Mexico’s Supreme Court’s recent decision to block the planned planting of GM soy seeds in the states of Campeche and Yucatan represents a win for not only the indigenous communities who took up the fight, but also Mexico’s rule of law and division of powers which have long been questioned. This decision also may set a legal precedent for halting the sowing of other GM crops in the rest of the country.
The criticism toward the government’s position in favor of GMOs ignited in 2005 when the Congress approved the Law of Biosafety of Genetically Modified Organisms (LBGMO) that allows commercial planting for GM crops such as soy, cotton and maize. In addition to promoting biotechnology, this law is not considerate of the cultural practices of indigenous people who have an ancestral tradition on apiculture and other agricultural activities.
Under the LBGMO, in 2012 the first permits for commercial cultivation of 253,500 ha of GM soybeans in the Yucatán Peninsula, the Huasteca Zone, and Chiapas were granted to Monsanto by SENASICA (GMOs regulatory agency from the Secretariat of Agriculture). The Yucatán Peninsula region, however, features 40% of the domestic honey production, and 90% of this production is exported to Europe as organic honey.
Mexican honey producers have been affected by GM soy crops in the southeast region because genes from GM soybeans may be transferred to honey from these plantations. These organic honey producers, most of them indigenous Mayan producers, claim that GM soy crops are a threat to its organic production because this honey has been contaminated with GM soy transgenes. Additionally, GM soy crops have altered the bee population rates, the space orientation of the bees, and thus the honey production because of the pesticides use, monocropping, and deforestation in the zone.
Greenpeace has signaled that the Court of Justice of the European Union has banned sales of contaminated honey with GM pollen so European suppliers are requesting lab tests to discard the pollen’s presence in the honey. As a result, local farmers and honey producers supported by domestic NGOs and Greenpeace settled a lawsuit in 2012 to demand the halt of GM soy cultivation in this region because of the GMO soybeans affectation over the organic honey production. Other claims include violation of the rights to enjoy a healthy environment, to work, and to the public consulting of indigenous people.
On November 4, 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court suspended Monsanto’s permit to cultivate GM soy in Yucatán and Campeche because these permits are a violation of the right to prior consultation of the indigenous communities of the region. Furthermore, the agencies involved in GMOs, including Secretariat of Agriculture, SENASICA and CIBIOGEM (commission of biosafety and GMOs) have to listen to the cultural reasons of indigenous people of the Yucatán Peninsula region. The Supreme Court made this decision taking into account the Constitution and the international agreements signed by the Mexican government.
The Supreme Court mandate stipulates that the Mexican government has the obligation to make a prior consulting process with the indigenous communities that may be affected by mega-projects related to food or other products. Therefore, when these projects are initiated in the zone, and may directly affect the indigenous communities, the government is obliged to reach an informed and deliberated agreement with indigenous people. The Supreme Court decision poses a threat to soy farmer’s productivity but gives honey producers the opportunity to be heard. This is an empowerment to indigenous people, which is needed in this country where little attention has been paid to indigenous culture, traditions and languages in the government decisions.
Honey producers life is linked to the beehive and honey cultivation. More than organic production, it is a way of life and part of the culture for Mayan communities of this region. As an economic activity, apiculture is very profitable, and organic honey is highly valued by European consumers, especially German consumers, who pay premium prices. Approximately 15,000 Mexican honey producers in the region rely on these exports. Contamination of honey with GMOs pollen poses a threat to honey exports. However, according to the Secretariat or Agriculture, there is no single shipment returned by the European regulatory authorities hitherto because of GMO contamination. Therefore, the executive branch is not really acting in behalf of the honey producers but is supporting biotechnology companies.
The Supreme Court decision on the suspension of GM soybeans permits is an important advancement in the rule of law and the separation of powers in Mexico. This is an important step to take into account indigenous cultural background, especially in the area of agriculture and apiculture, where cultural arguments have been ignored by the regulatory agencies. Although this decision only affects two of the states in the Yucatá Peninsula making the appeal, it may set a precedent for halting permissions for other Monsanto’s GM products such as maize, and to protect indigenous cultural heritage in other states of the country as well.
This case reached the Supreme Court because of the possible effects of GM soybeans cultivation on honey producers and Mayan communities, for the possible disruption of cultural values, and for the possible effects on the wellbeing of the apicultural-Mayan communities that live in the Yucatan Peninsula. The decision made by the Supreme Court is not only relevant to Mayan communities and NGOs who represent them but also to other indigenous groups, politicians and other biotechnology companies with interests in Mexico. Consequently, there are three lessons that can be learned from this Supreme Court decision:
- If indigenous groups unite and raise their voices then their opinions and concerns can be heard by the government.
- Mexico’s division of powers is working. The judicial branch may rule differently to the legislative and executive branches. Indeed, the judiciary has challenged the executive who is perceived as pro-biotechnology and supportive of biotechnology companies.
- This decision may set a precedent for other areas of the country where Monsanto has permissions for GMOs cultivation, or for a suspension of permissions granted to other biotechnology companies.
As a result, the Supreme Court decision signals the separation of powers among government branches that sometimes has been questioned in Mexico. It is also a step forward for indigenous people representation before government but a step back and a threat to growth for biotechnology companies which promote GMOs as a solution to productivity and food security. Furthermore, domestic NGOs along with Greenpeace have performed a relevant work to defend apiculture producers’ rights and have achieved the protection of the Mayan cultural heritage related to this economic activity in this region.
Yadira Ixchel Martinez Pantoja is a PhD candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. Her PhD topic is about US public diplomacy and the promotion of GM foods. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Image source: Dennis Jarvis