Anderson Valley AdvertiserFebruary 18, 2004

The Sad Saga of Ignacio Chapela

by John Ross

How to destroy Mexican corn, reap maximum profits, and buy a university in one easy lesson...

Seated on the balcony of his appropriately professorial office upon a sun-stroked hillock in the midst of the Life Science complex on the hallowed Berkeley campus of the University of California, the controversial Mexican-born microbiologist Ignacio Chapela, an academic who has dared to lock horns with the potentates of Big Biotech, reflected upon the tenuous status of his employment. "They will never forgive me here," the curly-haired, Cupid-mouthed Chapela sighed disconsolately, his gaze fixed upon the Campanile, the Berkeley campus's most recognizable landmark, as if it were a stand-in for Chancellor Robert Berdahl himself.

"It really began with the mushrooms," Chapela explains, going back to the beginning. In the late 1980s, his brother Paco had become involved with a group of Oaxacan Indians, Zapotecos and Chinantecos in the Sierra del Norte of that highly indigenous southern Mexican state, who were battling a major highway that threatened to carry their forests off to a proposed International Paper pulp mill up in Tuxtepec. Coming together in a pioneer Indian organization acronymed UZACHI, the Zapotecs and Chinantecos of Calpulapan, a tiny municipality high in the sierra, successfully fended off the loggers and saved their forests.

But after Big Timber, came the Japanese hunting prized Matsutaki mushrooms that are associated with the high pine forests and which sell for $600 a pound amongst Tokyo's gourmands. "I was a microbiologist and Paco invited me to explain what it was all about to UZACHI — the Indians suspected that the mushrooms had to do with drugs. That was when I first came to Calpulapan."

Chapela was soon up to his eyeballs in negotiating between the Indians and the Japanese mushroom rustlers who were often armed. The villagers, buoyed by the victory over the pulp mill, soon decided to take control of the mushrooms for themselves and began growing them for commercial markets. Chapela, now a trusted advisor, borrowed money from Mexico City friends to set up a rudimentary rustic laboratory up in Calpulapan that would keep tabs on the quality of the product

After the mushrooms came the orchids. While UZACHI was finding niche markets for its exotic exports, its real sustenance came from the abundant cornfields that surround Calpulapan. Maize or "Maiz" was first domesticated in the altiplano of Puebla and Oaxaca five millenniums ago. The region extending from the Valley of Tehuacan in Puebla state to Mitla and beyond in Oaxaca is truly the cradle of world corn.

By the turn of the millennium, Ignacio Chapela, who had once worked for the Swiss biotech pioneer Sandoz which, in turn, had merged with Ciba Cigy to form the all-powerful Novartis conglomerate, was fretting the fate of Mexican corn. Under the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico was being inundated by millions of tons of cheap NAFTA-driven corn courtesy of the U.S. and Canada, as much as 6,000,000 a year. Because the corn was designated not for human consumption, no one seemed worried about the consequences although much of this deluge was genetically modified. Given prohibitions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by both Japan and the European Union, Greenpeace-Mexico considers that US farmers are dumping their GMO corn south of the border — as much as 60% of all NAFTA corn imports may be contaminated. "I was worried about the implications but still thought they were five to ten years down the road," recalls Chapela.

In October of 2000, the microbiologist dispatched a graduate student, David Quist, to Oaxaca to conduct workshops about the coming of genetically modified corn. "I was shocked when David called me to report that our lab in Calpulapan was already finding positives on contamination." Keeping the findings under wraps, Quist returned to Berkeley with the samples and after rigorous testing both on and off campus, the results were confirmed in March 2001. Quist and Chapela began compiling a paper to be submitted to the prestigious British scientific journal Nature describing their alarming discovery. But rather than garnering laurels for the microbiologist and his assistant, the revelations would put the kibosh on Chapela's academic career.

In all fairness to his superiors, Ignacio Chapela had always stuck like an ornery thistle in the throats of the Berkeley poobahs. He had been brought on board as an assistant professor in 1995 almost certainly because of his association with Novartis and two years later, a rising star in academia, Ignacio had become the president of the faculty committee of his department. But despite his previous affiliation with the Biotech moguls, Chapela was not a gung-ho advocate of the industry. As a member of the National Academy of Science's committee reviewing the impacts of genetic manipulation of crops, he had raised questions about the unintentional spread of GMOs, particularly from US export agriculture. "I was already thinking about Mexican corn but my peers told me to concern myself only with impacts in the continental US."

"This smelled like a cover-up to me. Who was going to look into the spread of GMOs?" Certainly not the International Commission for the Betterment of Maize, a Rockefeller Foundation-funded biotech stalking horse which has been growing gm corn at its Texcoco station in the state of Mexico since the early 1980s. Indeed, Chapela charges, most of the varieties of gm corn now flooding Mexico were first developed at Texcoco. Mexico, with its two growing seasons, is an excellent laboratory for the biotech industry, he explains.

One morning in early 1997, Dr. Chapela was summoned to his dean's office and informed that the university was about to announce a five year $50,000,000 grant from Novartis. In return, Chapela's old company would get a first look at all research papers produced by the department. Since the grant accounted for a third of the department's budget, Novartis would get first dibs on a third of the department's research. "My gut reaction was that the company was trying to buy the university. I knew all about that. In fact, I had tried to do the same thing with the Scripps Institute in San Diego when Novartis first decided it needed a West Coast beachhead."

Ignacio was flabbergasted by the university's shameless hucksterism. "The faculty had not even been told of the Novartis grant and the Chancellor's office was already putting out press releases claiming that we supported it."

A year-long tug of war over the windfall — the crown jewel of Chancellor Berdahl's reign at Berkeley — left many scars. "I admit that we made a big scandal. The Atlantic Monthly ran a front cover story and then state senator Tom Hayden held hearings in Sacramento. I think they can never forgive me for this."

Consciences were purchased to win support for the Novartis buy-out. The biotech giant had offered $50,000,000 over five years, half for research and half for what was called "capital improvements". "You can see for yourself how our conditions have deteriorated here" — Dr. Chapela's offices are in Hillgard Hall, a dingy and decrepit Life Science building with a basement that feels like Dr. Frankenstein works down there and a ton of mercury in its drains. Notwithstanding, when the Novartis grant kicked in in 1998, the boodle was cut in half and the capital improvement component disappeared. Those researchers who did not complain about the con job became the beneficiaries of the Novartis money.

Ignacio Chapela had stepped on other toes even more life threatening than those of the Brahmans of Berkeley. The Mexican government had learned of the impending Nature publication and went ballistico. Under-secretary of Agriculture Victor Villalobos fired off a furious letter accusing the microbiologist of "doing incalculable damage" to the nation's agriculture and economy. "We hold you personally responsible," Villalobos wrote in an epistle that still retains a place of honor on Chapela's crowded desk.

The director of Mexico's bio-security commission, Dr. Fernando Ortiz Monasterio, summoned Ignacio to a meeting in an abandoned building in a wooded zone just outside Mexico City. "'You have gotten yourself into some serious shit this time,' he told me, 'but you will not stop us — no one will stop us!' I had the impression he was threatening my life. Was he going to rub me out? This was like a bad Mafia movie."

When Ortiz Monasterio saw that Dr. Chapela was not going to retract the Nature piece, he moved on the media. Knowing that Nature would cancel an article if its contents were leaked to the press prior to publication, he released the study to select members of the media. "Actually, this backfired on them. I was in Paris and Le Monde ran the story on the front page right below the bombings in Afghanistan. Nature was already getting cold feet because of industry pressures and told us our paper was not interesting to a general audience, but now the Le Monde story made it interesting again."

The publication in November 2001 triggered the anticipated bombshell. The article seemed to suggest that wind-blown GMOs had been the vector of contamination in Calpulapan — the industry has always insisted that such a spread could not occur. Moreover, the laboratory studies indicated that the altered genes were jumping around within the genome of the plant and could even spread to other species. The implications were frightening. Thousands of years of maize cultivation and millions of years of biological history would be lost. Hundreds of native species were at risk of homogenization. Biodiversity was threatened by the gm corn. In its stead would come seed dependency with biotech titans like Novartis, Monsanto, Dow, and Dupont controlling the Mexican market.

Big Biotech, alerted to the Mexican corn study in advance, sought to pre-empt publication by hiring a high-powered Washington PR firm, the Bivings Group, which specializes in internet subterfuge. The Chapela-Quist study had barely touched down on the newsstands when an orchestrated barrage of letters decrying "fundamental flaws" in the research began clogging up the list serve operated by AgBioWorld, a creature of the industry. Investigative reportage by the British Guardian failed to verify the existence of the authors but traced the computer used to generate the e-mail campaign to one operated by a Bivings front.

Six months later, Nature would publish two letters objecting to Dr. Chapela's research, one attributed to a Berkeley colleague and both from parties to the Novartis agreement, along with what amounted to a retraction of the Mexican corn story, the first in this high-minded, purportedly neutral journal's 133-year history. "Nature sent us recantation forms but David and I refused to sign them."

Nature's disavowal weighs heavily upon Ignacio Chapela's academic standing. "I am now a liability to the department and they are not going to give me tenure," he rues. But what stings most is that Nature's turn-around has had a chilling effect on further research into the spread of gm corn in Mexico. Chapela holds five separate studies by Mexican researchers, one by the National Ecology Institute and another even by Villalobos's agriculture secretariat, that confirm his research but no academic journal has seen fit to publish the findings. "The Mexican government does not want those papers published and, of course, neither does the biotech industry, so they will not appear anywhere."

"They have made an example of me. Other scientists see this and decide that maybe they should go back to studying the bristles on the back of a bug."

That Ignacio Chapela would be denied tenure was a foregone conclusion. Yet when his tenure application was submitted three years ago, his college voted unanimously to support it and the department favored the application 32 to 1. With such strong backing, the dean with whom Chapela had scuffled over the Novartis grant had little choice but to sign off on it.

The flimflam hit the fan when the recommendation went to the Berkeley academic senate. A secret committee was assigned to evaluate Chapela's tenure bid but the pressure from the Chancellor's office for a negative was so over-arching the chairperson resigned. The process was "disgraceful" committee member Wayne Getz told the Journal of Higher Education. In the end, the rejection was expected — the last four non-white applicants from his department for tenure had all been rejected and Chapela does not discount racism as a factor in the university's decision.

Not about to accept the turndown without a fight, Ignacio set up his desk, two chairs, his teapot, biscuits and some books outside California Hall last June for five days while the solons decided his fate. The 24-hour-a-day vigil drew further press attention and international support. "It was amazing — people came and stayed with me. There were e-mails from all over the world." Instead of tenure, the university offered a one-year extension on Chapela's contract that is now in its last months. Meanwhile, Chapela has appealed the rejection of tenure to the Chancellor's office and is talking with attorneys about a civil suit if no redress is forthcoming. "They have so damaged my academic reputation that I will never have another job in a first tier university," he concludes morosely.

"I am living proof of what happens when biotech buys a university. The first thing that goes is independent research. The university is a delicate organism. When its mission and orientation are compromised, it dies. Corporate biotechnology is killing this university."

(John Ross graduated from the College of Hard Knocks and took his doctorate at the Ed Sanders Institute of Investigative Poetry.)

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