Bio-Piracy in Chiapas



In March 2001, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) made history when it marched into Mexico City at the culmination of its journey from the southern state of Chiapas.

This action was the latest in the long campaign of the Zapatistas for autonomy for the indigenous people of the region ,and it seemed that the government might at this point make some concessions. Within six weeks, however, the San Andres accords had been gutted by the politicians and the EZLN broke off dialogue with them.

This contest has been taking place since the Zapatistas launched their first offensive on Jan. 1 1994, as the North American Free Trade agreement came into force. The date was no accident-the struggle has always been one which contests both the actions of the Mexican government but also the right of the multinationals to plunder the natural resources of Chiapas.

The UN-recognized Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve holds the last, threatened heart of virgin forest in the Lacandon jungle, which has essentially been under Zapatista control since 1994.

Despite President Vicente Fox’s pledges to withdraw troops from Zapatista territory, in practice this has not happened. While seven camps have been shut, they have just been moved and a number of new military checkpoints installed.

There were 104 military operations in Chiapas between May and July in six cities in the area. A low-intensity war is clearly being carried out. Barred by the cease-fire from attacking the Zapatistas, the troops in the virgin forest area are supposedly operating against drug traffickers and deforestation.

But the area’s Maya inhabitants are clear that Montes Azules is not being “protected” in their interests but for transnational biotech corporations that hope to profit from the region’s genetic wealth.

In 1998 the California firm Diversa signed a three-year “bio-prospecting” deal with the Mexican government. Diversa, which has a similar deal with the U.S. government for Yellowstone National Park, is granted access to Mexico’s biodiversity in exchange for $5000 to train and equip personnel from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

These people will collect the samples and receive $50 per sample and then royalties of between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of net sales on products derived from them. In contrast, Yellowstone National Park got $15,000 of equipment, royalties of from 0.5 to 10 percent-and $100,000.

The terms of both deals had been secret. Environmental groups went to U.S. federal court to try to get the Yellowstone terms released, but they were eventually reported in the Salt Lake Tribune.

The terms of the Mexican deal were leaked to the Mexican daily La Jornada, which lambasted them as “bio-genetic plunder.”

The University of Georgia, the British-based company Molecular Nature Ltd., and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur have launched a similar five-year project. This one, titled “Drug Discovery and Biodiversity Among the Maya of Mexico,” specifically targets Chiapas.

Tapping the vast reservoir of local knowledge about the rare plants found in the area and their potential uses, the program will receive $2.5 million from the International Cooperative Biodiversity Groups (ICBG), a consortium of U.S. government agencies.

The Chiapas Council of Traditional Indigenous Midwives and Healers (COMPITCH) is urging non-cooperation with the research, charging that “the pact was developed without notifying or informing indigenous communities and organizations.”

The U.S. program has developed its own partnership with local Indian communities, called ICBG-Maya. Director Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia told the Associated Press that the project has received the consent of nearly 50 communities and forged profit-sharing deals with them.

Again the terms are kept hidden, but what is going on is clearly not about raising the living standards of impoverished people, but of making bigger and bigger profits for the big corporations. But in a situation where poverty is grinding, the hope of the companies is that co-operation can be bought.

Since 1993 the ICBG has awarded 11 bioprospecting grants totaling $18.5 million worldwide. Commercial partners include GlaxoSmithKline, Dow Agroscience, American Cyanamid (recently acquired by BASE) and, until recently, Monsanto Searle.

A unique geyser-dwelling microbe collected from Yellowstone in 1966 was the source for enzymes widely used in DNA research and sold to Hoffman-LaRoche for $300 million.

Rather than bringing wealth to impoverished villages, new patents are much more likely to impose economic burdens by requiring farmers to pay royalties to foreign corporations to grow their own indigenous maize. Even the Mexican government has expressed concern over DuPont’s recent patenting of all corn varieties with certain oleic acid levels, including many originating in Mexico.

Beth Burrows of the Seattle-area-based Edmonds Institute, one of the litigants in the Yellowstone case, is still waiting for a court-ordered impact study on the bio-prospecting program there.

Says Burrows: “To privatize living organisms, whether it is Mexican maize or Yellowstone microbes, may serve corporate interests, but it does not serve our social contract or our duties to steward the land and support farmers.

“Farmers all over the world save seeds and trade them with neighbors. But Monsanto has taken farmers to court for violating their property rights. Farmers have to go to the corporations like to masters on the manor.”

This is what lies behind and is backed up by the “trade-related intellectual property rights” provisions (TRIPs) of NAFTA and the WTO, which give international recognition to patents on life. In contrast, the United States still resists ratifying the Biodiversity Treaty, unveiled at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which would recognize indigenous peoples’ intellectual property rights.

However, there is resistance in Chiapas as elsewhere. In April representatives from more than 100 Chiapas Indian communities held a meeting in the highlands city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, vowing not to plant bio-tweaked corn.

In mid-June C0MPlTCH held an international anti-biopiracy forum in San Cristobal for Biological and Cultural Diversity. And on June 24, when the Biotechnology Industry Organization met in San Diego, Diversa’s hometown, activists held their own “BioJustice” counterconvention.

This is clearly part of the political context that led to Vicente Fox following in the footsteps of his predecessors in breaching the San Andres accords. The acceptance of real autonomy for the peoples of Chiapas would be a blow to the rights of transnational corporations to plunder their resources.

But Fox was elected after decades of rule by the corrupt PRl, precisely on the promise of speeding up Mexico’s integration into the market. That is why any meaningful peace accords can only be won by a real defeat for the forces of neoliberalism.

Such an outcome would of course be a huge boost to the international fight against capitalist globalization. This is why the question of solidarity with the people of Mexico and Chiapas should be an important issue for all socialists.

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Reprinted from Socialist Outlook, the newspaper of Fourth Internationalists in Britain.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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