Indigenous Chiapans Challenge Biopiracy and GMOs



Sidebar to “Control through Contamination” by S’ra Desantis

For ISE Biotechnology Project and ACERCA

June 2003

A recent delegation to the rainforest of southeastern Mexico discovered that issues of biopiracy and GMOs are very much on the minds of campesinos, activists and traditional healers in the highlands of Chiapas and beyond. The delegation investigated the environmental and human rights situation in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, which was established in 1978, granting U.N. protection to the rainforest that covers much of the eastern half of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The reserve’s vast rainforests contain thousands of plant species and a quarter of all the animal species that are found anywhere in Mexico, making it a prime focus for companies with interests in bioprospecting (biopiracy) of the earth’s biological diversity.

At the same time, this phenomenal biodiversity has been embraced by the current Mexican government as a rationale for expelling Zapatista base communities and other indigenous settlements inside the Reserve. At least 32 indigenous communities are now threatened with dislocation; several have been raided by armed federal officers. While it is clear that these communities are far more skilled in living sustainably on the land than those who would displace them, the Mexican government proclaims a concern for the health of the rainforest as a rationale for expelling forest dwellers. Conservation International is one environmental NGO that has publicly intervened on the side of the government, helping provide political cover for the increasing militarization of the entire region.

The Council of Organizations of Traditional Healers and Midwives of Chiapas, known by its Spanish acronym COMPITCH, was formed in 1994 to offer a united indigenous voice for more appropriate uses of the forest. In 2000-01, the traditional healers of COMPITCH confronted a US-government funded program to catalog the native plants of the region and their traditional uses, and ultimately forced its cancellation. The project was a collaboration of researchers at the University of Georgia and a Welsh biotechnology company called Molecular Nature Ltd., and it was supported by Mexico’s state environmental research agency (ECOSUR) with funds from the US National Institutes of Health.

“One of the great bones of contention,” reported an alert from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI, now the “ETC Group”) in November of 2000, “has been the Mayan’s objections to the institutions’ heavy-handed method of obtaining the necessary…consent from Chiapas communities.” The project’s consent forms gave the researchers exclusive rights to any commercial products resulting from their investigations. Several months later, the Mexican government’s support for the project was withdrawn under intense international pressure, and ECOSUR “definitively cancelled” the project in November of 2001.

Following this turn of events, larger biotech companies like Monsanto and Novartis appear to have suspended their own involvements in southern Mexico, according to Ana Valadéz of COMPITCH, seeking parts of the world where biopiracy can proceed with far less public scrutiny and opposition. But Conservation International, which supports the government’s program of expelling indigenous people from the rainforest, has established several biological research stations in Chiapas in collaboration with Grupo Pulsar, a Mexican-based transnational that has close ties to the innermost circles of the current Mexican administration. Pulsar’s seed division, Seminis, is the largest seller of vegetable seeds in the Western Hemisphere and has an active business collaboration with Monsanto. Conservation International has its own interests in bioprospecting, and counts most of the world’s leading oil and agrochemical companies among its corporate patrons. Last year, CI collaborated with USAID in developing detailed aerial maps of indigenous “invasions” into the rainforest, which have been used by the government’s environmental prosecutor’s office (PROFEPA) to justify the planned expulsions.

Many indigenous representatives have an intimate understanding of the complex interconnections between the government’s increased threats against indigenous communities and the wider problems of oil and hydroelectric development, bioprospecting, and the contamination of indigenous corn varieties by imported GMOs. They are all part of a long-standing effort by the government to strengthen its control over resource-rich areas of Chiapas, most recently embodied by the proposed Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), which would turn much of southern Mexico, all the way through Central America, into one vast free trade zone, specializing in transoceanic transport and export processing. The Mayan people of the region are organizing in opposition to this plan, which could represent a final blow to the phenomenal biological and cultural diversity of the region.

“We don’t want them to privatize our rivers, plants and animals,” explained a representative of the indigenous Mayan settlement of Nueva Israel to the delegation that visited the Montes Azules this past March. “We don’t want our plants and seeds to be genetically modified. We don’t recognize in any way the PPP. We indigenous communities will fight the PPP whatever the consequences. We are not chickens waiting in cages to be fed their genetically modified corn.”

For more information on the PPP and the growing hemisphere-wide opposition, see For regular updates on the situation in the Montes Azules, see