thanks for the stream of conciousness
continuing in the theme of science conquering all
this article was in the sunday times
majorly weird, the picture was a bunch of people in a greenhouse that looked
like hydroponics, the hell with culture and all that stuff i suppose
(wasn't this an x-files show?)
Sunday, July 26, 1998
Biotech Farmers in Chiapas Lead Peaceful Agricultural Revolution
Mexico: Thousands of peasants practice free-market principles in partnership
By JAMES F. SMITH, Times Staff Writer
LA TRINITARIA, Mexico--Near the front line of the Zapatista rebellion, Alfonso
Romo's computer-driven greenhouses are yielding world-class fruit and
And Romo's farmer partners, working fields as small as half an acre, say they
are doubling or tripling their harvests of genetically engineered tomatoes,
tobacco, melons and cucumbers.
It's a collaboration that, in the shadow of the Chiapas insurrection, is
turning potential guerrilla recruits into entrepreneurs in agricultural
biotechnology. Romo didn't set out to create an alternative to revolution.
Indeed, his team steadfastly eschews any involvement in the political turmoil
that has engulfed Chiapas since the Jan. 1, 1994, uprising demanding better
treatment for the state's indigenous people. But his multinational company,
Grupo Pulsar, is working close to the fire. Indeed, so close that his
employees stood guard at the gate to the greenhouse complex at the time of the
Moreover, Romo's initiative was made possible by 1992 land-reform measures
allowing peasant farmers to own the land they work--a historic free-market
shift in Mexico's land-use policy that is fiercely opposed by the rebels.
While negotiations between the government and the rebels have stalled over
land reform and other issues, violence continues apace--most recently a
firefight in June that left nine dead. Economic stagnation has deepened.
Through it all, Romo's agriculture project has proceeded: creating high-tech
partnerships with small farmers working their own land, then splitting the
profit. Analysts say that such initiatives--rewarding peasant farmers fairly
and drawing them into the formal economy--will help Mexico to achieve
sustained economic growth.
"These are all absolutely the right directions to go in, and it might be a
model program not only for Chiapas but for many parts of the country in which
the employment base in agriculture has been stagnant or shrinking for many
years," says Wayne Cornelius, political scientist and research director of the
Center for U.S-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego.
Romo, 47, is chairman of Grupo Pulsar, based in the northern city of
Monterrey. One of Mexico's few genuinely multinational corporations, Pulsar
has squarely staked its future growth on ag-biotech.
Pulsar's agribusiness subsidiary, Empresas La Moderna (ELM), includes Seminis,
the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds, based in Saticoy,
Calif., and other subsidiaries working in exotic ag-biotech areas such as germ
plasm and genomics.
For this cutting-edge work, Chiapas is a prized field laboratory because of
its wide variety of climates, including the only tropical rain forest within
the North American Free Trade Agreement territory.
Rather than just hire workers to tend his plantations, Romo has created more
than 2,300 farmer partners in Chiapas since the early 1990s, nearly all of
them working with Romo's original primary crop, tobacco. An additional 800
farmer partners--all growing fruits and vegetables--are joining this year.
Including full-time employees of ELM subsidiaries here and seasonal workers
hired toassist the farmer partners, Pulsar says it has created more than
15,000 jobs in Chiapas.
Working in groups of up to 20 or so partners, the "agri-associations" grow
tomatoes, chiles, melons and other fruits and vegetables as well as bamboo and
tobacco. Then the partners and ELM split the profit, 50-50.
Farmers Jesus Acero and Gonzalo Gonzalez, from Suchiapa near the state capital
of Tuxtla Gutierrez, established their association with ELM in 1994, first
growing tobacco and later jalapeno chiles.
Using the traditional Chiapas farming method of planting and praying for rain,
the chile crop usually produces about 5 tons per hectare, Acero says. In their
first year as farmer partners, using Pulsar's high-tech support in seeds,
irrigation and fertilizer, they produced 23 tons of chili per hectare. And
last year, Acero says, they improved that to 35 tons.
"We employ nearly 1,000 people at harvest time for these 200 hectares so we
give lots of seasonal work," says Acero, a 30-year-old university-trained
agronomist. "This has a lot of impact in the communities around here. This is
the kind of development we need."
Their agri-association has now grown to six partners, who share the costs and
split the proceeds. "With the land problems we have in Chiapas, the key is to
produce more from less ground," Acero says.
Mexico's 1917 constitution decreed that the government owns all land, and thus
private estates could be expropriated and reassigned to groups of peasant
farmers in plots of land called ejidos. By the early 1990s, more than 27,000
ejidos covered more than half of Mexico's arable land and employed 3.1 million
In 1992, a constitutional amendment ended state distribution of land to groups
of peasant farmers. The reform also allowed farmers who worked the state-owned
ejidos to become owners of the property. This measure, designed to give
security of ownership and encourage investment by the farmer owners, is a
major target of the Zapatistas. The rebels fear that it will lead to the re-
creation of big private haciendas and force Indian farmers back into a peon
role of peasant laborer.
But it is also the measure that prompted Romo to take the risk of creating his
agri-association initiative in Chiapas and elsewhere. UC San Diego's Cornelius
has said the amendment "may have a more far-reaching and enduring impact than
any of the economic reforms introduced in Mexico by technocratic governments
The farmer partners use ELM seeds, its irrigation systems and fertilizers and
insecticides--and then sell through ELM's global marketing network under the
Master's Touch and Fresh World Farms brands in the United States and Europe,
getting much better prices than they would on their own.
In a region where the land is still usually worked by a peasant and his son
using an ox-drawn plow, the Agromod subsidiary has established a greenhouse-
based seed-producing operation in this town near the Guatemala border that
combines computer-controlled irrigation with delicate manual pollination of
its cucumber, tomato, tobacco and other plants.
To improve the farmers' growing techniques and productivity, Romo also created
NAFTA's only humid-tropics research laboratory for ag-biotech, located outside
the steaming town of Tapachula near the Pacific Coast.
There, a team of Bulgarian, Cuban and Mexican scientists work on new genetic
strains of vegetables, develop "friendly insects" to attack pests with less
insecticide, and pursue other agricultural productivity projects.
The agri-association concept began with Romo's huge tobacco business,
Cigarerra la Moderna, which he sold last year to Britain's giant BAT tobacco
company for $1.7 billion, giving him a pile of cash. Now, shifting its focus
from tobacco to fruit and vegetables, ELM is engaging 800 more partners in
Chiapas this year to farm papaya, melons, chile, eucalyptus trees and bamboo.
In a program launched earlier this year, ELM is recruiting ordinary village
farmers in poor communities and training them to become entrepreneurs back in
their hometowns. These farmers will use their own small family fields in a
dramatically different way.
Eighteen young farmers recruited from nearby towns began a yearlong training
program in April, and these days they are busy tending young tomato plants in
a new complex of greenhouses and learning about fertilization, irrigation and
These partners, ages 16 to 20, are all bachelors who have access to family
farmland through the ejido system, which granted peasants the use of up to 20
hectares. Most of the plots have been subdivided so often among the children
of each generation that the sites are now often no larger than two hectares.
That is pitifully small for dry farming, but very apt for greenhouses.
As he surveyed the tomatoes ripening inside his training greenhouse, student
partner Jose Luis Morales, from the nearby town of Triunfo (Spanish for
Triumph), said traditional tomato farming on his family's land produces 10
tons per harvest. In this plastic-covered greenhouse, with irrigation and
fertilization and few pests, the crop sown in April is expected to produce 36
tons of tomatoes. Morales, just 16, said he and his three brothers will run
the new family greenhouse after he completes his course.
"It's always a struggle here, either it rains too much or too little," Morales
said. "For us, it has been a matter of survival; we haven't sold much of our
crops. Now with the greenhouses it will be more predictable. We'll help our
Antonio Ortega, ELM's development manager for Chiapas, said a farmer near La
Trinitaria with 3 hectares of corn and bean crops who will devote a small
fraction of his land to greenhouse farming is projected to boost his profit
from $737 to $2,028 per year--while adding two full-time jobs for family
The goal, Ortega said, is to build the greenhouse partner program up to 750 to
1,000 partners, working a total of 100 hectares--about 250 acres--of
greenhouse vegetable farming over the next few years.
"Nobody has been willing to bet on the countryside in Chiapas," plant manager
Sergio Garza said. "We are doing so."
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Search the archives of the Los Angeles Times for similar stories about: GRUPO
PULSAR, MEXICO -- AGRICULTURE, CHIAPAS (MEXICO) -- AGRICULTURE, MEXICO --
INDUSTRY, CHIAPAS (MEXICO) -- INDUSTRY.
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