The peasant communities of Mexico have probably developed the deepest strategies of any communities facing GM contamination around the world. There are many lessons that can be drawn from their struggle, with perhaps the main ones being:
1) The need to look at GM contamination as part of a wider attack on farmers and local communities. Defending your crops means also defending your land and your water, and this requires strong communities, strong collective decision-making processes, and strong networks with other groups at the national and even international level. Such a wide approach allows more people to participate in the struggle. Even if not everyone can take care of the seeds, there are other things that they can do.
2) The importance of not being beholden to time frames. For the Mexican communities, GM contamination is part of a war waged against them that is permanent, and so their approach has to be long-term and capable of being permanent. Their decision is to defend their maize, no matter how long it takes. As they see it, when deadlines are brought in, people are faced with what they cannot do, and usually little can be done in the short term, so they compromise. This the Mexican communities refuse to do.
3) The importance of looking at the issue from your own perspective. The communities in Mexico spent a lot of time in the early workshops discussing spirituality and their views on deities and creation. They talked about the rituals that could protect maize. Those invited from outside to participate had a hard time explaining the technicalities of genetic engineering, because the concept appeared so absurd. But, in the end, the communities arrived at their own core understanding of genetic engineering as a method of taking control over agricultural livelihoods, and this core understanding was far more important than the technical information.
4) The need for the communities to control the process. In Mexico, communities were able to maintain control over the processes because they were their own processes from the very beginning. When they had control over the initial tests, they kept the results to themselves for a long time because they wanted to discuss first among themselves what steps to take. And the fact that decisions were taken collectively, by many people, has helped to prevent big mistakes from being made. Mistakes are always going to happen but when a lot of people are involved chances are much lower that there will be fundamental mistakes. When the contamination was uncovered by university scientists, the processes followed were totally different.
5) The need to emphasise social struggles over legal struggles. Among the Mexican communities, there was a lot of discussion about biosafety laws, seed laws and other relevant laws. At a recent workshop dedicated to laws, a time line was presented of all the various laws that the Mexican government has passed in the last 15–20 years. From this picture, the communities came to a clear conclusion that the legal route was not an important route for their struggle. You may lose the lawsuit but if there is enough social pressure you may win in other ways. For them legal options are only effective when there is enough social pressure on authorities. So the tactic is not discarded, but it is not central.
An invasion of illegal GMOs into Thai farms
GM contamination was first reported in Thailand in 1999 after cotton samples from field research conducted by BIOTHAI and the Alternative Agriculture Network (AAN) were found to be contaminated with Bt cotton – a genetically engineered cotton variety produced by Monsanto. In 2004, tests made by Greenpeace revealed that a local farmer’s plantation in Khon Kaen province was contaminated by GM papaya. That farmer was one of 2,600 who had bought papaya seedlings from the Department of Agriculture’s research station where field trials of GM papaya were being conducted. At first, the government denied that GM crops were being grown in Thailand, but the contamination was so widespread that it reached another province, Ubol Ratchatani, where at least 90 farms had also received papaya seedlings. Most recently, in 2007, Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Science and BIOTHAI found GM contamination in maize, soya and cotton samples that they tested from provinces all over the country.
The Thais believe that a two-pronged approach is necessary to address this situation. On the one hand, pressure should be put on the government to implement policies that protect the country from GM contamination. The Thai Working Group Against GMOs, which BIOTHAI coordinates, has organised numerous activities to keep the national moratorium on GMOs in place. They have sent petition letters, organised demonstrations in front of government offices, and pushed for a dialogue with top officials, including the deputy Prime Minister and Secretaries of Health and Agriculture. These efforts had an impact : on 25 December 2007, the Thai government announced its rules on GMOs which include, among other things, a mandatory public hearing prior to field testing, and a recommendation that approval from the local people in the field test area, as well as from independent NGOs and the academic community, should be obtained. From the perspective of BIOTHAI – which is currently running a campaign to develop a People’s Biosafety Law – this was an important victory.
On the other hand, the Thais are working to increase local capacity to develop systems to detect contamination and deal with its impacts. The Khao Kwan Foundation (KKF), one of the founding organisations of AAN, has been mobilising farmers’ knowledge to identify contaminated seeds and to control or eliminate them. The KKF runs trainings and workshops on seed breeding and selection, which indirectly deal with contamination.
KKF believes that farmers are able to notice anything abnormal in their crops, because of their in-depth knowledge of seeds and their skill in selection. Whether it is the colour, the hardness or the smell, every variety has peculiarities that farmers who have been working on seeds know in detail. So any alterations will be easily detected, even before the plant starts to flower.
Daycha Siripatra, founder of KKF, says: “This is the principle of local adaptability. We’ve made our seeds recognise their environment and use that environment to express their potential. An alien seed, like a GMO, will not automatically thrive in our area and, even if it grows, farmers will be able to notice it right away, just from its appearance.”
Filipino farmers deal with contamination
In 2002, the Philippines had the (dis)honour of being the first country in Asia to authorise the commercialisation of GMOs, when it approved the release of Monsanto’s Bt maize amid nationwide protests. Since then, genetic contamination has been reported in maize-growing areas throughout the country.
In the north-western province of Isabela, a local variety of white glutinous maize grown by farmers for food has reportedly been contaminated by GM maize. No gene testing has been done but farmers identify the contamination by the yellow kernels that appear in the otherwise white maize. In Bayambang, Pangasinan, farmers typically plant maize after rice. But now they are complaining that they have lost practically all the traditional maize varieties in the province due to contamination by hybrid and GM maize. They also fear for their health, as there have been incidents of children being taken to hospital for incessant vomiting after accidentally eating GM maize. There was also a report of a farmer’s cow that became sick and eventually died after being fed with Bt maize.
In Bukidnon, in the southern Philippines, some communities are responding to contamination by separating the lower-priced yellow kernels from the higher-priced white ones before selling to the market. In Capiz, another major maize-producing province in Central Philippines, farmers are saying that almost all the province’s maize-growing area is contaminated with GM maize and that they can no longer find traditional varieties to grow.
MASIPAG is a national farmers’ network with a maize programme that collects and improves traditional varieties throughout the country. Recently, the group’s back-up farm in San Dionisio, Iloilo (not far from Capiz) was contaminated. The area is a major producer of hybrid maize, and about three years ago mass cultivation of GM maize began by way of a contract growing scheme managed by local elites.
At least three native varieties used for farmer breeding in the back-up farm were immediately contaminated by the GM maize. At harvest, it was observed that there were yellow grains mixed with maize ears of pilit-puti and mimis – these are traditional varieties used by farmers for food. The area planted with maize on the back-up farm was only 50–100 metres from the nearest maize farms. Bamboo trees along the creek serve as natural barriers, but since the neighbouring fields are sloping, MASIPAG believes that pollen from the GM maize could nevertheless have been carried to these fields by the wind.
Researchers at the farm say that in the first year of planting after GM maize was introduced, they found 7–12 yellow grains in every maize ear. The following year, no maize was planted. This year, a small portion of the farm was again planted with white maize, adjacent to another farm planted with GM maize. Of the 50 grains counted in the average ear, only 18 were white and the remaining 32 were yellow. MASIPAG tried to explain the situation to the neighbouring farmers, but they are facing debt problems because of the contract growing scheme and are unable to stop growing GM maize.