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Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Learning by running… across the prairie with students and teachers…

Posted by on Feb 28, 2013 in all posts, Canada, Red Crow Community College | 0 comments

Although our main focus during our journey is to higher education initiatives emerging from indigenous scholars, community activists and artists, throughout our time in Canada, Mexico and Peru we also encountered and learned from teachers, students, community activists and organisations working to promote these indigenous ways of knowing, being and doing in primary, middle and secondary schools.

Our first experience visiting in/with primary, middle and secondary schools was in the Blackfoot Kainai (Blood Band) Reserve in Alberta. It unexpectedly came through the form of running – across open prairie.

Although this post may seem a bit dated, reflecting back on a particular day under the Albertan sun in October, 2012, I thought to write about how it stands so strongly in my memory – as a form of learning with my body.  Writing now as I am several months later, in South America, where I am far from fluent in Spanish or Portuguese, I have been forced to rely on learning beyond language.  I will be writing much more about this in coming posts, but first I thought to write about the day I remember the most vividly of all the days spent in southern Canada – the day I ran and walked alongside hundreds of children and adults across the open prairie on the Blood Reserve.  When I started writing this post, it came out in a fast flowing rush (and it is therefore longer than planned).  The memories of that day are so sharp – the bluest of blue skies, my skin pulsing from the heat of the hot dry sun, the sounds of the wheat-coloured grasses crunching beneath my feet,  of increasingly heavy and laboured breathing the further we got into the race – and of the excitement of voices, young and old, encouraging the completion of a physically demanding challenge…  I think the clarity of that day has something to do with feeling really alive – with feeling free… with engaging together in activity that defies age, background, gender…

A couple of days before the race, we met Narcisse Blood and his wife Alvine Mountain Horse for dinner in Fort MacLeod.  Alvine, a middle school teacher at the Kainai Middle School on the reserve, and PhD student at the University of Calgary, is a mother of four, grandmother of many.  She is also a long distance runner and has been since she was a girl.  Alvine seemed tired during our dinner, unsurprisingly, as she is busy doing so many things.  However, after I mentioned something about my decision to attend university on the east coast of the US because of being recruited at that time for running (and high jumping), her energy returned and we were suddenly very engaged in an animated conversation – stories about running, about racing, about coaching.  Alvine told us of her most recent 10km race (just three days before) where she had fallen badly, injuring her knee and her face. She was concerned about her ability to do well at the upcoming annual race celebrating the signing of the Treaty – two days later.  Her knee was still swollen and there was still bruising on her face.  Yet, I could very clearly see the fire in her to run, to compete, to participate.

Alvine Mountain Horse and Kelly at the start of the race, photo by Udi

I think once someone becomes a runner, develops a love for running, it is somehow always there, seeping into the core of your being.  So far on this journey, I have done far less running than I would have liked, I not only miss it, often I long for it.  I see someone running on the edges of a park, or alongside the sea, and I wish I was there, feeling the air on my skin, seeing the ground blur beneath my feet, wanting to experience the tiredness and the simultaneous satisfaction that comes with running.  This passion for running is not universally shared, but between those that do share it, there is an immediate connection.  I found this connection with Alvine.  At the end of our lovely meal together, I also found myself signing up for the annual cross-country race taking place in two days.  The 3-mile or 5-mile race (we could choose) was to be across prairie, finishing on the grounds of the Kainai primary, middle and secondary schools on the Blood Reserve.  This particular day of the annual run was to be held on the 125th anniversary of Treaty Seven which signed the reservation territory, amongst other laws and regulations, to the Blackfoot.

I was really nervous arriving to the Kainai Middle School that Friday morning and timidly asked for directions to find Alvine.  There was chaotic and nervous energy that always comes with organizing so many children and teenagers.  At least 10 buses were parked outside from different schools in the area – members of other Blackfoot bands and non-Blackfoot schools as well.  Teachers were trying to organize the hundreds of school-aged children and young people who were excitedly putting on their running shoes, trying to find out where to pin on their numbers.

The dry, open sky and vast horizon of southern Alberta reminded me very much of Klamath Falls, Oregon where I grew up, and I was suddenly feeling the nervousness I would have felt over 20 years ago, competing as I once did in high school, for the cross-country running team.  Only now, I was not very fit – an obvious outsider – joining hundreds of children, young people and adults from the area who participate in this annual event.  Udi was taking it all in as someone who has not only ever run a cross-country race, but has also never witnessed such an event.

After asking several teachers, I eventually found Alvine in her classroom.  She was hurriedly trying to gather her own belongings for the race – numbers to pin on our tops, lists of student names, her tee-shirt.  I noticed many different Blackfoot words written neatly on the blackboard.  She walked with me out of the school and the three of us climbed into our car.  She directed us for a few miles, from paved to unpaved road and finally to a field where there was no road at all.  I looked around to see hundreds of school-aged children, from what I guessed were 6 years old, through the end of secondary school (18 years old) and many adults (teachers).  It was the first time in my life I had ever run with such a diverse and disparate group, all associated with schools in the area.  Any school-related running race in my time was always separated quite rigidly into different age groups.  I do not remember ever running alongside any of my teachers.

photo by Udi

We all gathered together, finding a place to stand where we could.  One of the teachers from the high school gave us all directions, to run alongside the flags he had just stuck into the ground early that morning.  He told us to be careful of the uneven surface.  Alvine looked at me and said not to wait for her, that I should try to win, that she was still injured and not sure how fast she would run.  I told her I was completely out of shape anyway and happy to run with her.

photo by Udi

The gun went off, many children took off fast, excited about what it was that we were doing.  I noticed that many of them looked completely unprepared to run – some in jeans, shoes that we clearly not made for running.  Yet they all seemed very happy about running several miles in the hot sun on unknown terrain.  There was no one whining, which I would have expected from some of the children and teenagers. I ran alongside Alvine for about a half mile or so and noticed I was still feeling surprising fine.  I also noticed that I wanted to run ahead and try and catch a couple of the female adults who were not so far ahead.  The competitive streak in me came right back and was strongly encouraged by Alvine.  She kept whispering between laboured breaths – “go ahead, try to catch them, try to win”.  I laughed with her encouragement and decided to, although I also felt a pull to stay with her and run alongside for the duration.

Half mile or so into the race, photo by Udi

I ran ahead at the top of a small hill coming out of the coulee.  I noticed two women in front of me and set out to catch them.  One of my favourite training activities during my cross-country high school days was when my coach would start us all separately – one minute or so apart.  The goal was to try and catch as many people as you could over a 3 mile course.  It was the same here, only 20 years later.

photo by Udi

I picked up speed for the rest of the race.  I chatted to many children and teenagers along the way.  Many of them would walk and then sprint, rather than running continuously.  I encouraged them to run slowly – to run with me, and a couple girls (I guessed were about 13) did.  We made light conversation that got increasingly more difficult as we all approached the school.  I noticed another adult female runner in front of me, nearing the school and I decided to catch up with her before the finish line, which I did (just barely).  Udi was at the finish line, clapping, yelling and filming.

Finishing the race, photo by Udi

One of the top finishers of the race, photo by Udi

I was exhausted – but felt exhilarated as I often do after a challenging run.  I ran back to find Alvine, to encourage her and run with her the rest of the way.  She was happy that she finished, her knee really hurting her.  After the race we walked around the school buildings, chatting with Alvine and some of the other teachers – Alvine was proudly introducing us to people, saying that the race had become ‘international’ with us being there.  A warmth and joy pervaded the environment through vocal encouragement and generosity of food and care.  It was important to all the teachers there that everyone who participated in and witnessed the race be provided a full meal.  Everything was free.  Several of the students came to speak with Alvine.  It was clear how very loved and admired she is by students of all ages and teachers.

The entire event contrasted strongly with running events (races) that I participated in – in the past.  The diversity of ages running alongside one another was very powerful, particularly as there was so much encouragement – from young to old and old to young.  Although there was a competitive air, it was friendly.  I wondered how much of this conviviality had to do with the very reason we were all there running and connecting with the ground beneath our feet –– in celebration of the sovereignty that exists on this part of the land, the Blackfoot territory.

Overall winner of the race, photo by Udi

An awards ceremony began soon after in the high school gym with a Blackfoot prayer being spoken by one of the Blackfoot Elders in the community.  Udi and I were both inspired to see the hand-made spears (rather than trophies) that were given to the top male and female (of all ages) finishers of the 3-mile and 5-mile races.  The spears were about 2 meters long, hand-carved, with leather straps and fathers wrapped around them at three different sections.  The end of the spear looked as if it had been carved from obsidian.  I received a medal for being a top-3 female finisher in the over-29 age group, which I was rather pleased about (perfect souvenir!).

After the race, Udi and I explored the schools and talked with more teachers and students.  The insides of the school buildings were beautifully constructed and decorated, mixing the functionality of a standard North American high school with Blackfoot structures and designs. Central in the building is the library which has a large steel teepee emerging from its center forming and ceremonial space for lectures, events and reading.  Alvine introduced us to Olivia Tailfeathers, the music teacher for all three schools.  She writes her own music as well.  She gave us one of her CDs and we are hoping to use a couple of the tracks as music for the film we will be editing on Red Crow Community College.

Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Interior of teepee in Kainai Middle School library, photo by Udi

Alvine is fluent in the Blackfoot language and is committed to the teaching that she is able to do, in spite of how busy she is. When we left the Kainai Middle School that day, we drove Alvine to Lethbridge to meet with Narcisse and Ryan Heavy Head.  Along the way, Alvine told us more about her own learning of Blackfoot and the ways in which she has been teaching the language to children and adults.  She herself had learned from her grandmother who did not speak any English.  Alvine’s grandmother had taken her outside on long walks, teaching her words with the land.  The Blackfoot language emerged through the land, and this was how Alvine was taught the Blackfoot language.  She discovered that it was also the best way for her to teach the language.

In the school where Alvine taught we were especially excited about the project she told us about which brought the knowledge of local plants and their uses into the school. In this language teaching/learning approach, students had to discover the plants growing around the school area, find out their Blackfoot names and their traditional use.  Alongside Blackfoot language teaching, Alvine coaches running.  Being outside, on and with the land is a deep significance that crosses both of these very different reasons for and approaches to, learning.

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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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