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Food-“E”-scapes – Part 1: Learning Food

Food-“E”-scapes – Part 1: Learning Food

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

When we set off on this journey I never imagined that I would learn so much about food. I did not consider that what I knew, thought and felt about food would change so much nor that I would be exploring the connection between food, learning and higher education.

As it turned out, I have come to learn quite a lot over the last year about the various ways that food is connected to our identities, our relation to our environment, to humans and non-human beings, but more broadly on the various processes of production, processing and waste surrounding food. All of these processes and the different relationships, practices and experiences they create have diverse, and often competing, kinds of knowledge systems behind them – distinct paradigms and cosmologies and as such this has become a key topic in Enlivened Learning.

I am calling this total system of relation to food, involving relationships, knowledges and practices, the foodscape. This is not a made-up term as there seems to be increasing use of it, especially in Geography (not to mention by certain photographers who make cities out of vegetables – just google it). I guess a foodscape is the particular way in which we relate to, know and intervene upon particular aspects of the environment involved in our sustenance.

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Signs of the Buffalo – Fort MacLoud, Alberta, Canada region of the Blackfoot, photo by Udi.

It is strange to think how, without a conscious intention, so many of the posts Kelly and I have written here over the last few months have been about foodscapes: Blackfoot Buffalo hunting and the extermination of the herds by the settlers; Blackfoot knowledge of the land, plants and animals in Alberta; the cultivation of corn and the rise of Meso-American civilization; urban gardening and dry compostable toilets in Oaxaca; communal agriculture amongst the Quechua Lamas in Upper Amazon in Peru (choba choba); extractive forest reserves and the struggle of indigenous communities, rubber tappers against rich landowners in the Amazon region in Acre, Brazil; the Landless Movement’s (MST) struggle for rural peasants and against agribusiness across Brazil.

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Choba Choba – communal agricultural practice amongst the Quechua Lamas, Lamas, Peru. photo by Udi.

Before we head into the other higher education initiatives we visited in Latin America I wanted to reflect a bit and try to synthesize some thoughts, experiences, readings, sharing some of what I have learnt around all this.

What was noticeable within almost all the learning places we visited in our journey was the centrality of foodscapes in their knowledge and pedagogy (teaching/learning practice and philosophy). This in turn made me consider the almost complete absence of learning about foodscapes in my own educational trajectory.

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Roof-top garden, Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. photo by Udi.

No doubt people have different experiences of this, but what I remember from my formal education in respect to this is learning about the digestive system in biology, and maybe a bit of nutrition, a vague memory of something called Rural Studies when I was 14 (where we learnt about sheep and the teacher dissected a rabbit). I remember that cooking classes, or Home Economics, was fun but all I remember from there was making a swiss-roll and profiteroles. I do not remember ever really being taught where my food came from, how it was grown, produced and processed and where, what knowledge was involved in these processes and what kinds of foodscapes exist or have existed.

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Quechua Lama grandma teaching in the medicinal garden, Lamas, Peru. photo by Udi.

This has prompted me to think about how much of our food system involves an escape from food. The systems industrial society has created for sourcing, processing and selling food has meant an ever-greater distance and disconnection from the importance of wholesome food relationships. Our foodscape has then become a food-escape.

In contrast, the centrality of foodscapes in the places we visited reflected a greater concern, reciprocity and care for the land, the environment and all its beings, for sustainability in the use of resources for the production of food and shelter and in the water system and in the production of waste. Many of the places also showed a much greater awareness and care for the economic relations between those involved in food growing with concepts of cooperative work in growing food being key organising nodes (especially in indigenous communities – ie. comunalidad in Oaxaca, Mexico, choba choba in the Peruvian Upper Amazon with the Quechua Lamas).

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Agro-ecology Garden at the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes of the Landless Movement (MST), State of São Paulo, Brazil. photo by Kelly.

As well as the communal production of food we also noted the great importance of cultural activities surrounding cooking and eating. As Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra put it, the term comida in Mexico means much more than the English term ‘food’ – it is not just about material sustenance but the whole complex culture that surrounds cooking, sharing food and eating together. Perhaps this is much closer to the notion and movement surrounding ‘slow food’ which started in Italy in the 1980s as a re-assertion of local culinary cultures and practices of sourcing food in the face of the onslaught of globalised industrial Fast Food culture and agricultural production. I write more on the Fast/Slow food battles in the next post.

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‘Indigenous Organisations for Human Rights’ poster, Oaxaca, Mexico. photo by Kelly.

I have been wondering and learning about the consequences of our Food-E-scape – how we have become so dramatically cut off from the sources of our food, from the beings we eat and the landscapes they inhabit, from how they are killed and processed and transformed and stored and transported.

We, collectively in contemporary society, or at least the highly industrialised urban part of it, seem to learn (and educate the newest generations) so little about how our Food-E-Scape is severely transforming and destroying bio-diversity, soil, waterways, increasing pollution, affecting the climate and using the Earth’s resources in an unsustainable way.

It has also come to my attention how this lack of education or mis-education is actually being promoted by the few large corporations that are in charge of the agro-industrial Food-E-Scape, especially in places like North America.

As I recently learned in reading Michael Pollen’s excellent 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma and watching several well-made and informative documentaries King Corn (2007), Food Inc. (2008), The World According to Monsanto (2008) abattoirs, meat processing plants, chicken factory farms and even high fructose corn syrup processing plants all refuse access to their facilities to those interested in learning what goes on inside.

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Further, agri-industry and bio-tech industry lobbyist, scientists, lawyers and managers wield tremendous power in Washington D.C. and are involved in drafting the legislation to oversee the industry or, as is often the case, convince politicians that no oversight is necessary. Huge pressure is also exerted on the government to keep the subsidies going for farmers to increase the production of commodities like corn and soya which are largely responsible for the current shape of US industrial agriculture.

A recent state-wide referendum in Washington State to introduce labelling on genetically modified foods was defeated at the ballots even though the pro-label group had a large early lead in the polls, after millions of dollars of Monsanto cash supported the advertising campaign of the anti-label side. So millions of dollars are being spent by large agri-business and biotech companies on keeping us ignorant of what we eat and also to reassure us that genetically modified foods are “safe, healthy and good for the planet”.

But I have also been considering the omission of our educational institutions (schools and higher education) of engaging more with our foodscapes. By this I don’t mean just things like campaigns on healthy school lunches, though these are also important, but more awareness of the various aspects of the totality of our foodscapes. How different might learning be in these institutions if learning was also grounded in the foodscapes we are immersed in was a core part of the curriculum, regardless of what degree you did? A part of a wholesome education. As Kelly wrote in the previous post, quoting David Orr, all education is environmental education by virtue of what you teach and omit.

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Urban agriculture workshop, Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. Still from film, by Udi.

I remember a conversation with Jailson de Sousa e Santos, founder of the Observatório das Favelas, a grass-roots community organisation involved in education, research, capacity building and media communication in Maré, Rio’s largest favela (shanty-town). Jailson started ESPOCC, the School of Critical Communication to engage students in the field of media literacy and critique and give them tools through which to combat the toxic dominant media representation of favela communities in the country.

Jailson, who grew up in Maré and is also a Geography professor in the State university, talked to us about the model of the human being that is promoted in formal education – including universities – painting an image which has stayed with with me. This being – a veritable homo academicus – has a huge head in which to fit a large brain needed to think and record facts, a large hand to constantly write down things and a big ass on which to sit all day on a chair. I imagine the rest of its limbs atrophying from underuse, the rest of its faculties, de-sensitized fail to experience the world in all its wonderful complexity and relatedness. How is the stomach of such being? (We do apparently have millions of neurones there too, so have scientists have recently told us!) We don’t really learn with our stomachs, we don’t think or feel with our guts in these institutional settings.

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A sensory homunculus – Not quite the image I describe but it reminded me of this. It is actually a representation of what we would look like if each part of our body grew “in proportion to the area of the cortex of the brain concerned with its sensory perception.” (http://www.autismindex.com/Therapies/Therapy_Key_Word_Site_Map/sensory/motor_sensory_homunculus.html)

Travelling backwards up the Americas for thousands of miles to Southern Alberta another image of the human being comes to mind from what Ryan Heavyhead a Blackfoot teacher at Red Crow Community College spoke about in his approach to teaching. Ryan runs a year-long Phenology class for the Kainai Studies students at Red Crow (Kainai is one of the four Blackfoot bands which is resident in this territory).

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life-cycles and the relationship of these to seasonal change. Ryan’s class, as I have written about elsewhere, involves getting students to find a place and sit and learn it for five hours a week until the beings of the place become more familiar, and begin to show you things. This goes on for one year – a whole period of lunar cycles – the important marker in the Blackfoot calendar. After this year was completed the students were so transformed by the experiences they asked for a continuation of the course which Ryan created as a second year ‘Traditional Blackfoot Foods’ course. Here students learn to forage, gather, hunt and prepare traditional foods of this territory, sourcing them at particular times of the year.

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Ryan and Adrienne by pond where they re-learned practices of knowing place and its beings. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. photo by Udi.

Ryan’s immersion in the Blackoot foodscapes was impressive. He, and his wife, had re-learnt much that was forgotten in this territory about sourcing and preparing traditional foods, with the ‘old ways’ forgotten through the imposition of residential schooling (see post on this) but also the encroachment of settler lifestyles and their own foodscapes.

Ryan, amongst the many interested things he taughtme, said something that has stayed with me and is relevant here. That for the Blackfoot the relationship with non-human beings is essentially a relationship of food and that to really enter such relationships is to become fully human. At first this idea might seem strange, from a Western educated mind-set it might bring forth ideas of the ‘survival of the fittest’ of the struggle for survival through domination and consuming another. It reminded me of the Upanishad quote (an ancient Hindu sacred text) translated by Yeats in a film I once saw: “Everything in this world is eater or eaten. The seed is food and fire is eater.”

But this is to misunderstand the respectful and reciprocal characteristic of the relationship to plants, animals and place in the Blackfoot knowledge system that Ryan articulated. To enter a ‘food relationship’ does not mean that you just eat the food, but that you come to learn about the plant and animals being you are eating, about their life-cycles, their environment and their relationship to other beings.

It also means that you are indebted to the being that you eat and to their kind, as in so many hunter-gatherer groups, and so must reciprocate by not taking more than you need and by giving something back to them and the environment. The relationship of food is then not solely one of consumption and domination but of deep respect, gratitude and reciprocity.

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Intensive farming. Alberta, Canada. photo by Udi

 

How distant these ideas and practices seem from the agro-industrial oil and chemical fed machinery that extracts produce from the Alberta landscape now. Narcisse Blood, a Blackfoot elder who also taught at Red Crow College, lamented the waves of monopolies in this region, first, he told us, there was the Hudson Bay Trading Company and “Now we have Monsanto” monopolizing and transforming the agricultural landscape through a destructive form of farming.

Cut to the isle of a giant supermarket, could be anywhere, but say in the US, where the products of those fields end up. I stare down a neon-lit corridor of brightly packaged food – a cornucopia of diversity. What a multiplicity of flavor combination and shapes and consistencies and colours! But the sheer diversity of products and company names hides their often common source in only a few large parent companies which own most of the homely and rustic seeming brand-names.

 

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Cornucopia… photo by Udi.

 

I read the labels on a few products, the diversity of ingredients also hides their often common source in a variation of corn, most frequently high fructose corn syrup or some corn (or soy) additive or preservative. This is the relation of food to many of us – one of reading – oh homo academicus… More recently I have learnt how much the seeming multiplicity of the US diet and by consequence of US people is made of corn. You can trace back the carbon we have in our bodies which bridge our cells to their original source and this in an average North American is around 70% corn!

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“Brands and the economic concentration of the Multinationals” from the wall of the MST office, Porto Alegre, Brazil. photo by Udi.

 

As a key institution of social reproduction, our education system (including our universities) surely has a role in shaping how we understand and relate to our foodscapes and the kinds of knowledges and technologies it creates in relation to this. (I write more on the conflicting knowledges and technologies shaping our foodscape and those of many other places around the world in my next post).

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“Maize from Chiapas”, Chiapas, Mexico. photo by Kelly.

 

On a theological – or maybe spiritual note – I was really struck by what Cezar Añorve, an architect from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and in his word ‘cacologist’ (an expert on caca), said recollecting one of his last conversations with philosopher and theologian Ivan Illich. Cesar has spent most of his life promoting awareness of our how we might deal with our poo without polluting water (see the posts on this), in this he was influenced by his life-long friend Ivan, whose works entailed a critique of industrial civilization and the possibility of a post-industrial world built on a more local and human scale, emphasizing values of friendship and conviviality. Ivan died in 2002 and in his last conversation with Cesar, he had told him that “The highest offering we can give to God is not our head or our hearts, but our guts”.

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Cesar’s cacaravan workshop. Unitierra, Oaxaca, Mexico. Still from film by Udi.

 

I have often thought of this phrase in relation to the large scale damage being done to the ecosystem through the unsustainable agricultural practices and technologies being developed which are negatively distorting life itself in some many directions (see next post on this). I have wondered what it might mean to offer our guts to a higher value or principle, one that seeks to support the continuation of the web of life in its intricate and delicate balance.

I also often think of Ryan’s comment on the Blackfoot relations to non-humans as being one of food – meaning not just consumption but also interest, respect, gratitude and reciprocity acknowledging the role they play in the perpetuation of life. In the foodscape I have been raised in, we were not taught to think enough with our guts, nor extend our gratitude and interest (in practice not just prayer) to the beings that give us life. But this does not mean things cannot change. To change how we think about and relate to these beings and their environment, thinking with our guts, may well be a big step toward such transformations.

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Inter-weaving people and the land: Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Inter-weaving people and the land:  Choba-Choba and Comunalidad

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments


The terms choba-choba and comunalidad come from different cultures and places (Peru and Mexico).  Yet, they share a common bond of inter-connection.  In this post, Udi and I tell a bit about how we came to learn something of these different (but similar) ways of being and understanding the world.

Village outside of Lamas, Peru, photo by Kelly

Kelly:

Our first morning in Lamas, in the Northern Amazonian region of Peru, Udi and I walked the ten minutes from the Hospedaje Girasoles guesthouse (highly recommended by the way), through the far end of town and down the reddish-coloured mud hill that is surrounded by forest on one side of the road, to the entrance of Waman Wasi.  There was still a cool breeze in the air but the tropical sun was gathering strength.

Road down to Waman Wasi, photo by Udi

We were meeting Gregorio, one of the three main members of staff at Waman Wasi, who was taking us to several chacras that morning a few kilometres outside of Lamas – to meet with families working the land through choba-choba.  Gregorio lives in Wayku, the Quechua Lamas section of the town and travels often to meet with different Quechua families around the region.

View of Wayku village from the top of Lamas, photo by Udi

The evening before, there had been a brief introduction to the cosmovision and activities involved with ‘choba-choba’ and its association with ‘chacra’ – during Lucho’s overview of Waman Wasi’s work presented to a group of European students.  Udi and I had an understanding that the ‘chacra’ was similar to the ‘milpa’ in Mexico –  land is cultivated in a way that imitates and is intimately connected to natural processes.  In a chacra or milpa, Rather than planting one crop as tends to be the agricultural norm, different types of foods are planted together (typically maize, beans, squash and chili) with the intention of nourishing the land as much as to nourish those eating from it.

Steep hill of chacra cultivated through choba-choba

Choba-choba to the Quechua Lamas is the way that family members and friends came together to cultivate the land, dividing up responsibilities in accordance to ability and strength.  Through choba-choba, there is no need to pay anyone from the outside to help with planting and cultivation as choba-choba entails reciprocity and abundance.  The idea is that all that is needed is already there.  Every person, regardless of age and gender gives to the process and also receives.

Outside the wooden gate of Waman Wasi, Gregorio stopped a passing motor taxi that is basically a seat for 2-3 (depending on size) positioned on the back of a motor bike.  Udi and I hoped in and the motor-bike-taxi sped away.  The warm breeze enlivened our senses with smells of a myriad of plants and trees as houses and buildings almost immediately disappeared, the road windings its way through hills and valleys of intense green.  We stopped 25 minutes or so later and Gregorio led us down a dirt road, telling Udi that we would be walking for a good half an hour or so…

Along the walk, Udi and Gregorio were deep in conversation, about the nuances of the land in the area, about different agricultural processes and techniques of growing food, about the continual deforestation in the region, about the insidiousness of mining companies and the weakness of the government condoning their exploitative modes of intrusion and extraction, about the importance of the chacra and choba-choba, about different species of plants that we passed along the way.  I was envious of Udi being able to converse so freely in Spanish.  I was catching about 15% of the conversation and yearned for much more.  Udi generously broke the flow of conversation many times to translate some of the missing details.

Gregorio describing chacra plants with Udi and I, photo by Kelly

View along the walk – chacra and mountains, valleys, photo by Kelly

A thatched house came into visibility amidst thick trees after at least 45 minutes of walking, and we stopped to chat with a young woman sitting outside.  Her infant little girl was sleeping and we spoke until there was a soft cry emerging from her house.  She offered us chicha the drink of maize/corn and water that is consumed in every type of context in Peru – restaurants, houses, schools…

Following Udi and Gregorio into the village, photo by Kelly

We walked further, through thick forest and down steep chacras where a view of the surrounding landscape was alive with undulating hills of greens, a diversity of foods growing within them.  Suddenly there were people – children and adults, male and female, at the bottom of a steep hill, in a line, working with what looked like small sickles, on the ground.

Choba-choba, photo by Kelly

After a series of holas and handshakes, we sat down and spoke with the eldest members of the family.  They spoke to us about what they were doing.  They were planting beans and maize on that day, but would return later to plant chillies and squash when the moon was right.  All of the children and young people were related within the family.  On most days, the children and young people went to school in the mornings and came back to work on the chacras in the afternoons.  This was the first planting that had been done in this chacra for several years as it had been lying fallow to re-nourish. Chacra and choba-choba occur in alignment with lunar cycles, a sophisticated and ancient form of knowledge which is ignored by the vast majority of the world.

Sitting and chatting with some members of the family, photo still by Kelly

More chicha was offered, the taste was refreshing, slightly sweet.  We said good-bye after 45 minutes or so and the elder man, the father of the family, walked us through another thickly forested area to visit with another choba-choba.

Chicha, photo by Kelly

We walked for another 30 or so minutes, up and down steep hills, some forested, some chacras, my legs becoming increasingly tired under the increasing strength of the sun.  Another line of people came into view – different ages, male and female, near the top of a steep hill.  The arrangement was similar, some people were actively pressing their sickles into the ground, digging up the dirt and putting in different small plants and seeds whilst others were resting.  There were again a series of friendly holas, warm smiles and handshakes.

Second choba-choba, photo still by Kelly

Within both choba-chobas was an atmosphere of joy and conviviality.  The heat, which at that time was intense, did not seem to increase anyone’s irritability.  Rather, there was lots of laughter and joking around.  This is not to say that the work everyone was doing was not difficult.  It was very difficult, exhaustive and physically demanding.

Choba-choba conviviality, photo still by Udi

The atmosphere of doing choba-choba work is within a framework of sharing – not just within the family – but with other families in the area and also with a deep sense of reverence to the nourishment of the land.  This reciprocal form of nourishment has been at the cultural core of Quechua life and is a far cry from industrialized forms of agriculture that is extractive and dependent on monetary exchange, rather than nourishment to all those humans and non-human beings involved.

The term choba choba is a Quechua word that means ‘hair with hair’ (choba means ‘hair’ in Quechua Lamas).  The significance of the meaning of choba-choba comes from the interweaving of hair braids that occurs during marriages.  This notion is extended to the interweaving of people, communities and the land.   One choba-choba inter-weaving of the land with people influences the next choba-choba and so on, strengthening the social fabric of communities.  Gregorio, through his work with Waman Wasi, helps to strengthen choba-choba, providing materials (sickles) when needed, visiting continually and sharing fiesta and laughter.

Udi:

Cut to the deep green undulating hills above the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. This is where we met Zapotec anthropologist and community activist Jaime Martinez Luna in his village of Gualetao birthplace of the only indigenous Mexican President, Benito Juárez, serving five terms between 1858 and 1872. We first came across Jaime in the chapter he wrote for a book called New World of Indigenous Resistance. The book is a collection of chapters by writers across Latin America in response to transcribed interviews with Noam Chomsky on the history and continuing legacy of colonialism, state and corporate power in the continent, and the effects on and responses by indigenous communities.  Interestingly, the majority of the chapters focus on education.   We found this book in a wonderful bookshop, Amate, in Oaxaca.  Jaime kindly replied to our email inviting us to his village, nestled high up in the hills an hour outside of the Oaxaca.

photo by Kelly

To get to Guelatao, we take a taxi 5 miles or so outside Oaxaca city to the ‘place to get a colectivo to Guelatao’ which apparently every taxi driver in the city knows.  We are dropped off rather suddenly in a car park that has a long bench in the corner.  We join the other 3 people and wait.  After 30 minutes or so of conversations with a couple of the people also waiting and the woman running the small shop in the corner of the car park (selling tamales and sodas), a car pulls up.  We are both given the front seat and so configure our bodies in a way so as to endure the hour of driving.  After only 5 minutes we have left signs of human habitation behind.  The air is clear, the sky is more blue – we pass steep hillsides – evergreens and scrubby trees filling it all in.  We notice evidence of mining in the distance and recall seeing in the news how two Oaxacan activists were recently killed protesting mining activities.  There are also milpas (or chacra to the Quechua in Peru) – golden maize that have dried on their stalks.  We are continually reminded of the intense importance of maize here – fiestas, foods of all kinds for all meals of the day…

Drive to Guelatao – view from front seat of colectivo-taxi, photo by Kelly

We are tightly positioned together in the front seat for over an hour.  Although uncomfortable, it gives us a much better view than had we sat anywhere else.  The car stops quite suddenly.  We have arrived at the entrance to the Guelatao village.  There is a small road leading up a steep hill.  We immediately walk to the top of the hill to check out the village.

Mural and bust of Benito Juarez, Guelatao, photo by Kelly

After briefly capturing the beautiful view which stretches across miles of rolling hills and mountains, we explore the lagoon, the government building, the giant statue of Benito Juarez and mural – we ask a woman at the shop where to find Jaime.  His office is just around the corner where there is a sign ‘Foundacion Comunalidad’.

photo by Udi

Jaime is inside and invites us in.  He is very tall and lanky.  His voice is deep and melodious, Leonard Cohen-like.  We are not surprised discovering later that he is also a singer, a musician and has published many cds.  Jaime speaks with a different Spanish, very slowly, enunciating each syllable with purpose.  Kelly is even able to understand much of what he is saying!  We arrange to meet later, to record a conversation by the laguna.  In the meantime, we find a restaurant to sit and write and enjoy some home-cooked Zapotec food.

Jaime, walking along the laguna in Guelatao, photo still by Kelly

During the hours we spent with Jaime, he taught us a great deal about the key word we had discovered across chapters in the book he contributed to, and also in a number of conversations we had across Latin America — comunalidad. As Jaime says in this book:

Comunalidad is a way of understanding life as being permeated with spirituality, symbolism, and a greater integration with nature. It is one way of understanding that Man is not the center, but simply a part of this great natural world. It is here that we can distinguish the enormous difference between Western and indigenous thought. Who is at the center – only one, or all?  The individual, or everyone?

Recorded conversation with Jaime, photo still by Udi

Jaime, like many others we talked to in our journey in Canada, Mexico and Peru, were highly critical of the school as an institution that has historically destroyed the cultures of original peoples across the Americas. As Gustavo Esteva put it, in his own contribution to this same book:

The Indigenous State Forum of Oaxaca in 1997 stated that the school had been the main instrument for the destruction of indigenous cultures, dispossessing them of their way of being and seeing the world to ‘Westernise’ then.

To counter the destructive effects of the school indigenous teachers and community activists have been advocating for interculturalidad in schools, an intercultural education that grounds students in and in between two cultures. A key concept in this struggle for intercultural education in Oaxaca has been comunalidad a word that the State Education Act of 1995 added as a 4th guiding principle of education, alongside democracy, nationalism and humanism. (Jaime comments in his chapter that this may have been a response of local government fearful of the Zapatista uprising of 1994).

Jaime’s Fundacion Comunalidad is working with schools, teachers to re-learn comunalidad as a notion, a practice, a cosmovision.  The emphasis is on bringing this into all aspects of the school, not only in the teaching and learning, but in the ways that people relate to each other – within the school and beyond the boundaries of the school – with the community and with the land and non-human world around them.  Jaime explained to us sitting by the laguna in Guelatao that comunalidad consists of four interrelated ingredients:

1. Territory

Territory involves knowing the land where one is, the place that sustains the community, its history and stories, its plants and animals, not unlike what the Blackfoot where also teaching at Red Crow around place-based learning and traditional foods.

2. Work

Work involves the different kinds of jobs and skills that people from the community take part in and which is not necessarily only about an individuals’ work and skills. This can also be about collective or cooperative forms of work such as the choba choba in Peru, or the mutirão in Brazil.

3. The organisation of the community

The organisation of community life in indigenous communities and around Oaxaca happens through the various assemblies and individual roles of responsibility, cargo, which take charge of different aspects of the community.

4. The fiesta.

Lastly, the fiesta is the celebration of work, of the community and the land, also having as Jaime points out, a spiritual dimension. It is the culmination of community life and comunalidad.

Poster outside of Jaime’s office, Guelatao, photo by Kelly

Kelly:

There is much more for us to learn about both choba-choba and comunalidad.  By being immersed for the time that we were in Oaxaca, in Guelatao and in Chiapas and hearing repeatedly the term comunalidad, we began to learn, to feel, what it meant – the significance of it.  Then by walking and pausing within the chacras around Lamas with Gregorio, we learned more about not only what comunalidad means, but could better comprehend and value the cooperative and communal gift-practice of choba-choba.

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Development = Cosmovision and Crianza… Learning from PRATEC

Development = Cosmovision and Crianza… Learning from PRATEC

Posted by on Feb 1, 2013 in all posts, Peru, PRATEC | 0 comments

We are sitting in the beach-front barrio of Barranco under a once again grey Lima sky relaxing in a cafe after another danger-taxi-ride through the aggressive traffic. We have just had a 90min meeting and interview with Grimaldo Rengifo Vásquez one of the founders of PRATEC (Proyeto Andinas de Tecnologías Campesinas) a grassroots network of organisations working with indigenous communities throughout Peru through a perspective that values and seeks to strengthen Andean knowledge and practices. The organisation was started in 1986 by Grimaldo Rengifo Vásquez, Eduardo Grillo, Francois Greslou and Marcela Velásquez development and agronomy professionals who were dissastified with the development models that had were being unquestionably applied across Peru and elsewhere.

As Frederique Apffel-Marglin wrote in a wonderful article about PRATEC in 2002.

In the course of their professional activities they eventually came to the conclusion that development itself was the problem. This realisation did not come swiftly; it emerged slowly after a lifetime of professional activity in the service of development. At first they thought that things were not working because the methodologies that they used were faulty. They worked hard to devise better methodologies. They lived through many phases and fashions in development: community development; participatory development; appropriate technology; sustainable development; women and development. They tried everything available, always striving to capture the reality of Andean peasant agriculture and of peasant life in general. At long last they came to the conclusion that no methodology would ever deliver and that the problem lay in the very idea of development. It is at this juncture that they left their professional activities and their secure jobs and founded PRATEC, a non-governmental organisation. In other words, they deprofessionalised themselves. They had come to the realisation that development had failed. The evidence lay scattered throughout the Peruvian landscape in what some of their colleagues have called ‘the archaeology of development’, namely ruined infrastructures, abandoned to the elements after the project officials had left, uncared for by the peasants for whom they were intended and left to deteriorate. The evidence also lay in their experience of repeated efforts to devise better methodologies and the final realisation that within their professional perspective and constraints it was impossible to approximate peasant reality and therefore make development relevant to their lives.

From Fieldwork to Mutual Learning: Working with PRATEC. Environmental Values 11 (2002): 345–67

I especially like this image of an archaeology of development, the ruined traces of failed schemes dreamnt up elsewhere with different visions of the good life, now scattered across the landscape overgrowing with plants and home to birds and insects.  I guess that the PRATEC team considers the landscape of development ideas to be similarly littered with half-baked schemes, now laying useless on the ground at the mercy of the elements, designed in the distant offices of some large organisation far away from the day to day lives of the peoples here in Peru. And in the picture below, just how many different cosmovisions, different models of how to develop towards the good life!

An indigenous map of Peru found in the offices of PRATEC in Lima, photo by Udi

In our meeting with Grimaldo he conveyed to us the story of the emergence of the organisation in the mid-1980s amidst a climate of violence and conflict in the country following from the guerrilla uprisings. Decades of development projects, the effects of this conflict and of state-supported neoliberal encroachment on indigenous lands and resources had left these populations in a desperate state, destroying the cultural base or social fabric that had sustained these communities for thousands of years. The conflict with the guerrillas alone, Grimaldo told us, had killed 70,000 people, the majority indigenous.

From this period of the 1980s on, Grimaldo said that a new period of rebuilding had started amongst these groups and PRATEC had been a partner in this process. In Grimaldo’s case, and in the trajectory of PRATEC, this has involved coming to understand a different culture and cosmovision (a way of seeing and being in the universe) from his own. For Grimaldo the cosmovision of the Peruvian Andes was different to the  Amazonian campesino culture where he was raised but also from the academic agronomy in which he trained in university. The fundamental and sustaining base of this Andean culture is agriculture and a cosmovision of crianza or nurturance that characterises people’s relationship to nature.

Choba choba, or communal work at the chakra, Lamas, photo by Kelly

We often came across this word crianza, we heard it in the town of Lamas, where the local project Wama Wasi, part of the PRATEC network, works with Quechua Lamas communities in this upper Amazon region. We heard it in our conversations with Elena Pardo in Cusco, from CEPROSI (Centro de Promoción y Salud Integral), also a part of the PRATEC network, which works with Quechua communities surrounding this region of the high Andes.

We loved this term crianza, it has a depth and beauty to it conveying the heart of this cosmovision that is widespread in this region. It also has deep resonances with Kelly’s previous post on Maize and milpa in Mexico, and on the buffalo in Alberta. In our understanding the term crianza means that people help create and sustain, or nurture, nature whereas nature in turn helps to create, sustain and nurture people. The relationship is one of kinship, of the same family, and as such quite different from a habitual way we have come to understand ‘agriculture’ where crops are ‘produced’. For here in ‘agriculture’ there is no sense that the ‘agri’ the crops, are also ‘producing’ us. This relationship, practice and understanding of ‘nature’ being outside of us and manipulated by us for our our ends, and increasingly purely commercial ends, is replaced by a sense of mutuality and reciprocity. I help the plants grow because they help me grow, and we are both part of a larger life collectivity which is, in this cosmovision, our mother earth, a living being that keeps us all alive.

The uniqueness of PRATEC has been to practice a deep listening and learning from the indigenous communities they work with. Rather than begin with the view of ‘experts’ schooled in a particular cosmovision with keywords such as ‘progress’, ‘development’, ‘poverty-reduction’, ‘increasing yields’, ‘growing GDP’, ‘crop production’, PRATEC has instead payed attention to the values and cultural practices that have sustained the life of these communities in these places for thousands of years. Coming to know these values and practices, such as that of crianza but also those surrounding the chacra, the actual field or place where the nurturance is practiced and which makes up most of the community’s working life, was the first step in the trajectory of PRATEC and its founders. We will write more on the chacra in a later post though just briefly we could observe how central this was for the Quechua Lamas communities we came to know and how similar to the Mexican milpa this was (see Kelly’s posts on Maize and Milpa).

PRATEC’s next stage, as Grimaldo narrates in our interview, involved disseminating this particular understanding of close listening and knowing to others. To this end they spent a period of over fifteen years conducting courses across Peru to different groups of professionals and students. This gradually led to a consolidation of a group of people across the country, development and agriculture professionals, teachers and community activists, who were keen to practice this alternative approach to development. PRATEC’s next phase of work has then been guided to strengthening these local practices and systems so as to fulfil not an external expert’s conception of the good life, or of development, but to actualise what this means for the people themselves.

All of this has involved a great deal of unlearning and of re-learning from the people who work at PRATEC, comprised amongst others of university educated agronomists, agricultural engineers, educationalists, and others. Like Grimaldo, others we talked to in PRATEC describe this process of questioning the assumptions they learned in these academic and development institutions and in the cosmovision that sustained the forms of knowledge and values that were reproduced here.

So pervasive and powerful has been the force of this cosmovision promoting a particular kind of technology-driven and market-oriented development and progress, that one important strand of PRATEC’s work with local communities involves redressing the de-valuing of indigenous ways of life which has been happening since the arrival of the Spanish five hundred years ago. What has been interesting to note is that though many of PRATEC’s founders and those they work with now started in the field of agronomy most of them now are actively involved in working in the area of education. As Grimaldo says the latest stage in PRATEC’s trajectory has been to work with schools and with education policy as a way of strengthening local ways of knowing. Important in this shift is also the work of Elena Pardo in and around Cusco, someone who does have a background in education and worked for many years in the Ministry of Education before starting CEPROSI. Here in Peru, as in Mexico and Canada, we found the school as a key institution for the dismantling or the reproduction of a particular cosmovision. How PRATEC and its affiliated organisations work with schools is the topic of the next few posts.

Network of PRATEC projects across Peru (from http://www.pratecnet.org)

PRATEC’s approach to development, some label it ‘post-development’, is both well-known across Peru and internationally and is both respected and controversial. It challenges thinking about who the experts are, who should have the right to impose development (particularly with certain ideas of progress) on a community, what kind of development or conception of the good life ought to underpin these. When we visited one of PRATEC’s many umbrella organizations (this one called Waman Wasi) in the upper Amazon region of Lamas, we were told how the area is filled with different development initiatives by numerous organisations, each with its own set of experts, advice and models. Some offer incentives for the Quechua Lama to grow coffee or cacao for export. The rationale is that the Quechua Lama ought to enter into the global monetary economy to meet their needs, as they are money poor. For Wama Wasi, whom we spent time with, this approach does not recognise the self-sufficiency of these communities and the food security they already have, nor how the chacra embodies a cosmovision that sustains a whole way of life, not only materially, but also culturally, in terms of family roles and relations, and spiritually. Though they are money poor their sense of the good life, buen vivir, is found not in having and owning stuff, but in relation to crianza, to the chacra, and to other elements of their cosmovision that supports their being in the world.

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“Without Maize there is no country” (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

“Without Maize there is no country”  (Part 2) Milpa Cosmovision and Food Sovereignty

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

As we began to explore in the recent post on autonomy, the cultivation of food as a source and practice of autonomy is core to Unitierra.  There are food-orientated workshops at least twice per week, sometimes 3 or 4 times per week, either on the roof of Unitierra, using their urban roof garden area, or within a range of different pueblos (villages – primarily indigenous) or suburb areas that tend to be characterized by material poverty and families that have emigrated from different part of Oaxaca state and Mexico.  We attended (and filmed) one of the workshops that happened to be on tree grafting.  There were 13 people in attendance – men, women, young and old.  The workshop was informal and very engaging with demonstrations and different people helping to plant and manipulate the papaya tree to be grafted and propagated to form new roots and another tree.  At the end of the workshop, juice and cake were passed around that one of the learners had prepared.  This aspect of learning – cooking and eating together (sometimes through the form of community fiesta) is integral to all learning situations at Unitierra.  The purpose is to enjoy the process of learning together, to build hospitable relationships and to build a strength around the cultural importance of foods – particularly those grown on milpa.

Unitierra, fruit tree grafting workshop, still from footage by Udi

Maize is to Mexico (to all Meso-American civilizations actually), what buffalo are to the Blackfoot (see previous post, ‘The Land, the Blackfoot and the Buffalo’).  In Mexico alone there are over 60 breeds of maize and thousands of local varieties – white, yellow, red, blue, purple, black… Mexico is home to the most diverse range of maize seeds and varieties in the world.  Maize, as a core food grown within the milpa, is central to all Meso-American cultural cosmovisions.

Viva la Milpa! poster representing Meso-American cosmovision of maize, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

As Bonfil explains in Mexico Profundo:

Maize is, in effect, a human creation, a child of Meso-American parents.  Its parents, in turn are children of corn, as poetically related in the Popul Vuh, the ancient ‘Book of Events’ of the Quiche Maya:  Thus they found food and it was what they employed to make the bodies of the people who were made, who were formed; the blood was liquid, the blood of the people; … of yellow corn and white corn they made the bodies, of food were made the arms and legs of the people, of our first parents.  Four people were created, of pure foodstuffs were their bodies (p. 5 – quoted originally from Chavez 1979: 65a)

Stencil sketch of maize/humans, Maize and Maguey Art Exhibit, Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico, photo by Kelly

The domestication of maize began anywhere between 5,000 – 7,500 years ago, the oldest archaeological remains were discovered in Oaxaca.  What is significant about this is that maize can only grow with human intervention as the corncob can only spread its seeds with the help of humans.  Maize grows best when it is accompanied with beans, squash, chilies, tomatillos, avocadoes, gourds (in many circles this is known as the ‘three sisters’ – corn, beans and squash) – in a small and manageable area that is nourished by its use during two continuous years (followed by 8 years lying fallow).   The nourishment of these cultivated areas can be understood as a milpa.

Maize and beans growing together in a milpa, photo by Kelly

Maize is the essence of food, of fiesta, of cultural representation, and for thousands of years, of milpa, of cultural sustenance, self-sufficiency and nourishment enabling a sacred and intimate connection with the Earth.  Meso-American civilizations, although vastly different in languages, religious beliefs and cultural practices, are similar in their cosmovision as orientated to learning and obeying the principles of the natural world.  Human being are seen as part of, as deeply connected to the natural world and the entire cosmos – rather than as superior to, trying to obtain a mastery over.  Thus, in sharp contrast to the Spanish conquistadores, agricultural ‘work’ to milpa Meso-American cosmovision is about developing this learning, such as through the design and ritualized cultivation of milpa that incorporates optimum utilization of land and local resources, adapting to local conditions, starting with systems of knowledge and technology already in place – and social organization of work and the preferences and value of the particular group.  Milpas bring together multiple varietes of foods that are grown in small plots that are adjacent to homes.  John Canby, in his brilliant article ‘Retreat to Subsistence’ (The Nation 2010) explains this in the brief dialogue between he and an indigenous Mixtec man:

I asked Jesús León about the ways milpa agriculture seemed to be about improving on nature, on natural processes.  He stopped—with the whole vulnerable world of traditional human agriculture around his feet. “No,” he said, and seemed to care deeply that I follow precisely what he was saying. “It’s not a way of improving nature—it’s a way of getting closer to the processes of nature, getting as close as possible to what nature does.”

Mural of Zapatista woman wearing a balaclava mask made of maize, Oventic, Zapatista Caracole, photo by Kelly

In Spanish translation, milpa essentially means ‘field’ (in English). The term milpa comes from Nahuatl (the widespread Aztec-based language that tied hundreds of indigenous communities together through some form of a common language) which originally meant ‘to the field’ – the term ‘mil’ meaning ‘field’ and ‘pa’ meaning ‘going to’. This difference, though subtle, is profound.  ‘Field’ is a noun, a thing, an object.  ‘To the field’ denotes action, a verb, an intention.  As we wrote in previous postings on Blackfoot knowledges at Red Crow Community College, many indigenous languages are primarily verb-based (rather than noun-based as typical to English and Spanish languages).  The actions ‘to the field’ were based on spiritual and physical nourishment, not only to each human being, but to the broader community, the soil, the local plants and animals and the entire Universe.  A milpa is designed as a miniature version of the entire cosmos, the universe.  Hence, ‘to the field’ indicates intention that is not just to the growing of a crop, but to the tending and nurturing of the entire cosmovision of the community.  For example, the practice of rotating 2 years on, 8 years lying fallow – was so that the soil had a chance to fully recuperate itself naturally, drawing in wildlife that assisted in this recuperation process. Milpa is part of the surrounding ecosystem, not separate from it.  There is an automatic ‘we’ and commons mentality through the language and the practice of nourishing different foods cultivated traditionally with the milpa.

The cosmovision of milpa is first and foremost about self-sufficiency (autonomy) that enables a close relationship with the Earth and the nourishment of community. The role of economic growth and agricultural development plays a much less important role, if not often times being obsolete.  The destruction of milpa as cosmovision and as a highly technical food production process has been sought after for the past 500 years – by the Spanish crown, by the Church, by the state after Independence and currently by MNCs such as Monsanto, Dow, Dupont and Syngenta.  The reason behind the survival of milpa is because how central they are (and have been) to all aspects of cultural life:

…the persistence of those technologies is related to a body of knowledge that represents the accumulated, systematized experience of centuries.  This knowledge and experience are consistent with particular ways of understanding the natural world, and with profoundly rooted systems of values, forms of social organization, and ways of organizing daily life.  Batalla-Bonfil, p. 13

I first encountered the rhetoric and politics of food sovereignty during my time living and working in Pakistan (2004), amongst different social movements – the People’s Rights Movement and the Fisherfolk Forum (both of whom had significant impacts on my life through the political awareness I gained spending brief periods of time with them).   The People’s Rights Movement support landless peasants in their continual struggle for land rights (and continue to face violent conflicts with the military).  The Fisherfolk Forum supports fishermen along the Indus River that crosses Pakistan from North to South and the Arabian Sea along the southern border.  Due to unsustainable and industrial fishing (trawling) by companies that were supported directly by the military (Pakistani government), traditional fishing practices have become increasingly obsolete, forcing many families further into dire economic poverty.  Both of these movements essentially support communities that have and continue to be deeply marginalized because of their lack of access to land, to water, to plants and animals that typically would sustain themselves, their families and their communities through a ‘commons’ – a communal and self-sufficiency orientation toward agriculture and food cultivation.

Zapatista community in their milpa, poster at Unitierra Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Five years after time I spent in Pakistan, I attended the World Social Forum in Belem (Brazil) in 2009.  As the World Social Forum gathers together such a large number of activists and civil society organizations, individuals and groups committed to food sovereignty (Via Campesina – peasant movement – being the largest social movement in the world) I attended as many food sovereignty workshops as I could, to learn more.  I remember, in Belem, engaging in many conversations with people from Latin America about the ‘food crisis’ that many of them were experiencing – the prices of corn, rice, sugar having risen dramatically over recent years, due, in great part, to food speculation in the financial market.  In Mexico, in 2008, because of the hike in maize prices, the country went through a ‘tortilla crisis’.  The Mexican government acknowledges that this has led to at least 28 million people in Mexico to be under-nourished and under-fed – 20 million of these are rural-dwelling and indigenous peoples.

Maiz and tortilla festival advert, Oaxaca, photo by Kelly

The ‘retreat to subsistence’ that Canby writes about is essentially what Unitierra is aiming to strengthen – as identity and as practice. The point is to move beyond the need of having to buy food –  of having to depend completely on the market to access an adequate and healthy food supply.  Unitierra is helping many communities in and around Oaxaca (Gustavo told us at least 25) to re-learn and strengthen milpa cultural and technical practice.  The orientation of food is further supported by learning about autonomy and self-sufficiency as associated with waste, water, architecture and political action, all the while celebrating community through fiesta.

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“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

“Without maize, there is no country” (Part 1) Emotional and sensory encounters with maize and milpa

Posted by on Dec 28, 2012 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 0 comments

Viva la Milpa! Exhibit and media awareness campaign, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

This is the first of two related posts on maize, milpa and agricultural practice that is completely intertwined with a cosmovision (way of seeing and being in the Universe) orientated toward bringing humans and community closer with the Earth.  As the struggle to continue the cultural production of food (as connected to cosmovision) is so central to each context we are visiting, I have no doubts that we will return to food many times throughout our journey.  In the Americas (North, Central and South), there is a primary cultural and economic importance of corn, of maize.  Due to the length of this topic, this post has been divided into two parts (1 and 2).  The complexity of this topic is deep and exhaustive.  I have added in many links toward further reading for those of you who are interested…

Alfredo Aceda tells us in his recent article – The Fight for Corn – the Nobel Prize winner Octavio Paz once said that ‘the invention of corn by Mexico is only comparable to the invention of fire by early humans.’  This is due to the incredible cultural and economic role that maize has played and continues to play within the majority of countries around the world.  Maize is the most efficient producer of any grain in the world – for example, the yield per hectare of maize doubles that of wheat.

During our time in Mexico, my senses and emotions endured a steep learning curve about maize (corn).  I tasted maize in many forms everyday – tortillas – with cheese, nopal (cactus), frijoles, in soups… chips (the nacho kind of chips), enchiladas, tamales… How I love tamales.  Hector and Margarita, the warm and generous couple we stayed with in Oaxaca, made tamales several times during our stay with them.  Each time I was lucky enough to have a vegetarian tamale on a plate in front of me, I was suddenly a little girl again, eating tamales with my babysitter, Mrs. Bravo, who had come from Mexico.  It was like coming home… what a contrast to the bland industrialized and ubiquitous manifestation of corn across virtually all US-processed foods in the form of corn syrup (which by the way, is directly related the tremendous rise in obesity).  Yet, aside from these delectable delights, I also found myself becoming angry.  Frustrated. Enormously.  Again and again.  Learning more about Monsanto, the multi-national corporation (MNC) that controls the majority of the international maize market – and the terrible ways they continue to extend their sharp claws into all aspects of the production of food in Mexico, from seed to consumption, manipulating not only economic security, but strangling cultural and ecological longevity as well.  The tight grip of Monsanto’s claws further destroys any promise of equality – deepening poverty, constraining autonomy and self-sufficiency, darkening spiritual illumination that glows from communal agricultural practices in milpas within which, technological knowledge still continues to marvel new learners (such as myself), 7,000 years after the domestication of maize first began.  In essence, Monsanto is poisoning the land, the water, the food and thousands of years of cultural history.

Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca, Mexico – Maiz and Maguey art exhibit, photo by Kelly

It seemed that every time I turned around in Oaxaca and Chiapas, on a bus, in a colectivo taxi (car shares that cram as many people as possible inside to save money and petrol), in a café, in a museum, on a street corner… I came face to face with some formation of maize.  From the front seat of the colectivo taxi as we drove from the city of Oaxaca to the village of Guelatao to visit with Jaime Luna Martinez, I appreciated field after field of golden maize growing tall and proud up the sides of steep hills.

Milpa field of maize, road from Oaxaca to Guelatao, photo by Kelly

On various street corners of Oaxaca city I encountered graffiti art of all kinds – many with an image of a corncob or field of maize, my absolute favorite being the image of the indigenous woman pointing a gun at GMO culprits, sneakily trying to plant trans-genically modified maize (see Udi’s post on Art of Rebellion).

In  Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca (the botanical gardens in Oaxaca) I visited an art exhibit celebrating the cultural significance of maize and damning the intrusion of Monsanto in paintings, sculptures, paper cut-outs and stencils.

An organic café and cultural center we discovered in San Cristobal (Chiapas) was holding a month-long Viva la Milpa! exhibit and series of events to spread awareness of the necessity of blocking the plantation of trans-genetically (GMO) bred maize.

Maiz Nuestro Corazon, exposition against GMO trans-genic maize, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Within this exhibit was a poster showing at least 20 different native types of maize, endemic to Chiapas, multiple black/white posters celebrating cultural nuances and histories of milpa and others again condemning Monsanto through informative and violent imagery.

Viva la Milpa! exhibit at organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, poster of 16 different types of Maize in Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Viva la Milpa! Tierra O Muerto poster, Organic Cafe and Cultural Center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

I was repeatedly surprised to have to request tortillas specifically during many meals out and about in Oaxaca and Chiapas.  The majority of times white bread would automatically arrive at our table in a basket.  Hector and Margarita informed us that tortillas had become too expensive because Mexico was importing so much of its corn (approximately 1/3) — and that 20 years ago 99% of Mexico’s corn was grown inside the country, thus maintaining autonomy of its cultivation and consumption of maize within its own borders.  Aside from the dramatic increase in imports, many rural Mexican families are producing maize for their own subsistence.  The availability of Mexican maize entering the Mexican market is decreasing every year.

Resiste poster, Viva la Milpa! exhibit, organic cafe and cultural center, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

The direct impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was beginning to become more clear.  I have read many accounts of the profoundly unjust impacts of NAFTA on Latin American countries (primarily rural and indigenous peoples) and this was just one example.

So where did this dramatic change towards a relationship of dependency and  return to subsistence come from?  The answer is very complicated – an entanglement of historical forms of colonialism, elite power, unforgiving regulations and legislation that are all orientated toward the generation of profit (before and above anything else) through the industrialized expansion of the free market and the erosion of self-sufficiency, where people have lived off the land, nourishing its cultivation, over thousands of years. Trying to write about this entanglement has led me through several drafts of this post – stops and starts… overly strong statements within which I have veered toward the safety of academic-style writing where I notice myself becoming distanced from what I am really trying to say.  Especially when I try to articulate (in a brief and simple way) the details and impacts of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on the majority of people living and working in Mexico.  Rather than provide a long, complex explanation of the devastating effects and supposing promises of NAFTA, I mention a few of the related issues and problems.

The decision to throw Mexico wide open to free trade was due to the government’s belief that the geographical and climatic conditions in Mexico favored increase exports in fruits and vegetables to the United States.  Although Mexico is the original producer of maize (there are 60 ‘landraces’ and thousands of native varieties in Mexico which have evolved over thousands of years), the US has a stronger market advantage because of the genetically modified versions of corn they cultivate, which produce greater yields and are greatly supported by government subsidies (and are also completely dependent on huge amounts of fertilizers and pesticides which is poisoning water and land particularly in the Mid-western part of the US and increasing rates of cancer).  Tariffs on corn entering Mexico were also eliminated through NAFTA which has devastated the Mexican market aside from the strength of rural farmers.  In the book, Sin Maiz, no Hay Pais (without maize there is no country) a book on Mexico’s maize crisis published in 2003, from which this post is named, there were statements provided from the government saying that they hoped to remove half of the population of Mexico’s rural areas within five years.

Poster comparing Native and GMO maize, Museo de Maya Medicinal, San Cristobal, Chiapas, photo by Kelly

Since coming into being in 1994, NAFTA regulations essentially force food to be cultivated for profit-making purposes to enable ‘free’ trading to occur between countries in the Americas.  Yet, as I learned many years ago through visits with social movements in Pakistan, participating in the World Social Forum (2009) and friends of mine in Oregon who are farmers — the ‘free trade’ aspect is prohibited in multiple ways.  For example, farmers from the United States receive vast subsidies from the US government every year which enables them to sell their foods more cheaply on the international market, thus creating a dependency for southern American countries to import foods as they cannot compete with prices (such as maize) that has historically grown very readily on their lands.  This has made it exceedingly difficult for small farmers from Mexico to sell and export their maize and to cultivate native landraces of maize that are endemic to Mexico as they are not as productive (large yields) – and are thus priced higher than American GMO-bred corn.  In addition, the intrusion of trans-genic seeds contaminates native varieites in Mexico.  Although there was a moratorium placed on GMO seeds  entering in Mexico until 2009, contamination was found in remote parts of Oaxaca as early as 2001.  With the moratorium now ended, trans-genic maize seeds are freely circulating, although full planation is still resisted (though barely – legislation allowing Monsanto to plant 2.5 million hectares in Mexico this month almost passed).

The financial constraints that have ensued as a result of NAFTA has forced many Mexican farmers to produce very small amounts of food for their own family subsistence (which more and more are doing).  Many others (hundreds of thousands) migrate to urban areas (where there are often no jobs to be found – or very low-waged jobs) or attempt to cross the dangerous border illegally only to serve as wage labourers on farms (often picking fruits and vegetables in often-times hazardous conditions) in North America.  Whilst the subsistence approach reclaims cultural and agricultural approaches to food cultivation (building food sovereignty), it also puts these farmers into a more vulnerable situation of economic insecurity which makes it that much harder to resist the intrusion of MNCs taking over and producing foods on their lands.  The commitment of Unitierra is exactly about supporting the strength of rural families to produce their own foods on their milpa, building strength of identity and community solidarity, working together to resist government and multi-national corporation pressure.

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