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.”