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A Modern Day Maya Maize Nightmare #419011
10/17/11 08:07 AM
10/17/11 08:07 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 83,535
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP

Small Maya farmers in Belize are finding themselves in the middle of a scenario that is the stuff of disaster flicks.

Consider this for a plot:

A large global company creates and sells a developing nation some genetically modified corn on the promise that it will increase crop yields while resisting disease and pests. The trade-off, the company said, is that the corn will not naturally reproduce, so farmers will need to buy new seed stock each season. But the high crop yields and freedom from the need to use pesticides make up for this, or so the corporation says.

The little country begins using the corn, and then discovers another “by-product” – the corn also makes all other species of corn it comes into contact with sterile. The contagion spreads around the world. Soon the only corn available is that which the company owns the patent on. The corporation’s shareholders become rich beyond measure.

And then, after a generation or two, it is discovered that the genetic toxins in the corn are also toxic to humans and animals. In addition, a new strain of disease, a superbug has evolved. Worldwide famine of an unimaginable scale results and corn becomes extinct.

Welcome to the Maya’s newest nightmare.

After centuries of struggle to preserve their culture and, in many instances, their lives, from foreign greed, the Maya are now facing a new battle as a global conglomerate attempts to introduce GMO (genetically modified organisms) corn into Belize. Fortunately, people are beginning to heed the alarm.

The Maya of Belize won some respite – maybe – when the country’s Prime Minister, the Hon Dean Barrow, recently announced a ban on GMO seed imported into Belize without proper authority. He further stated that any such seed stock coming into Belize will be destroyed. This is a significant event, and to properly appreciate it, one needs to understand the importance of corn to the Maya.

Ever since Europeans first landed on their shores, the Maya, who have referred to themselves for millennia as the people of the corn, have had to protect their maize from a range of threats; from the introduction of foreign pests and diseases to attempts to wipe out their crops during earlier versions of “ethnic cleansing”.

Centuries before the birth of Christ the Maya have been planting and perfecting maize through the careful, selective breeding of teosinte (zea mexicana) , the staff of life revered by indigenous people throughout the Americas. As with the Hopi, Navajo, Olmec, Aztec and many other Native American peoples, corn always was, and continues to be the basis of Maya physical, cultural and spiritual survival.

In modern Belize, the same local strain of corn developed by the ancestors of today’s Maya continues to be planted, harvested, consumed and revered on the same land by essentially the same people.

Recently, fears were triggered when reports surfaced that Monsanto GM corn had been imported into Belize for planting in test fields. The Monsanto corn is touted as containing an implanted bacterial gene that causes the plant to produce its own pesticide.

The European Union including France and Germany, Caribbean nations, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Japan, Egypt, the Philippines, China and other countries have banned or restricted GM corn.

Earlier, Belize’s Agriculture and Fisheries Ministry CEO, Gambino Canto confirmed to the local Amandala newspaper that 20 pounds of the seed would be planted under quarantine in six small test plots. He said that the 15 by 20 foot plots would be surrounded by electric fences and under guard during the trial runs, and “should not pose a danger of cross-pollinating other natural cornfields”.

However, according to an Amandala report, after government technical staff, including members of Belize’s Biosafety Council, strongly objected to the tests, Cabinet moved to stop propagation of GM seeds in Belize.

Prime Minister Barrow then announced, on October 5, that all GM corn would be destroyed under government supervision.

However, a Maya villager has since reported that a Mennonite farmer named “Henry” gave him 10 pounds of free corn that he claimed would increase crop yields. Henry instructed the Maya farmer to plant the corn, and said he’d be back to monitor the results.

Amandala also reported that a Mennonite farmer with the first name of Henry was assisting the Ministry of Agriculture in the GM corn planting trials.

Mennonites are a religious community similar to the Amish in the United States, and are some of Belize’s most productive and technologically advanced farmers. As a community, they represent the closest thing Belize has to agribusiness.

In light of the reports, a representative of Sustainable Harvest International (SHI) in Belize’s Toledo District said the NGO would begin testing Maya corn fields for possible GMO contamination.

SHI also organised a public forum in the town of Punta Gorda, where a call was made for a public protest against the importation of GMO seed stock, and a mass protest is planned for Belmopan, the nation’s capital.

Since then, PM Barrow said that while his government has biosafety policies in place, they do not cover the introduction of GMO seed into Belize. Risk assessments are mandatory prior to the approval of any such introduction but, curiously, no risk assessment on the GM corn was conducted when the seeds were imported into Belize.

Mick Fleming, who with his wife Lucy owns Belize’s eco resort, The Lodge at Chaa Creek and is well known for environmental activism, called the news, “very disturbing indeed”.

“Our Maya organic farm has been supplying Chaa Creek with fresh food and roof thatch for decades, using the same farming techniques the Maya have been using for thousands of years. We’ve come to appreciate how sustainable, environmentally friendly and productive these traditional methods are. Local agriculture evolved over thousands of years, and has fed millions of people. To risk that, as well as the livelihood and wellbeing of small farmers and their families, well, it’s just appalling.

“Hats off to PM Barrow for his quick action, and we’ll be monitoring the situation very carefully,” he said.

According to blog attributed to the Maya Leaders Alliance

“As Maya, we plant seeds that we save from our previous harvest; they are a gift from the Earth that cost us only our labour. Introducing GMO corn steals that birthright from us.

Through our long struggle to defend our lives and our lands, corn has fed us, sustained us, and given us strength. We have always been cash poor but we have food, and can build our homes for shelter without having to buy from hardware stores. So we are not surprised now that our corn itself is under attack. This threatens our independent, self-sustained lifestyle and livelihood. We make no apology to state for the record that the introduction of GMO corn is an assault on the food security and independence of the Maya people, to weaken our strength and resistance.

The push for GMO corn in Belize is about corporate greed, not the needs of Belizeans. Let us defend our corn and the integrity of our natural ecosystems. For over 5000 years we have managed to survive; we are a resilient people. We do not need, and we will not accept your corn!”

We will be following this issue very closely over the coming months as we present more and more information about the Maya of Belize in the lead-up to the December 21 2012 Winter Solstice celebrations.

Oh, and the disaster film ending? How about this: An elder discovers a secret cache of untainted corn, but at the same time the world learns of a new terror – GMO wheat that had been introduced last year…

Coming to a theatre near you?


Phil Angell, Monsanto’s director of corporate communications in 1998 explained the company’s philosophy in an interview as: “Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is FDA’s (US Food and Drug Administration) job.”

Re: A Modern Day Maya Maize Nightmare [Re: Marty] #419105
10/18/11 08:38 AM
10/18/11 08:38 AM
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 83,535
oregon, spr
Marty Offline OP

Marty  Offline OP

More than mere food – the Maya’s gift of Maize

Last week we posted a disturbing scenario centred on Maya concerns over the introduction of genetically modified (GM) corn into Belize. It was great that the piece generated such interest and comments, and we’ll keep following the story.

However, when one person said, “I was surprised to hear that corn was so important to the Maya. I thought it was a North American thing…” I thought that was a bit like saying, “I was surprised to hear that oxygen was so important to people…”

But then you realise how little most of us know about this amazing food that is consumed all over the world in so many ways, or that, yes, it is one more thing we can thank the Maya for.

So before moving on, let’s put corn into some context.

Many people would be surprised to hear that maize actually travelled north and south from present day Mexico and Central America before spreading like a culinary wildfire around the world.

The Olmec and Maya are widely accepted as having cultivated tiny teosinte grain through selective breeding to, over centuries, become the corn of today. It was a very long, winding and still little understood road from domestication to Doritos.

There are several theories about the origin of corn, and whether it is a direct domestication of teosinte grain, which is native to south-eastern Mexico, or a hybrid of teosinte and a now extinct wild maize variety.

Whatever its origin, the cultivation of the corn we enjoy today probably began some 7,500 – 12,000 years ago, most likely in the Mexican highlands between Oaxaca and Jalisco, where the oldest known remains of maize were found. For example, stone milling tools with traces if maize were found in 8,700 year old layers of sediment in the Balsas River Valley, the widely accepted home of maize.

The earliest remains of corn, radiocarbon dated to around 6,700 years ago were found at the now famous Guila Naquitz Cave in the Oaxaca valley, while the oldest ears, dating back to 2750 BC were discovered in caves near Tehuacan, Puebla, Mexico. Somewhere along the line a leap was made from teosinte grain to corn, as archaeologists and anthropologists began finding traces of corn-starch rather than just remnants of grain on cooking implements.

The first Europeans to land in the Americas were looking for a different kind of gold, but what they brought back in the form of maize has had more value and a more far reaching and longer lasting effect on history than any material riches they could have dreamed of.
Things began heating up, corn-wise, about 1100 BC, when we begin seeing diversity and various strains emerging.

Maize clearly was a huge hit and began to spread quickly throughout Mesoamerica from about 1500 BC, with various tribes and cultures adapting, cultivating, preparing and serving it in different ways.

This is a perfect example of a symbiotic relationship – corn allowed humans to develop culture and trade, and humans further developed corn, ensuring its survival and spread. Think of a more sophisticated version of brightly coloured fruit attracting birds that spread the seeds far and wide – the fruit provides sustenance, the birds provide a vehicle for the fruit to spread and thrive.

The question of just how these early Olmec and Maya cultivators transformed the tiny teosinte grain, which has no kernels or any noticeable relationship to corn, is a matter of lively debate. Suffice to say they did, and humankind made a massive leap forward.

Small wonder that indigenous people throughout the Americas revere maize to the degree they do, as the role it played in the formation of all those cultures cannot be overstated.

Soon after the birth of Christ, maize cultivation spread rapidly throughout Mexico, then to the south and up into the north American continent before making its way throughout what is now the US and Canada. Native Americans went from hunter gatherers to hunter farmers and now had the time to develop their fascinating, rich cultures.

The first Europeans to land in the Americas were looking for a different kind of gold, but what they brought back in the form of maize has had more value and a more far reaching and longer lasting effect on history than any material riches they could have dreamed of.

By the late 1600s and early 1700s corn, which can grow in a wide range of climates and conditions, was taking off in Europe, both as food for humans and as animal feed.

So when Italians enjoy polenta, Peruvians drink chicha, Indians enjoy soak up curries with makki di rotti, Americans start the day with corn flakes, Brazilians savour canjica for dessert, the whole world pops popcorn, snacks on nachos, Fritos and corn dogs, soaks up beans with cornbread or just enjoys sweet corn on the cob, they should all take a moment to thank those resourceful Maya who helped kick-start corn as we know and love it.

Now that your appetite is whetted, stay tuned for next week when we go into more detail about the secular and sacred relationship between the Maya and maize. It’s a beautiful story, and we hope you’ll come away with an appreciation of why corn is looked upon as much more than just food. You’ll also understand why the preservation of the maize so carefully developed by their ancestors and grown in their villages, just as it has been for thousands of years, is of such importance.

The ancient Maya are one of humankind’s great civilisations, and the very foundation of their rich legacy of science, mathematics, astronomy and art is built on maize. Here at Chaa Creek, we hope that the huge 2012 Maya celebrations in Belize will help the rest of the world appreciate this incredible culture and the many gifts the Maya have given us.

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