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The forest at the gate of Brazil

The forest at the gate of Brazil

Posted by on May 19, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, on the road | 0 comments

Entering Brazil through the state of Acre in northwest Amazonia gives a different perspective on the country. In one way it shows how, like the US, Canada and Australia, this country is also a country of settlers and frontiers-people imposing an economy, government, and set of cultures on a place that had already been inhabited for thousands of years. Coming from this direction into the country, away from the larger metropoles of Rio and São Paulo also reminds me of how much environmental devastation the settler nations have imposed on this vast and beautiful territory through destructive and unsustainable models of development. Though forest regions preserved as national parks or more recently extractive reserves are plentiful in this state of Acre, on the road from the Peruvian border all we see are endless fields of cattle farms with the occasional solitary giant tree standing like an archeological memory. This stretch of our journey also reminded me of the deadly struggles over the forest and people’s livelihood being waged both here, in this corner of Brazil, as well as in so many parts of the world.

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On the road to Rio Branco from the Peruvian border, photo by Udi

Acre is the home state of rubber tapper, union leader and environmental activist Chico Mendes who was murdered in 1988 by a landowner from this region. Chico Mendes was opposed to the large agribusiness encroachment into the forest and the decimation of both indigenous lands and cultures as well as the lands and livelihood of those, like rubber tappers, who had been using the resources of the forest in a more sustainable way for many generations. Mendes was very much ahead of his time, envisioning a different economic model for this region by a sustainable management of the forest through extractive reserves in such a way that hundreds of its products could be used and commercialised without destroying the forest or the ways of life of its people.

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Chico Mendes panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Commemorating the 25th anniversary since his death, economic and environmental policy in the state of Acre seems to have now caught up with this way of thinking and the Chico Mendes Extractive Reserve covers 970.570 of hectares of land in the state providing a sustainable livelihood for its forest population. Around twenty other reserves have also been across the country where logging, and large agribusiness are forbidden.

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Biodiversity management within the state of Acre – panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

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Conservation panel, representing the Amazonian region, at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

Though large landed agribusiness interests are still a powerful force in the state and in the country, and dozens continue to be killed by landowners each year, significant moves for the protection of the forest have been made in Acre, which boasts amongst the most preserved forest regions in the country. You only need to look at aerial views on google maps to see how just across the border in the state of Rondônia the unabated growth of agribusiness, especially through the cultivation of soy for cattle feed and the raising of cattle, has clawed away at the remaining forest. Yet, the powerful landed lobby in congress continues to stifle efforts to pass strong enough legislation for a comprehensive protection of the forest. At the same time a culture of violence and impunity in the frontiers areas surrounding the forest means that the murders of activists and the expulsion of people from their land continues.

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Agrobusiness panel at the Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We had tried to connect up with local groups active with indigenous communities developing interesting projects in the field of education in this region but unfortunately this was a case where fragmented email and phone communication did not open doors for us. As such we were sorry to have spent only a very short time in what is a very exciting and innovative region developing important initiatives in this field. We are hopeful to return at some point in the future.

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The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://blog.brasilturista.com.br/o-acre-existe/

One place we were lucky to have gained access to at all was the Biblioteca da Floresta, the Forest Library. I say lucky because the one day we had to wander about the state capital of Rio Branco before our flight onwards to Rio de Janeiro, the museum was closed. Dropped off in front of the quiet and tastefully designed modern building by the generous owner of the hotel we were staying at, we were feeling disheartened that the one thing we could have seen here was closed. We made our way to the shut building and looked through the glass. A security guard behind the desk inside came out to meet us. Without hoping for much I explained our situation and much to our surprise the guard proceeded to not only invite us in, turn on the lights and say we were free to look around anywhere, but to give us a wonderful tour of the place.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

Our guard turned to be quite an angel. He is a former teacher, who had worked in prisons and had also known Chico Mendes personally, he shared with us a number of interesting stories from Acre state. He was very proud of this Library and the people associated with it, such as Marina da Silva another important environmental activist, Acre native and political figure who was for a time Environmental Minister under Brazil’s Labour government but who resigned for the lack of support for her ministry.

Marina da Silva also ran for president in the last election under the Green Party and came third. We will definitely be following her progress, the last initiative she has been involved with is launching another platform Rede Sustentabilidade, Sustainability Network, an open movement that is reaching out across sectors of Brazilian society but which also intends to contest the next election while moving away from the organisational format of a traditional political party.

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Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Forest Library is a beautiful and well-resourced library, museum, gallery, study and auditorium space open to the public and built by the local government. We were told by our guide the Library was going to be named after Marina but that there was some glitch on naming public buildings after people who are still living.

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Studying Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo from http://ascoisasdabiblio.blogspot.com/2011/05/biblioteca-da-floresta-rio-brancoac.html

The Library is well worth the visit if you are in this part of the world, as is the city of Rio Branco. Opened in 2007 the library stretches over three floors with several exhibition spaces. The Library’s goal is to promote sustainability and teach about the region, the forest and the knowledge held about it by local populations. An important focus of the library, and seen in the highly informative museum, is to teach about the history of this region.

The history starts with the rubber boom of the 1800s and the forced labour of indigenous peoples and African slaves to the collapse of the rubber industry in Brazil. This is followed by the rise of different forms of indentured labour in the large farms of this region. The museum provides a map of the various attempts at colonising the forest and extracting wealth from the land through often cruel means. The exhibition also shows various moments and movements of resistance including the union struggle which was led by Chico Mendes. Upstairs the exhibition is about the various indigenous peoples in Acre, telling some of their stories and histories.

Our guard-guide explained to us how this space is used by local high school and university students who make use of the books, computers and study spaces. The Library also runs various events where people directly go and learn over a few days with different populations in the forest, indigenous communities, rubber tappers and others living off the forest.


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The book shelves with seeds and leaves, Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly and the indigenous panels

An interesting temporary exhibition we saw here also showed how the regional government and local businesses were promoting sustainable products from Acre’s forest to an international markets. Showing products such as Brazil nuts, latex, different fruits and oils which could be farmed without damaging the forest and a number of which have been used for their medicinal properties.

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Part of a temporary exhibition on local products Inside The Biblioteca da Floresta, photo by Kelly

We left the museum after thanking our guide profusely. Before leaving Rio Branco we walked through the local market. In one of the stalls selling local plant medicines we saw hundreds of species of plants, fruits, seeds, roots being used untold purposes. How strange that an economic system that champions one or two species, say soy or cattle, can prevail and cause such destruction over such an intricately woven and diverse ecosystem.

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Udi

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A local medicinal plant shop, photo by Kelly

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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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Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Driving to Terrace with academia, oil and glaciers on my mind…

Posted by on Nov 16, 2012 in all posts, Canada, Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, on the road | 0 comments

We left Calgary early on the first Saturday of October bound for a small town called Terrace in Northern British Columbia, with the purpose of visiting the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art.  The drive was estimated to be about 20 hours and we planned to divide the days of driving with an overnight stay in Jasper, in the midst of Jasper National Park.  To get there, you have to also drive through Banff National Park.   The views between Calgary and Jasper via Banff and Jasper National Parks are nothing short of extraordinary.  Words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘amazing’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘mind-blowing’ are used in over-abundance and do little to convey the magnitude of the natural display of wonder through which the road traverses.

Photo taken by Kelly along the Banff-Jasper Highway

The morning we left, I was jetlagged after returning the day before from a trip to the UK (the during which time I visited the University for the last time as an employee). The tremendous beauty that surrounded me in Banff and Jasper were a far cry from those intense days working as an academic.  Although there were precious gems of collegial friendships I had developed with many inspiring students and other like-minded academics, overall, the geography of the academic environment was harsh and unforgiving, hardly nourishing or conducive to deep creativity and passionate purpose.   During the four years I worked at the University I felt an intensifying hierarchy and lack of support.  This is not the same experience for all early academics, but it was for me.  I was often lost in a murky sea of politics, torn between commitments within two different departments, scurrying around like a headless chicken to keep up with an overload of teaching and often times losing my sense of purpose and self in the process.  The glacially sculpted peaks and valleys of the Rocky Mountains offered an immediate respite, reminding me of the slow process of time through which each of us are such small, but deeply connected components.  I also was reminded by how small my world had become in the mire of the University’s expectations and structure. Much bigger issues, such as climate change, that I could view firsthand in the receding glaciers at Banff and Jasper, are exponentially more important.  The world is much larger, vastly more interesting, than the small-mindedness of universities whose primary objectives are to make themselves as big as possible within the global economy, particularly at the expense of the happiness of many of its staff, faculty and students.  I also realized that the healing required from my experience working in academia – to unlearn ways of thinking that had been detrimental to my overall well-being – would be slow and erratic.  Feelings and experiences embed themselves deep in each of our bodies, affecting far more than our minds.  I felt an intense gratitude for these reminders surrounding me in the tremendous beauty of the sculpted Rocky Mountains, turquoise lakes, sublimely green ever-green trees and yellowing Autumnal leaves – and also the melancholic presence of melting glaciers amidst the beauty.

Photo taken by Kelly at Bow Lake in Banff National Park

Although we hastened our travel to Jasper that first day of driving, we managed a few stops that brought us to the forefront of climate change processes.  After marvelling at the turquoise waters of Lake Louise and Bow Lake, we stopped at Columbia Icefields to walk up the path to see the Athabasca glacier up close.  At the turn off to Columbia Icefields, on the drive to the parking lot, we noticed signs that read 19012, 1920, 1945, 1960, 1980, 1992, 2000 – each demonstrated the level from which the glacier had receded, the most recent being 2000, at least 50 metres from where the edge of the glacier currently lay melting with torrents of small rivers and streams running off toward the turquoise lake below.

Photo taken by Udi of Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, Banff National Park

We also stopped at Parker Ridge, on the side of the highway and walked 2km up a steep ascent to eat a small picnic lunch.  The view hiking up the snaking avalanche path was as impressive as the drive and we felt alive as our lungs were working harder to grasp oxygen from the thinning crisp air.  The only downside of the view was a haze of smoke from controlled forest fires in British Columbia.  Along the path, stunted alpine evergreen trees and wildflowers thrive here in the desert-like landscape that brings constant blasts of wind.  Once we reached the crest of the ridge, the most extraordinary sight beheld us.  We were transfixed.    Through at least a mile or so of evergreen and Autumnal yellows of forest cascading below us lay an untouched valley with a rivulet of streams and rivers cutting their way through from a massive glacier on the right that we approximated to be at least 5 miles long.  The massive Saskatchewan glacier, which dwarfs the Athabasca glacier at Columbia Icefields, we later learnt, creates the North Saskatchewan river that flows over 700 miles to meet with the Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan and eventually empty into Lake Winnipeg.

Photo taken by Kelly on top of Parkers Ridge, Banff National Park

Our overnight stay in Jasper was in an overpriced hotel that was more like a glamorised hostel, with a shared bathroom for the hallway, but a separate box-shaped bedroom with gold fixtures on the lamps, bed, dresser and windows.  We happily left Jasper bound for the furthest town we could reach before dark.  We remembered to fill up on petrol as the nearest petrol station was a 4 hour drive away.  We entered British Columbia a couple of hours after leaving Jasper.  That night, we made it as far as Burns Lake, a small town at least 200 miles from Terrace.

Photo taken by Kelly at the border of British Columbia

The drive to Burns Lake from Jasper was engrossing, a continuous flow of mountainous peaks and valleys amidst lakes and rivers, endless evergreen trees and the red, oranges and yellows of aspen, cottonwood, alder and other deciduous trees at their Autumnal peak.

Photo taken by Kelly just outside of Burns Lake, British Columbia

Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia along the way to Terrace

Our only stop along the way was spontaneous, about 5 or so hours into the drive.  We noticed a sign that said ‘Ancient Forest’ which piqued our interest.  It turned out that this sign led us to a moderate 1 mile hike through an ancient cedar forest where the cedar trees were as old as 2,000 years.

Photo taken by Udi of an ancient cedar canopy in the ‘Ancient Forest’ in British Columbia

This forest is a temperate rainforest and very rare for being so far inland, especially for North America.  We learned that the golden moss growing on the majority of the trees only forms on trees more than 250 years old.  The intense oxygen and sweet aromas from the ancient cedar forest were more than enough to sustain us for another 5 hours of driving.

Photo taken by Udi of ‘golden moss’ on cedar trees in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia

Photo taken by Udi of me visiting ‘Treebeard’ a cedar tree estimated to be over 1,500 years old in the ‘Ancient Forest’, British Columbia

We also made a brief 5 minute stop to get a good photograph of a ‘No to Enridge Pipeline’ sign.

Photo taken by Kelly in British Columbia, along the way to Terrace

We had noticed several posters plastered onto signs along the way, but this particular one had been rigged up on a bridge over a fast-flowing river just off the highway.  The controversial Enridge Pipeline project is two parallel pipelines from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta to Kitimat, each with a length of over 700 miles.  The primary reason for this proposal is to open Canada’s oil market to China and other Asian countries.  The proposal was first set forth about 7 years ago.  Although there has been a significant amount of financial incentive offered to at least 60 different First Nations communities, not one community has agreed to accept.  The reasoning behind this is not only because of the sacredness of the land historically to all First Nations peoples but also because of the incredible fragility and diversity of the plant and animal life which comprises the temperate rainforest land that the pipeline would pass through, affecting not only salmon runs, but habitat for all species.  National Geographic wrote a special article in August 2011 about the critical protection needed for the Great Bear Rainforest – ‘a wild stretch of western cedar, hemlock, and spruce forest that runs 250 miles down British Columbia’s coast.  Whales, wolves, bears and humans thrive in the rich marine channels and forests of the Great Bear’.  There have been and will continue to be numerous protests about Enridge in Canada and the US.

Photo taken by Udi along the way to Terrace, British Columbia

In addition to Enridge, there are other pipeline projects proposed such as Keystone (running from the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta all the way to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas) and the Trans-Mountain pipeline system from Edmonton to Puget Sound, in Washington state in the US.  Each of these proposed pipelines (Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain) are intensely controversial – particularly for First Nations and Native American communities.  When we were in Victoria after our visit to Terrace, we learned that there was a blockade of activists protesting Keystone in Texas, many of whom were imprisoned.  Daryl Hannah, the actress was among the activists which brought greater media attention to the efforts committed to blocking the construction of Keystone.  These pipelines are highly contentious, but with the economic crisis being such a burden to so many people while the hunger for oil grows, the imagined need for Enridge, Keystone and Trans-Mountain is bound to strengthen.

That night, during our short stay in Burns Lake we were told by the motel owner that he had seen the Northern Lights just a few days before.  We could only hope to be so lucky, this was something that Udi and I both had long wanted to witness.

The next day we drove the 4 or so hours to Terrace, stopping along the way in Smithers, to see one of the Northwest College campuses after noticing a sign.  The Freda Diesing School of Indigenous Arts is also a part of the Northwest Community College satellite campuses and we were curious to visit the NWCC Smithers campus.  In Smithers, we learned, students can take a variety of courses not only in education and computer technology, but also preparatory skills for geological exploration and mining.

Photo taken by Udi of the Smithers campus – Northwest Community College, British Columbia

We arrived in Terrace with much excitement in the middle of the afternoon, finding a place to stay for the next 4 nights with much more difficulty than assumed due to the influx of oil and gas workers in the area at the time.  The symbol of Terrace is the ‘Spirit Bear’ – or the Kermode as it is officially known – a white Black bear, the subject of the National Geographic article mentioned above and an animal of extreme spiritual significance for many First Nations peoples.  The Spirit Bear is notoriously elusive but can occasionally be spotted in this area.  As the Spirit Bear is the symbol of Terrace, there are several life-size sculptures around town, each painted with ovoids and animals symbolic to First Nations communities.

Photo taken by Kelly in front of the Terrace City Municipal Buildings (notice the Spirit Bear 100 metres away)

We decided to quickly drop our stuff off and drive straight down to Kitimaat Village, where the majority of the Haisla First Nations people live, to see a view of the Douglas Channel harbor that leads out to the Pacific Ocean, before dark.  We were also hungry and noticed that there was a recommended restaurant in Kitimaat Village called ‘Sea Masters’.  The drive to Kitimaat is about 50 kilometers south of Terrace.  We were hoping to see the Northern Lights that night…

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