Remembering La Gloria: New television documentary traces origins of the H1N1 pandemic back to pig farms in Mexico
This past November people from all over Mexico gathered in the Valley of Perote, where the village of La Gloria is located, for the fifth Asamblea Nacional de Afectados Ambientales [National Assembly of Environmentally Affected]. It is a large, periodical gathering of a network of communities and organisations struggling against environmental devastation in Mexico. The location for this most recent gathering was chosen in recognition of the importance of the local struggles against the large pig farms in the area, which had gained national and worldwide attention when the first human cases of pandemic H1N1 swine flu were traced back to La Gloria in April 2009. This was the second Asamblea for the people of La Gloria and the first for an alliance of communities in the Valley of Perote who have now joined La Gloria in resisting factory farming. Out of the swine flu crisis, the struggle against factory farming has grown stronger, moving from isolated local resistance to a major component of a national movement. A new documentary on the H1N1 pandemic and factory farming, based on the experiences of La Gloria and the neighbouring communities, now brings this struggle to an international audience and puts factory farming back on centre stage in the story of the H1N1 pandemic.
In April last year, the international media descended on the village of La Gloria and the surrounding Valley of Perote, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. The village had been identified as the ground zero of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic and reporters came looking for answers as to why the disease may have broken out there. What they found was disturbing. The villagers told them that they had been suffering from severe respiratory illnesses for months but had been ignored by the authorities. What’s more, they explained how the whole valley was engaged in a struggle against numerous factory pig farms that had invaded their territory in recent years. For the villagers, the farms were clearly the source of their health problems.
The story of these once isolated struggles was thus broadcast around the world and the shocking images of pollution and destruction from the factory farms shattered the myth of “biosecurity” that the multinational meat industry claims of its operations. Suddenly it was plain for all to see that what these communities were fighting against was intimately connected to the health of the whole planet.
But the reaction from the meat industry and its friends in government was equally swift. As implausible as it was, they denied any connection between the H1N1 outbreak in humans and the pig industry. Independent investigations were blocked or not carried out. And as the WHO bowed to pressure and officially stopped referring to the disease as “swine flu”, the international media stopped following the trail. The result is that, today, across the world, the big meat corporations continue exactly as they did before-- without even any obligation to report or monitor for pandemic H1N1 or other swine flu viruses in their operations (see Box). The Mexican government has even backed down from its promise to force the farms next to La Gloria, owned by US-based Smithfield Foods, to adhere to Mexico’s minimal environmental regulations-- which they were clearly violating.1
A new television documentary by Télévision Suisse Romande (TSR), however, should reignite this international scandal. It returns to Mexico, and the Valley of Perote, to continue the investigation into how and why the H1N1 pandemic began. By way of interviews with villagers, government officials, doctors and scientists, the documentary establishes a clear link between the on-going health problems in La Gloria and other nearby communities and the operations of the factory farms that have moved to the region since the signing of North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994. It also exposes the collusion of the Mexican government with the industry and shows how nothing has been done to protect the affected communities. With shocking on-site footage, the documentary provides clear evidence of the profound damage that the farms have wreaked on these communities, and it puts the role of factory farms squarely back into the centre of the story of the H1N1 pandemic, where it belongs.
The TSR documentary is now available in French (original version) and English on the GRAIN website and will soon be available in Spanish (see below). We hope that this investigative report will be widely distributed. The next pandemic will likely emerge from a factory farm somewhere, and it will likely first strike a community very much like La Gloria. The world needs to learn from this experience and take action. The TSR documentary provides a critical insight into just what needs to be done.
Box: Update on pandemic H1N1 and pigs
There is mounting scientific evidence that the pandemic H1N1 virus emerged from pigs, and most likely within the factory farms of North America where conditions are ideal for the evolution of such viruses.2 A study published in June 2009 in Nature found that “the ancestors of the epidemic [pandemic] have been circulating undetected [in pigs] for about a decade” and that the actual pandemic strain “may have been circulating in pigs for several years before emergence in humans.” They conclude that “the lack of systematic swine surveillance allowed for the undetected persistence and evolution of this potentially pandemic strain for many years.”3
Since the outbreak of pandemic H1N1, authorities in most countries have done little to enhance surveillance of pig farms. The common practice is to leave it to the companies to monitor, with no obligations to report the disease if they find it. The reports of outbreaks that have emerged, therefore, likely only represent a fraction of the actual number.4 But they are nonetheless enough to indicate that pandemic H1N1 is widespread in so-called “closed” pig farms (see Table 1).
In Mexico, the response of the authorities, when the H1N1 broke out in humans, was to deny that there was any problem with the disease in the pig industry. On May 14, 2009, during a pork dinner organised to defend the pork industry, Mexico’s Minister of Agriculture, Alberto Cárdenas, told the media: “Until now there has not been a single outbreak of swine flu.”
Alberto Cardenas eating pork with
FAO representative Norman Bellino,
May 14th, 2009. (Photo: EFE)
This was not true. Two weeks prior, on May 1, an outbreak of the pandemic H1N1 was identified in pigs at a farm in Queretaro. That outbreak was only made public when it was finally reported to the World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) in December, seven months after the fact.5 Moreover, it is known that swine flu is rampant in Mexico’s pig farms.6 It was first identified in the country in 1982, and as the industry has become more industrialised and more integrated with the US and the global meat industry, where swine flu is endemic, problems have escalated. But the government enforces no controls over the disease and there is practically zero monitoring-- everything is left to the companies to handle. Today pig farms in Mexico are still under no obligation to report outbreaks of swine flu.7
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