Three months before the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, I found myself in an old school bus traveling through the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca, Mexico. The landscape was unbelievably beautiful. Riding on the curvy roads I saw dense green vegetation and endless chains of mountains.
The Sierra Juarez´ flora and fauna have been preserved because they have powerful allies: indigenous people who have fought for centuries to protect their land, their culture, their way of life, and mother earth. A cloud of butterflies, indicators of the vast biodiversity of the land, greeted me upon my arrival to Santa Gertrudis.
I traveled to Santa Gertrudis to attend the 7thMilpa Festival, an event organized by the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO). During the event, participants from Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil, and Mexico discussed ways to protect their territory and their native seeds.
It was inspiring to watch community organizers and small-scale farmers talk about their experiences of resistance and share their analysis and skills. Despite the efforts of the Mexican government and transnational companies to completely transform rural Mexico into something that they can better exploit and profit from, these communities persevere.
The transformation of rural Mexico
The majority of Mexico’s farmers belong to marginalized indigenous groups. They grow food for their families on small plots of land using ancestral knowledge and sustainable technologies. For many, agriculture is still a sacred and communal activity.
Since NAFTA, government agricultural programs have supported multinational corporations and large agribusinesses instead of small-scale farmers, whose inability to compete have resulted in increased poverty, and mass migration to the United States.
The Mexican government is working together with U.S. companies (Monsanto, Dow, Pioneer, DuPont, etc.) to transform Mexico’s agriculture into an export-oriented mono-crop system that is dependent on agrochemicals and GMO/hybrid seeds.
The neoliberal ideal is for people to produce food for sale (not for personal use) and that they buy products sold in the global market (made by transnational corporations). This is achieved by creating conditions that make it more expensive to grow food than to buy it, or by imposing government programs that make small-scale farmers dependent on products made by transnational corporations. These strategies end the traditional practices that have allowed indigenous communities to remain self-sufficient and sustainable for centuries.
Indigenous small-scale farmers who want to defend their native seeds and traditional food systems find themselves fighting against these types of government programs as well as a barrage of misinformation from national media campaigns.The most iconic struggle in Mexico thus far, has been the fight to defend native corn.
In defense of corn
Corn was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago and the country holds a huge percentage of the world’s diversity; in the state of Oaxaca alone there are 35 species of corn. In 1998 the Mexican government declared a moratorium on the cultivation of GMO corn. But this type of corn was already being distributed by a federal food safety program that made cheap GMO corn from the United States available to low-income families.
In 2001 Ignacio Chapela, a scientist from Berkeley University, found GMO corn in the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca.The corn was probably planted unwittingly by a farmer that obtained food through the government’s food safety program.
In 2005, the Bio-Security Law of Genetically Modified Organisms opened the doors to GMOs in Mexico. The law, designed to regulate the cultivation of GMO crops in Mexico, is so beneficial to GMO corporations that it became widely known as the Monsanto Law.
In 2009, for the first time in Mexican history, the government granted permissions to cultivate GMO corn in several northern states. Mexico’s current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, recently approved the cultivation of an additional 250,000 hectares.
Small-scale farmers and civil society have been fighting these initiatives all along. Some of their concerns are: the potential health effects of GMOs in humans, the contamination of non-GMO crops, the contamination of the areas of origin of corn, the loss of genetic diversity that could result if cheap GMO corn becomes the standard, the dependency of rural communities on expensive GMO seeds and agrochemicals, the loss of traditional systems of production, and the effects of GMOs and agrochemicals on the environment.Without this resistance, GMOs would probably be the norm in rural Mexico.
Resistance takes place daily when farmers or whole communities refuse to use non-native seeds or agrochemicals. Sometimes this means that they must abstain from participating in government programs.
PROCAMPO, for example, is a government aid program created to support small-scale corn farmers by distributing vouchers for seeds and other agricultural products. Many low-income farmers depend on these types of programs for production. Unfortunately the vouchers can only be used on U.S. hybrid corn and technology packages that include agrochemicals (most of which are produced in the United States).
Another example is the Crusade Against Hunger, one of the main programs of the Peña Nieto administration. The program is known for partnering with multinational corporations to distribute unhealthy processed foods in low-income communities throughout the country to “combat hunger”, instead of promoting healthy foods. Part of the initiative is “Oaxaca’s Program for Self-Sustaining Agriculture”, which aims to provide assistance to small-scale farmers in Oaxaca who produce only enough crops to feed themselves and their families. The model is the same as PROCAMPO’s: farmers receive aid in the form of hybrid seeds and agrochemicals.
For those dependent on government programs there is no option to use native corn or to produce crops in a traditional way. The programs make it more expensive to produce native organic corn, and ensure that farmers will become consumers,dependent on foreign seeds and foreign technology.
Despite the lack of governmental support and the pressure to participate in these programs, indigenous small-scale farmers continue to resist.
In July, farmers, organizations, and activists filed a class action suit against federal authorities and companies who are complicit in the legalization and planting of GMOs in Mexico. On October 10th a federal judge ruled in their favor, suspending all current and future efforts to plant GMOs in Mexico until the resolution of several pending lawsuits. This has offered a glimmer of hope that eventually GMOs will be permanently banned from Mexican soil. The struggle must continue.
At the Milpa Festival I heard many people speak about a possible solutions to these issues: government support of the use of native seeds and ancestral cultivation techniques, valuing and supporting indigenous people’s knowledge, improvement of food production in a way that respects the environment and indigenous peoples’ way of life.
As I remember the faces and the voices of the farmers I met in Santa Gertrudis, I think of all the people in the United States who are fighting a similar battle against GMOs, mono-cultivation, and agrochemicals. But people in the United States have the additional responsibility of holding their government and U.S. corporations accountable for their role in the implementation of so many of the neoliberal policies that are affecting the rural global south. As we work together, trans-nationally, I feel confident that we will win this fight.