Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Two views of corn

In the late 1980s two prominent scientists with opposing points of view on genetically modified food crops were coincidentally doing intensive language study at Cuernavaca’s Cemanahuac Educational Community.

Memory Elvin-Lewis, M.D., of St. Louis, Missouri, was preparing for a trip to Peru to collect samples of plants with medicinal properties found in the Amazon rain forest. She was the employ of a U.S. pharmaceutical company searching for patentable new drugs. (Dr. Elvin-Lewis is the conscientious physician who when baffled by the disease which killed one of her patients in 1969, froze some of his blood and tissue. Eighteen years later she made the grim discovery that her patient had been the earliest known U.S.-born victim of AIDS.)

Cary Fowler, Ph.D., had been lobbying the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome. He argued that farmers in countries that have given the world important food crops are entitled to some type of compensation from companies that exploit the genes from those crops. He cited as examples that Peru and Bolivia had given the world potatoes, Kenya had given us coffee, and Mexico had given corn. The Mexican government supported Dr. Fowler’s position in his negotiations in Rome.

Dr. Fowler was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, just downriver from the home of Dr. Elvin-Lewis, but their positions were worlds apart. Emotions ran high at the school and talks were scheduled for them to present their points of view to the assembled students.

Little did those of us present at the debate realize we were witnessing the beginning of a worldwide controversy that pits the survival of small farmers against giant agro-economic interests.
Dr. Fowler went on to be a key player in establishing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a frozen bunker north of the Arctic Circle in Norway. It contains hundreds of thousands of varieties of seeds that represent the genetic diversity now present around the world. The bunker is a sort of insurance policy against an agricultural Armageddon.

Years before the seed bank in Norway was established, Dr. Abel Muñoz Orozco at Mexico’s Chapingo University sought funding for a similar project here in the tropics. A seed bank of this kind needs to keep seeds frozen but he wondered, “In the future – in a Third World country – when the freezer breaks down will there be funding or interest in repairing it?” To guarantee that there would always be a freezer he proposed the seed bank be located in a concrete structure set in one of Iztaccihuatl’s glaciers.

I met Dr. Muñoz in the 1990s when the genetically modified seed projects were barely getting under way. He estimated that in each of Mexico’s 30,000 valleys farmers had developed corn appropriate for their particular geography. They’d developed varieties for wet areas, dry areas, different elevations, different soil types, different times of the year.

In many cases it is Mexican peasant farmers who maintain today’s corn seed banks in their storage sheds by selecting their best corn from the harvest to be planted the following year.

“Large seed companies don’t have that foresight,” Dr. Muñoz said. “Whenever their variety of corn is affected by blight they send their scientists to Mexico to scour through the 30,000 valleys until they find a variety of corn that is immune to that disease and soon they’re selling a new variety of patented seed – always as part of a package accompanied by their own herbicide and insecticide. Of course, they do so without factoring in any compensation for the farmers who developed that variety.”

Earlier this month environmentalist Dr. Vandana Shiva from India spoke in Cuernavaca about the use of transgenic seeds, seeds that had their DNA altered in a laboratory. “In India within a decade transgenic seeds took control of our entire cottonseed sector. 95% of the cottonseeds in India are transgenic. Half the price of cottonseed sold in India goes to St. Louis (to Monsanto). The price has jumped 8,000% The new seeds have created new pests we’d never had. Farmers now use 13 times more pesticide.”

Currently Mexico is in the world spotlight. A Mexican judge issued a temporary restraining order last September prohibiting the planting of genetically modified seeds in Mexico. Judge Jaime Eduardo Verdugo of Mexico City cited the risk of imminent harm to the environment as the basis for his decision. This month a higher court judge, Jaime Manuel Marroquín, upheld Judge Verdugo’s decision.

The executive branch of the federal government is now appealing the judges’ decisions. Is it NAFTA that has changed the government’s stance since the 1980s? Meanwhile countries around the world are citing Judge Verdugo’s decision as they refuse to allow the import of genetically engineered corn from the U.S.

The debate to which I listened attentively at Cemanahuac is now on the world stage and the stakes are enormous.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Saving the world’s oldest butterfly

In 1885 a German amateur entomologist and avid collector of butterflies, moths, beetles and hummingbirds traveled from Mexico City to Chilpancingo, swinging his net the whole way. He collected more than 6,000 specimens on that journey. It turns out that one of the species of butterflies he caught had fluttered its wings with dinosaurs.

When Oscar Theodore Baron (1847-1926) returned to Europe, he sold most of his collection. It ended up in the hands of Osbert Salvin, co-editor of the magnificent “Biologia Centrali-Americana,” a 63-volume encyclopedia of the natural history of Mexico and Central America. (The Smithsonian Institution has digitized the full set and you can access it online at www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/bca/).

One of the specimens Baron trapped in his net in southern Morelos had not been identified by modern science. Osbert Salvin christened it Baronia brevicornis, “Baronia with a short horn.” In Latin, “brevis” is short, “corneus” is horn, so brevicornis.

Baronia brevicornis is endemic to the upper Balsas River valley in southern Morelos and northern Guerrero — the only place in the world that it lives. Its caterpillars feed only on a particular variety of acacia tree that grows in the low deciduous forests of Morelos.

A living entomologist with his eye on Baronia brevicornis is Dr. Luc Legal, an associate professor at the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse, France. He has been working in Morelos in association with the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos (UAEM) since 2005.

From Dr. Legal I’ve learned something grand. Southern Morelos is one of just two places on earth that has had a stable climate since the late Cretaceous Period. That was 65 million years ago! (The other place is the Sichuan valley in China.)

He explains that though Morelos is the second smallest state in Mexico, it is one of the most biologically diverse. It hosts seven of Mexico’s nine great ecosystems, lacking only mangroves and rainforests. Dr. Legal was understandably drawn here by the variety of butterflies. Of Mexico’s 1,900 species, 500 live in the 600-square-kilometer Sierra de Huautla ecological reserve set up by the UAEM.

Dr. Legal has demonstrated convincingly through DNA analysis and molecular referencing that Beronia brevicornis has been living for 70 million years — making it the world’s oldest butterfly species. With a big smile and his hands mimicking butterflies in flight, Dr. Legal said, “We have to imagine what it was like in the Balsas River watershed with tyrannosaurus here and Baronia butterflies fluttering all around him. Truly extraordinary!”

For the first time Baronia brevicornis’s existence is in danger. Its life cycle is dependent on its caterpillars feeding on an acacia tree that flourishes on flat land — also farmers’ favorite. Thankfully the acacia is a tree considered a pioneer — meaning when there is a clearing, the acacia is one of the first trees to take root, and in doing so restores degraded soil. In fact, it is the most common tree in the low deciduous forest.

Dr. Legal has discovered that Baronia brevicornis caterpillars are found on only 2 percent of the acacia trees. Hence it would seem to be occupying only 2 percent of its potential habitat. The butterflies are particular in their choice of acacia trees, requiring a certain age, health, and density.

Dr. Legal is concerned that the Baronia brevicornis population has broken into dispersed “patches.” There may be five kilometers between patches of Baronia butterflies with no individuals in between and no connectivity between patches. This dispersion leads to a reduction in the gene pool.

Not only does Dr. Legal lobby for establishing connectivity between genetic groups, he also lobbies for establishing protected corridors between the three ecological reserves in the state of Morelos. This would allow animals to move freely between them. The Sierra de Huautla Ecological Reserve is in southern Morelos, the Sierra de Montenegro Reserve is in the center of the state, and the Chichinautzin Reserve lies at the northernmost part of the state, running along the volcanic ridge we drive over when traveling from Cuernavaca to Mexico City.

Although the reserves are protected they do have villages and farms within their boundaries. Dr. Legal praised the way the Sierra de Huautla reserve is being administered. He did not say the same about the Sierra de Montenegro. In Charlie’s Digs dated Jan. 14, 2011, I wrote about the dangers facing the Sierra de Montenegro Reserve and relayed Biologist Fernando Jaramillo’s warning about the need of a corridor between it and the Chichinautzin Reserve.

Baronia brevicornis may be the catalyst we need to establish these corridors. She isn’t a threat to anyone, she’s sure been around for a long time, and she has a sweet sounding name reflecting her demeanor. In fact Dr. Legal usually refers to her by her first name, Baronia.

Last month each of the keynote speakers at the Morelos Unico Encounter were given a desktop sculpture of Baronia as a gift of appreciation. Perhaps her champion will arise from this group.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Inspiring anecdotes

A group of entrepreneurs from Morelos presented us last week with a six-day extravaganza. We had film, dance, theater, music, and a book fair in downtown Cuernavaca. Streets became pedestrian malls hosting exhibits of the products of Morelos’ factories as well as crafts and cuisine. The event was sponsored by Morelos Único, an association of Morelos’ entrepreneurs who have come together to enhance Morelos’ reputation and pride in its achievements.
The keynote talks were quite inspiring.

Astronaut José Hernández, dressed in NASA overalls, described growing up in a migrant farmworkers’ family. Following the “California circuit,” he planted and picked vegetables weekends during the school year and 7 days a week during summer vacation. Christmases were spent in La Piedad, Michoacán. Though born in California, he didn’t learn English until he was 12.

He lived in many houses, attended many schools, but a constant was his parents — both with a third-grade education — accompanying him and his siblings around the kitchen table while they did their homework on schoolday afternoons.

After a particularly hot and difficult day Hernández remembers his father telling him and his three brothers, “Don’t ever forget how you feel at this moment. Realize that if you don’t study this is how you’ll spend your lives.”

Philippe Cousteau Jr. described working with Greenpeace and the community of Cabo Pulmo in Baja California Sur in order to save and restore Mexico’s last healthy hard-coral reef. Realizing that through preservation it can enjoy higher income than through fishing, Cabo Pulmo has banned fishing. Cousteau said “tourism has generated the biggest transfer of wealth from rich to poor in the history of humanity.” However, he said for that to be successful the transfer needs to be directly to the communities.

We heard from Felipe González, president of the Spanish government from 1982 to 1996. He told us about negotiations he carried out with Spanish President Suárez when he was leader of the opposition party. He said that on some issues it was easier for them to negotiate with their political enemy than with their allies.

Well aware of Mexico’s constitutional Article 33 which prohibits foreigners from participating in politics, he said “I don’t want to be confronted with article thirty …” González paused to let the audience shout back “tres!” Nevertheless he spoke about Spain coming out of decades of dictatorship and the reforms that were needed. Those of us in the audience understood we only needed to change the word Spain to Mexico to understand what he was telling us. He pointedly told us about engaging a young career diplomat in a conversation about why she chose to work in Finland’s foreign service. He was stunned by her reply — “Because my grades weren’t high enough to be a school teacher.”

Like Cousteau, González praised the benefits of tourism. However he said, “promoting tourism involves much more than airports, hotels, museums and beaches. It involves roads, health services, potable water and sixty-four other components,” that he had once listed in a national tourism plan. Most of them benefit the local population as well as foreign tourists.

Another Felipe, Felipe Sánchez, former worldwide director of Microsoft Windows, talked about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” Born after 1980, “digital natives” grew up with computers in their surroundings. The rest of us are “immigrants.” This year is the first in which “natives” are the majority in the information technology consumer market. Businesses offering services need to take into account that their customers are accustomed to using their cellphones and tablets to do two or more things at once.

The former director of Google in Mexico, Gonzalo Alonso, also spoke. He described Google as one of the first companies to let its users create its brand logo. He talked about loyalty to brand names giving way to recommendations from users of services and supplies that are available online. Though he speaks like a “digital native” he’s old enough to consider it bad manners when his 12-year-old son doesn’t raise his eyes from his electronic device when greeted by an adult. Marvelous to watch him cross the generational boundary speaking to an audience that was more native than immigrant.

Rosario Marín, former Treasurer of the United States, brought down the house. Daughter of a seamstress and a janitor who moved from Mexico to the U.S. when she was 14, she talked about three of her seven guiding values instilled by her parents — always do what’s right, do the best you can, and live by the Golden Rule. She wouldn’t tell us the other four because then we wouldn’t buy her book, “Leading Between Two Worlds.”

It was a wonderfully refreshing week not only in its content but also in seeing business people rooted in Morelos giving back to their community. The choice of speakers might imply they recognize that the reservoir of human potential in Morelos has nothing to do with social class.