In Mexico, the global economy is moving apace, and bringing with it the perils of modern civilization - four-lane highways that cut through the heart of the Peten jungle right up to the sea and genetically modified (GM) foods, to name just a couple. But who is informing the campesinos (farmers, in Spanish) of what is coming their way?
Since 2000, American-born Camila Martinez has been doing just that. In the southern state of Quintana Roo, on the Yucatan Peninsula, she initiated the Maya Ecological Literacy Programme in the Peten jungle. The ecologically fragile Peten jungle stretches into Guatemala from the southern tip of Mexico. Within the forest are many ancient Mayan ruins. It has now become an attractive tourist destination. "The Mayan people here just don't know," says Martinez. "They're very innocent; they just can't conceive of something like that. Or they've been hoodwinked by the government into thinking the road is good, that it will bring tourism to the region."
But the money that flows along the highway with the big rigs carrying precious resource to the port is unlikely to benefit the average farmer. "It's all part of the Plan Puebla Panama - the economic development of the region to expand NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico). This plan will drive 13 million campesinos off their land, use their children as workers, and open the interior to multinational factories, like the maquiladoras along the border. (Maquiladoras import duty free materials, assemble them and send them back to the country of origin.) They have already put in one of those in Chiapas.
"This is the future for the indigenous people," she says.
Already, the corn meal they buy to make their tortillas is genetically engineered, imported by the government from the US and sold to major companies who package it and disperse it through government stores, even in these remote and undeveloped areas.
In a 1999 issue of Nature magazine, Dr Ignacio Chapela, who carried out studies in Oaxaca, Mexico, documented the contamination of native varieties by GM corn. The contamination of wild plant species has already taken its toll on the endangered Monarch butterfly. Their larvae feed solely on milkweed, which a 1999 Cornell University study found is rendered deadly to them when contaminated by pollen from Bt corn.
Martinez explains that the GM corn "also comes in whole grain, which is sold in the open market to feed their animals. In these really remote areas, you've got GM chickens running around, GM pigs, GM ducks and turkeys. But people say, 'what can we do?'"
A laboratory study by Rowett Institute scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai in 1999 found that rats fed genetically engineered potatoes suffered damage to their vital organs. Martinez has learned that people working at the government stores are getting rashes from handling the GM corn. "I have testimony!" she says.
It's a situation the California eco-activist cannot ignore. Martinez, 57, has spent the better part of the past six years in the Peten jungle, working with the farmers on the Ejido Tres Garantias and setting up eco-literacy classes for children in the Campamento la Piramide, an 800 acre ecological reserve some 18 kilometres from the nearest village.
"The idea is to first bring awareness of the geographical importance of the place where they live and to be an information bridge, so that they can make informed choices regarding the sustainability of their region. They had absolutely no information about what was really going on."
The southern Yucatan is one of three remaining areas on the planet with the greatest biodiversity, Martinez says. "This is a very important place...A jewel of an area."
She set up her eco-literacy programme with a small inheritance left to her by her mother. Throughout, she has taken little for herself. So great is her commitment that a donor who kept the programme going for three years had to insist that she spend some of the money on herself. "We are so insulated here in the US. We don't know that harsh, harsh reality. This is about people located in a zone imperiled because of its natural resources. This is another level of activism, when you get down to ground zero with the different people that are suffering. This is not the same as sitting in a boardroom talking story."
Educated at Catholic schools and a graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz and Goddard, Martinez, daughter of a German mother and a Mexican father, was trained as a curandera (a folk healer) by the late Dona Julieta, a unique indigenous healer who lived in Oaxaca. Later, Martinez studied in India at Benaras Hindu University and in Dharamsala with Dr Lobsang Dolma and received a Master's Degree in Ayurvedic and Tibetan Medicine.
But environmental activism has always been interwoven with her healing mission. She traces this activism to her meeting with a Hopi (Native American tribe) grandfather in New Mexico. He had asked her to help his people, who were heavily impacted by the Peabody Coal Mining Company. "I work with the earth," she says. "She needs major curacion (healing) right now."
Martinez's eco-literacy project has already educated hundreds of children, whom she has transported into the preserve for daylong classes about the unique flora and fauna of the jungle. She has initiated an annual Earth Day celebration there. This year, the villagers held their celebration without her. To Martinez, that means they are beginning to take up the work themselves. Her message is finally beginning to make a difference.
She is currently in the US, raising money for an educational video she plans to produce to educate Mayan farmers about the impact of GMOs, the importance of saving seeds from their native varieties, and the threat from multinational companies seeking to exploit the spectacular resources of the jungle. She needs US$ 10,000 to get this project off the ground - the amount she is scouting for now. "We can disperse the information at a much faster rate through the media. This film can be reproduced and sent out on a wave, quickly. It has to be done in such a way that farmers can understand."
(Camila Martinez can be contacted at email@example.com)
(Stephanie Hiller is publisher of Awakened Woman e-magazine.)