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.
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.
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)
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.