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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.