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May 04, 2008

Mexican 'Green Nobel' prize winner accuses biotech firms of unscrupulously promoting GM seed

Biotech corporations that developed genetically modified seeds are bribing authorities and carrying out costly advertising campaigns "plagued with lies in order to create monsters that attack life," says Jesús León Santos, one of this year's winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

"We showed them that the cultivation techniques of our ancestors are the best and that they represent life. We are on the right path," León Santos said. The 42-year-old Mexican farmer, who has led land recovery projects since he was 18, inspired by traditional indigenous knowledge, was awarded the annual prize given by the U.S.-based Goldman Environmental Foundation, known widely as the "Green Nobel", on Apr. 14.

León Santos's programme is active in an impoverished Mixteca indigenous region of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, one of the most badly eroded areas of the world, according to the United Nations. The region also spews out large numbers of migrants.

The Mixteca Small Farmer Integral Development Centre, headed by León Santos, has planted about four million trees in the area, while developing rainwater collection systems and promoting traditional crops. Some 400 indigenous families have benefited directly from the projects, in which many local residents actively participate.

Most important, they have revived the tradition of the "milpa", a style of agriculture developed by the pre-Hispanic cultures of southern Mexico and Central America, which helps keep soils fertile.

Question: What does it mean to you and your organisation to win the Goldman Prize?

JESÚS LEÓN SANTOS: It is the most important thing that has happened to me in a long time. This strengthens ties between us and other people working to conserve the environment, and makes us stronger. The 150,000 dollars will go to a fund in my organisation to continue developing our work. Imagine that! It represents the budget of an entire year. We manage some 100,000 dollars that come from European organisations.

Q: To come up with and develop projects like yours in a poor area, with degraded land and high rates of emigration, is an uphill battle. How did you begin?

JLS: I became involved in this because when I was a boy I saw that we faced many difficulties. My parents sent me to look for firewood and I had to walk for hours and hours because it was very scarce. The trees had disappeared. We wanted the Mixteca region to be green again, like it was in the past, but those were just words because we didn't know what to do. Then things became more clear, and 25 years later we see that we have achieved what we never imagined possible.

Q: What are the most evident changes?

JLS: Many people who come to the area where we work say that it's a paradise, but I point out to them that it is a paradise that has been created little by little. Today we enjoy the woods and the birds that for years we didn't hear singing because there were no trees. The soil is beginning to change. When one walks among the trees, the sound made by our feet on the leaves was something we had never heard before.

Q: What role did the pre-Hispanic techniques for cultivation and land conservation play in these achievements?

JLS: In addition to planting trees and creating ditches to collect rainwater, we pushed the recovery of traditional farming systems, the "milpa", which consists of planting maize, squash, beans and others on the same plot of land, using seeds from our own harvests, without buying anything. This improves fertility and keeps the soil from deteriorating.

Unlike monoculture planting, these systems not only provide a balanced diet, but also conserve soil fertility. In the 1970s and 1980s, when fertilisers and improved seeds began to be used here, this traditional indigenous knowledge was left behind. But we have recovered it.

Q: The companies that produce genetically modified (GM) seeds are asking Mexico to allow its maize varieties to be planted here because they say they are much more productive. What do you think?

JLS: GM seeds can be monsters in comparison to what nature has created. We can't fool around with what is natural, and those companies are truly creating monsters that attack life, not just the native seeds but also ourselves. What I'd tell the seed companies is that they carry out campaigns that are not ethical, because they lie and bribe governments.

Q: But each year there are more and more GM crops in the world and their promoters argue that this technology has come to stay.

JLS: To everyone who thinks that our ancient systems are just a matter of romantic ideals, we say that we are on the right path. What they are proposing is a disaster. When those modified seeds can no longer be controlled, they could cause a global catastrophe.

Q: How should this danger that you see be dealt with?

JLS: We have to do what they do: carry out campaigns. They have an incredible amount of money and can make their million-dollar propaganda, and at times even buy off the authorities to allow them to plant their crops. We have to work in a different way: convince the public and show them that what we are doing is producing and protecting life itself.


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