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Biotech Farmers in Chiapas Lead Peaceful Agricultural Revolution

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Including full-time employees of ELM subsidiaries here and seasonal workers hired to assist the farmer partners, Pulsar says it has created more than 15,000 jobs in Chiapas.

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.

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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.

“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.

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“With the land problems we have in Chiapas, the key is to produce more from less ground,” Acero says.

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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 ejidatarios.

In 1992, a constitutional amendment ended state distribution of land to groups of peasant farmers. The reform also allowed farmers who worked the state-owned ejidos to become owners of the property.

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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.

But it is also the measure that prompted Romo to take the risk of creating his agri-association initiative in Chiapas and elsewhere.

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 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

“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.”

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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.”


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