Gene Revolution Taking Over Traditional Farming
Native Americans expose the threat GE crops pose to indigenous cultures.
By Léo Azambuja & Jennifer Smith
Indigenous rights activists joined Walter Ritte last week to educate the Molokai community about the threat of genetically engineered crops. The group traveled to Oahu on Monday, and on Wednesday they rallied outside the State Capitol, demanding that a bill to put a 10-year moratorium on GE kalo be heard. From left to right: Winona LaDuke, Ritte, Paula Garcia, Louie Hena and Andrea Hanks.
“People have a right to understand what is happening to them,” two-time Vice-Presidential candidate Winona LaDuke said as she addressed a crowd of over 100 Molokai residents at Mitchell Pauole Center Saturday night.
LaDuke, along with three other indigenous rights leaders Louie Hena, Paula Garcia and Andrea Hanks, visited the friendly isle during a trip to Hawaii to support bill SB958, asking for a 10-year moratorium on the cultivation and research of genetically engineered (GE) kalo.
The four Native American leaders spoke of the dangers that GE crops pose to their homelands and cultural traditions; a problem they say that communities throughout the Hawaiian Islands are also facing.
“Many of us are afraid,” homestead farmer Walter Ritte said. “We don’t know what’s happening.”
Ritte opened the informal meeting saying that GE farmers came in the “backdoor” and that the community now has “no clue on what they are growing.”
What kalo is to Hawaiians, wild rice is to the Ojibwe tribe. “(Rice) has fed our bodies and souls. We honor our rice,” LaDuke said.
The White Earth Reservation LaDuke lives on is located in northern Minnesota, a prime place for wild rice which grows naturally on lakes and rivers.
The Ojibwe shake the rice into their boat, dry, mill, and then dance on it. The harvest is followed by celebration.
After 40 years of trial and error, the University of Minnesota (UM) finally figured out how to domesticate wild rice in man-made paddies, using tons of pesticides and harvesting with combines, according to LaDuke.
“It gutted our rice economy,” LaDuke said. “Two men in a canoe cannot compete with a guy in a combine.”
Then in the year 2000 UM cracked the DNA sequence of wild rice.
GE was such a new technology that many didn’t know much about it. LaDuke said UM assured the tribe that the risk of GE contaminating Indian rice paddies was one percent. “This is too much for us,” she explained.
The White Earth Recovery Project (WERP), an organization LaDuke founded, set out to expose the potential dangers GE rice could have on the Ojibwe’s wild rice livelihood. Bringing together rice harvesters from several states they are working to fight against bio-piracy, genetic manipulation, patent struggles and labeling issues.
Without long term environmental studies on the surrounding ecosystems of GE crops, several factors still need to be measured before safety levels can be confirmed.
Studies have shown caddisflies dying after eating Bt corn (GE). Those insects are the primary food source for the fish in wild rice lakes.
LaDuke mentioned the possibility of ducks cross pollinating crops. However, the ducks weren’t taken into consideration in the UM’s environmental impact statement.
When LaDuke took the issue to the legislature in Minnesota, trying to stop the production of GE wild rice, the first witness against her case was GE giant Monsanto. The company that owns 88 percent of the world’s GE patents was not even interested in growing wild rice. However, LaDuke said Monsanto was worried the case would set a precedent.
“Monsanto does not want anyone to stop genetic engineering,” LaDuke said.
UM provided a questionable argument, claiming that what LaDuke was proposing would “thwart our ability to combat bioterrorism.”
“There are no long term health impact studies,” LaDuke said.
Agreeing with the need for long term health studies on GE, Hena said “these huge companies don’t care about us.”
Hena said his people still live in the same communities they have lived in for centuries. “I’m still using my seeds that I grew with my grandfather, that he grew with his grandfather, so whatever happens to corn is going to happen to me,” Hena said.
Corn is to the Tesuque pueblo what kalo is to Hawaiians. The Tesuque culture uses all parts of the plant for food and cultural practices.
“From the bottom of the ocean to the top of that peak, that’s who you are,” Hena said in describing humans’ relationship to all things around them.
“I can go anywhere on Earth Mom and it’s a special place for me,” Hena said.
GE plants are killing off other plants and bugs, according to Hena.
With crops being used to fuel vehicles, food prices continue to soar. “Pretty soon people won’t be able to buy food, it’s going to be out of our reach,” Hena said.
“We are all in this together,” Hena said. “When Earth Mom is gone, we’re gone.”
A former student of Hena’s permaculture class, Garcia was raised in a family that has been growing corn for generations.
Garcia’s homeland corn boasts stalks of all shapes and sizes, while the GE corn on Molokai “looks like Robots.”
“It’s hard to see places like Molokai,” Garcia said. “I feel like crying.”
But Garcia believes it’s not too late for corn. “There are still places where it’s pure as the creator intended it,” she said.
“En la madre la Tierra, su sangre es el agua.” (The blood of Mother Earth is the water.) With this strong statement, Garcia said the water was privatized on her homeland.
Council member Danny Mateo said Molokai should take advantage of the visiting Native American’s expertise in dealing with their respective legislatures, “so we don’t have to recreate the wheel all over again.”
Mateo criticized how cultural issues are often overlooked in the political realm. “Every state deals with their own special issues, and cultural issues are not there.”
On Jan. 16, the legislature’s opening day, Hui Ho`opakele `Aina (rescue the land) members rallied outside the state Capitol, and demanded that bill SB958 be heard. Dozens of Hawaiians, plus the visiting Native Americans rallied together.
The bill asks for a 10-year moratorium on genetic research of kalo, the most important food staple of the Hawaiian culture.
Last year House speaker Calvin Say stopped the bill at the legislature, according to Ritte. The bill was introduced again this year, and Ritte is asking residents to call or email Say, asking that the bill be heard. Say’s phone number is 808-586-6100, and his email is repsay@Capitol.hawaii.gov.