Mexico: Chiapas bishop warns of unrest; agbiz exploits “tortilla crisis”

Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel, bishop of the Chiapas Highlands, called upon Mexico’s federal government to urgently address the recent spike in tortilla prices, invoking the possibility of a new uprising in the restive state. “With all respect for the federal authorities, I exhort them to find a means to resolve this grave problem for the economy of the poor, if they truly care about the poor and they don’t want to see new social movements as dramatic as that of 1994,” he said. (Melel Xojobal News Synthesis, Chiapas, Jan 15 via Chiapas95)

Meanwhile, Mexican agribusiness leaders asked the government to allow them to plant genetically modified corn in response to the “tortilla crisis.” The head of the National Agricultural Association (CNA), Jaime Yesaki, said modified corn could be the “fundamental solution” to the crisis. “We want to be at the point where we are using genetically modified grains, in this case corn, because the main reason is to guarantee the supply of this grain to give our people food at reasonable prices,” Yesaki said. The Mexican Senate’s Rural Development Committee, for its part, began a series of meetings this week with agribusiness leaders on the tortilla crisis.

In recent weeks, the price of a kilo of tortillas went over 10 pesos ($0.90), after rising almost 11% in 2006 and 70% over the last six years. Mexico uses more than 9 million tons of corn each year for the production of tortillas. The price surge has prompted an outcry across Mexico that led President Felipe Calderon to approve the importation of 650,000 tons of corn.

Mexico, which produces some 22 million tons of white corn (the kind used in tortillas) annually, has had a moratorium on the planting of genetically modified corn for the past eight years. Greenpeace said that the rise in the price of tortillas was being used as a pretext by Mexican authorities to open the way for cultivation of genetically modified corn.

The US biotech giant Monsanto would be the main beneficiary if the Mexican Agriculture Secretariat (SAGARPA) authorizes the planting of genetically modified corn, Greenpeace charged. “The experimental fields of genetically modified corn in Mexico could cause irreversible harm to the environment,” said the group’s Areli Carreon, said.

On Jan. 17, campesinos staged a protest in front of the Economy Secretariat and Sagarpa offices to demand action to stem the rise in tortilla prices. Mexico’s Cardinal Norberto Rivera Carrera has also weighed in on the tortilla crisis, drawing criticism for his claim that the impact on the poor had been overstated.

Corn is Mexico’s most important crop, taking up 51% of the country’s cultivated area from 1996 to 2005, according to SAGARPA figures, and Mexico is the world’s fourth-largest corn producer after the US, China and Brazil. Some analysts say the rise in the price of corn on international commodity markets is due to strong demand for the grain in the United States, where production of bio-fuels has surged in response to high oil prices. (EFE, Jan. 14)

See our last posts on Mexico, Chiapas and the impacts of NAFTA.