘si nos ponemos a entender y responder a cada uno de los desarrollos legales, dejamos de ser campesinos y volvemos a ser una comunidad de abogados.

Translation: It was devastating. Campesino organizations were protesting over corn but not just that: agricultural policy, Indigenous policy, all sorts of things.
We went from anger to sadness.
A friend from a campesino group told me at the time, “If we tried to understand and respond to every new regulatory or legal thing that was happening, we’d stop being farmers and become a town of lawyers.”

 

GORDON: By 2013, Monsanto and Pioneer had requested commercial production permits for GM corn in northern Mexico. And their requests were for massive farms, a total of 2 million hectares, almost as big as the state of New Jersey.

 

JAMES: The government had designated “protected zones.” Places you couldn’t plant GM corn, including large swaths of Oaxaca. But activists say that there’s no guarantee that your 2 million hectares of corn would just play by the government’s rules-- there’s no guarantee it will stay put, out of these protected zones.
Remember Ignacio and David from the last episode? Well, it’s been 12 years and their questions still haven't been answered. Would GM corn behave differently in the wild? How far could it spread? Could it impact the biodiversity of the region?

 

GORDON: Environmental lawyers like Pablo were willing to try anything to stop the permits. On July 5, 2013, a group of lawyers file a collective action lawsuit arguing that granting the permits violates the rights of the Mexican people.

 

[LAWYER READING LAWSUIT AT COURTHOUSE]

GORDON: You’re hearing the lawyer who led the case, as he presents it in court. Basically what he’s saying, just like the CEC report said, this is not just about biodiversity and corn.  This is about Indigenous communities’ QUOTE “cultural rights”. It’s a compelling argument, but Aldo thought it was a longshot: 

Aldo: Pensamos que dificilmente se podria ganar, ojala que se gane. Pero pensamos que difícilmente se podía ganar y sería como seguirle haciendo el juego al estado. 

JAMES: “I thought it was unlikely to win, although of course I wanted it to. But I felt like it was just playing into the government’s game and we were destined to lose.”
So he, and a lot of other activists, weren’t even really paying attention when a federal court issued its ruling a few months later.

[NEWS BULLETIN INTRO MUSIC. PRESENTER ANNOUNCES DECISION]

JAMES: The environmentalists won.

A judge ordered the Mexican government and companies like Monsanto to immediately stop all transgenic corn work.

 

GORDON: So where’s the celebration? Where’s the music? Where’s all the excitement from all these activists? Where’s the celebration song?!

 

JAMES: Here’s the thing: this case was bouncing around different levels of courts, appellate courts, back and forth, back and forth, you know. You could barely keep up with it. And activists had no faith this ruling would stick. They were worried it would just be reversed.

Here’s how Veronica sees it.

 

Veronica: Si un juez decide que no hay razón para que no haya maíz transgénico, yo creo que nunca se puede volver a abrir un juicio, es una cosa que ya se resolvió para la vida


Translation: If just one judge decides they can’t find a reason to block transgenic corn, I’m not sure we could file another lawsuit. It would have been decided for life. 


JAMES: She worries that their good luck could just as easily flip back around. The Mexican government and companies like Monsanto are constantly filing motions to lift this injunction, hoping to get just one ruling in their favor. 


GORDON: Pablo actually isn’t worried. And that’s because of a familiar term. 

Pablo: The precautionary principle is the, it’s the standard that the Mexican government cannot address with enough scientific information. That’s the point.


GORDON: Remember how the precautionary principle is really about how we deal with risk under conditions of scientific uncertainty. David and Ignacio had identified a risk: that GM corn might negatively impact biodiversity in Oaxaca. But there’s uncertainty because we’re not really sure if they’re right.
But what the precautionary principle flips the burden of proof back on to the GM corn planters. It’s not that Pablo has to find definitive science that proves GM corn is bad for biodiversity. With the precautionary principle, it’s the GM producers that must prove their GM corn is safe. 

Pablo: That’s the argument that the corporations have not fulfilled. And will not fulfill in a long term. I know it. To have all this scientific information to control the impacts that the transgenics will produce, it’s really hard. 

JAMES: Pablo sees no way out of this for the government and GM producers. They have to demonstrate an absence of negative effects on the environment, biodiversity, culture, and everything else. They have the technology to do these studies. But so far, they don’t have the data. 


***

GORDON: The Mexican government and the GM producers are trying to get GM corn growing again. They’ve filed more than 100 motions in court, but every single time, they’ve failed.

But despite these bans-- the GM corn is still out there. Over the last 20 years there have been several studies showing transgenic corn popping up where it shouldn’t be. It seems that overall, in spite of everything, in sprite of the precaution, in spite of the regulations, transgenes are just popping up in crops all across the country.

But Remember: David Quist first saw this over 20 years ago. So he thinks: whatever you say about the precautionary principle, whatever new regulations you put in place... Really, this is all a little too late.


David Quist: There's really not a whole lot to be done, you know, the genie is out of the bottle. The question can take on to two sides. Well, number one to say the transgenes are there. Now they have the potential to impact local varieties, we need to stop this technology. On the other hand, if the transgene genie’s out of the bottle, there's really not a whole lot to be done. And so the arguments to just commercialize the technology becomes strong.

GORDON: The precautionary principle has put a pause on new, commercial GM corn planting. But this is a fragile impasse. Market forces driven by NAFTA -- and now by the USMCA--  mean that transgenic maize is a reality across Mexico today. Much of the corn that Mexicans eat is GM corn imported from the States. And farming has become more consolidated activity, as smaller producers are unable to compete with the behemoth that is the US corn industry

This means the arguments to allow GM farming are only getting stronger and stronger.

 

***   

JAMES: But there are still millions of people in Mexico carrying on this millenia-old tradition of farming maize.

[SOUND OF RUSHING CREEK]

JAMES: One last time, let’s go back to where we started: Santa Gertrudis with this group of corn farmers. 

[CAMPESINOS CHATTING]

The court battles, the protests… Those all feel kinda abstract here. Of course they’re happy GM  corn planting got  blocked, but they don’t have much control over the big picture of what happens in this fight.
But they do have one thing, says another campesino, a different Carlos, Carlos Enriquez.

Carlos Enríquez: Se ha hablado de que no aceptemos que o no nos engañemos pues que no traigan para no contaminarnos demás. Es lo que se ha tratado, no comprar, no aceptar pues….

He says, ‘We have workshops where we talk about how we shouldn’t accept outside seeds or let someone come in and try to trick us and contaminate our crops.’

Since David and Ignacio’s discovery, these campesinos decided to only plant corn seeds that come from inside their community.

It’s made them wary of outsiders, especially scientists, who claim they can improve on the farming they already do here. 

Carlos Enriquez: Porque si damos de nuestro maíz, allí solito nos entregamos. Mejor no soltarlo, lo tenemos que sostener…

Carlos says, “If we hand over our corn to them, we’re just conceding defeat. It’s better to hold on to it, to sustain it like we know how.”

They see this as a fight, and protecting their native seeds is the best weapon. 

These campesinos see no reason to change. Every single year, their milpas produce what the community needs to survive. They don’t have to go buy pesticides or herbicides. They make their own compost. They have all their own seeds. They support one another as a community.

It’s clear all of these campesinos are proud of what they do, and they’re excited to show off their centuries-old farming techniques.

Another thing that’s clear is that they choose to be campesinos. They know they don’t have to stay here. They’ve seen men or families or entire villages pack up and leave, migrating to larger cities or the United States, finding work that pays them in currency, not corn. 

Most of these campesinos have children or even adult grandchildren who are farming now too. But the threat of this way of life disappearing is always there.  And the specter of GM corn is always hanging over them, says the town elder, Carlos Hernandez.

Carlos Hernandez: Ultimadamente, tendremos que irnos con ese maíz, si así fuera. Pero mientras no...no sea así, tenemos que cuidar lo que es de nosotros.

He says, “If the worst did happen, a flood of transgenic corn farming, we’d have to leave. But in the meantime, we have to take care of what’s ours.”

***

CREDITS

This episode was produced by James Frederick and Polly Leger.

Edited by Acey Rowe, and me, Gordon Katic.

Our theme song and music is by our composer, Mike Barber. 

 Fact checking by Aurora Tejeida. James Rhatigan was our research assistant.

Dakota Koop is our graphic designer.  Cited’s production manager is David Tobiaz. Cited’s executive producers are Gordon Katic, that’s me, as well as Sam Fenn.

Thank you also to: Ana de Ita Rubio, Santiago Muñoz and Daniela Moreno from the Maizajo tortilla shop, Silvia Ribeiro from ETC Group, and Natasha Pizzey Siegert.

This episode was funded in part by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. We got a grant to discuss ideas in liberal environmental theory; with research advising from Professor Jessican Dempsey at the University of British Columbia, and Professor Rosemary Collard from Simon Fraser University.

 

Cited is produced out of the Centre of Ethics at the University of Toronto, which is on the traditional land of Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat Peoples.

Cited is also produced out of the Michael Smith Laboratory at the University of British Columbia -- that’s on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.