> Sunday, July 26, 1998
> Biotech Farmers in Chiapas Lead Peaceful Agricultural Revolution
> Mexico: Thousands of peasants practice free-market principles in partnership
> with corporation.
> 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
> vegetable seeds.
> 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.
Greenhouses obviously don't require "genetically engineered" plant varieties.
> 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.
1).- Political turmoil has beeen present in Chiapas since long before the Jan. 1,
1994, uprising; due to greater degree of economic inequality (compared to other
states in Mexico). Chiapas was the last state to form part of Mexico and it
entered the union with a higher degree of large land holdings - including many
held by nationals of other countries (i.e. France). I myself first visited
Chiapas in 1968 and found a degree of racial polarity and violence there that far
surpassed that of other parts of Mexico I'd been in.
Add to that the availability of arms that resulted from the termination of wars in
Central America, plus the tradition in Mexican politics of assimilating or
providing space for (rather than crushing) a thorny opposition (that thus acheives
it own base of power), and the statement "uprising demanding better treatment for
the state's indigenous people" takes on another meaning. Remember that
subcomandante Marcos is neither Indian not from Chiapas. It's a "business" for
some, sincere or not. (This is not to say that "the state's indigenous people"
and other disenfranchised elements of the population don't deserve "better
treatment" - I'm just focusing on the fact that there are different ways to
Mexico in many ways is farther along than the U.S. in this sense. President
Zedillo has stressed that no war exists in Chiapas, since no internal war can
exist among fellow Mexicans; and I'm sure he means that. The idea is to negociate
(and wealth must be created rather than expecting wholesale redistribution - that
WOULD create a war).
Students all over Mexico frequently kidnap buses which they park in their
schoolyards (schools are autonomous and therefore constitute havens that prevent
police intervention) in order to negotiate preferred treatment from school
authorities, farmers block bank entrances (though not completely - people can
still get in and out of the banks, although the sidewalk may be partially blocked
for days or weeks) while negociating loan repayment; unions may invade
governmental offices to demand support for their claims, etc. And remember that
one of Mexico's best loved Presidents was a full blooded Zapotec indian form the
neighboring state (to Chiapas) of Oaxaca - Benito Juarez; and that unlike the
U.S., Mexico has had an effective Land Reform (and redistribution) program in
place for decades - the amount of land any individual can own is finite. (This
has not been always easy to implement - parcels of land can be registered to
others - but the laws are in place and vast quanties of good land has changed
hands, although indigenous peoples have still often gotten the short end of the
stick in Mexico & all over the world).
> 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 uprising.
They can stand where they want. What does that prove!
> 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.
The idea was to make the farmers credit worthy, so they counld better cover needed
land improvement costs and infrasrtructure and equipment acquisitions. However,
the sword cuts two ways - they can loose their land, since it becomes collateral.
> 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.
The article provides no statistics re the "economic stagnation" it refers to, so
it's hard to say if the writer knows something or not.
> 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.
The same kind of arrangement can be (and has been) done using sustainable
> "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.
That may be his mistake - if it's all NON or ANTI biological.
> 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.
Coastal Chiapas is wet and buggy.
> 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.
I would sure like to see tobacco ads banned from Mexican TV as they have been in
> 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.
None of this is bad. It could be done using organic methods. In fact. Mr. Romo
himself may care to invest.
> 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.
Here it would be interesting to look more closely at the the arrangement in terms
of the value given and received by each side.
> 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.
OK. there are quality and environmental issues involved.
> "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.
Not quite true. Many prior claims were to be settled, and limitations remain on
quantities of land that can be owned by individuals.
> 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.
As stated, the danger exists that former ejiditarios can lose land they can now
use as collateral. It's important that farmers, above all those with little
education or experience in financial matters, get the support they need in order
to avoid entering into disadvantageous contracts and being swindled.
The constitutional modifications resulted in three distint kinds of land ownership
that now exist at the constitutional level: 1).- Small private holdings (given
the limits on acreage imposed by Land Reform laws), 2).- Ejidal plots (private
parcels owned by members of a farming collective that may share farm implements or
sales channels - it's up to them) and 3).- Communal holdings in which the land is
worked by the group, jointly.
> But it is also the measure that prompted Romo to take the risk of creating his
> agri-association initiative in Chiapas and elsewhere.
That was the idea. To free the farmer so he could enter into association with
others capable of providing capital, technology, sales channels etc. (This also
includes labor. Holders of ejidal plots were unable to rent them prior to the
changes made in the 27th article of the Mexican Constitution, and many were widows
or elderly men unable to work. I did reseach on this issue in the early 1990s
before the constitutional changes occurred, in preparation for a number of still
> 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 since 1982."
The current trend began with President Miguel de Madrid 6 years earlier, and
includes a number of important parrallel issues that complement these changes,
such as opening up the telephone monoply to competition and likewise, ending
concessions provided to Mexican manufacturers who had no need to offer a quality
or economical product, given the absence of competing goods in the market,
democratic reforms at the party and electoral levels, the participation of Mexican
corporations on world stock exchanges and allowing foreign investment in Mexican
corporations, freeing the Mexican peso from it's artifically imposed (and
therefore unsustainable) value, etc. It was a fairly (even unusually) consistent
program (much better planned than OFPA was, for instance).
> 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.
Sounds cozy. But I'd like to see the actual figures and talk to participants.
> 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.
I see nothing wrong with using oxen or (better yet) mules for some tasks and
tractors for others. Many of these people can do both. (So can I).
> 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.
Very close to (minutes away from) the Guatamalan border.
> 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.
So they're using bio-control. It's a mixed bag then - not a villainous,
anticultural, recombinant mentality, steamroller action. And Cuban technicians
> 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.
Romo was wise to get out of tobacco. I hope he's racking up a litlle better Karma
with that cash.
> 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
> soil care.
> 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.
A possible solution to the minifundio problem.
> 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.
The most serious problem in Mexican tomato production (aside from frost, which
wouldn't occur in Tapachula anyway), is the Tobacco Mosaic virus and the
greenhouses would prevent the vectors from getting to the plants. This is not to
say that greenhouses offer the best solution to this problem, however.
> "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
> whole village."
And rain can severly damage both jalapeņos and papayas. The peppers can be
profitable if dried off well enough before packing, but fruit from.most papaya
groves in Chiapas (and only Chiapas) can not be exported to the U.S. due to fungus
> 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
> member partners.
> 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."
The problems present in Chiapas are worse but not basically diferent from those
found elsewhere and I think that overemphazing that state at the expense of others
derives from excessive and ill informed media coverage. This article however
isn't bad. I'd like to know more about the project and am sure that the door is
open for doing things in a somewhat more environmentally sustainable way.
> 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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