Mexico: Celebrating Indigenous Culture, Zapotec Autonomy and Uncontaminated Corn

Santa Gertrudis, Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca – The 4th annual Zapotec Feria of the Cornfield – Globalization and the Natural Resources – was held in Santa Gertrudis, Sierra Juarez on February 7-8. Organized by the Union of Social Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO), this year´s event was attended by representatives of UNOSJO´s 24 affiliated communities, participants from all over Mexico, along with a large international presence of activists from Uruguay to Wales, Turkey to the United States, as well as a 15-strong delegation of German Organic farmers.

This year´s theme was focused on the dangers of contamination from Genetically Modified (GM) Corn, with a showcase of indigenous corn based culture and food sovereignty.

“We plant corn for the well-being of the communities,” said community leader, Rodrigo Santiago Hernandez during the opening plenary, emphasizing the importance of the culture of corn for the Zapotecs.“If we don’t cultivate corn, we have no life. It is central to our existence. We are the people of corn.”

Or as the old saying goes – no hay pais, sin maiz (there is no country without maize).

Community President, Baltazar Felix, elaborated, “To be a campesino or campesina allows us to respect and understand the profound worth of our madre tierra (mother earth). Corn is the basis for our expression of autonomy and central to our usos y costumbres (practices and customs), which represent our Zapotec culture and indigenous way of life. “

Contaminated maize was first detected in Oaxaca in 2001, resulting in a serious threat to the biodiversity of the native species, because, as explained by Ana de Ita from CECCAM (Center of Studies for Change in the Mexican Countryside), “ genetically-modified crops have the potential to cross-breed with native crops, altering the evolution of the entire population”.

Pandering to the lobbyists from the bio-tech and agricultural industry interests like Cargill Corporation and Monsanto, the Neo-liberal PAN government of President Calderon reversed the 1998 ban on genetically-engineered seeds this March. Twenty-five pilot projects sowing transgenic seeds were begun in Northern Mexico. Genetically modified pollen has the capacity to travel great distances via wind or water sources, thereby threatening to contaminate the whole Mexican corn race.

Canadian Mining Companies, US Pig Factories and Imperialist Mappers

Beyond the contamination of native corn, other pressing issues facing rural farmers in Oaxaca were outlined by the Zapotec representatives during the first day of the meeting.

The resumption of heavy mining in the Ocotlan region by Canadian multinational Fortuna Silver was heavily criticized by a representative from the front-line community of Cuilapam:

“We don’t want the mine. We don’t want our water source polluted and our environment destroyed. We, the local inhabitants were never consulted but now we are making our presence known.” Communities surrounding the mining region have being carrying out direct action against the mining company, mobilizing the population to block access on the roads, and stopping trucks and heavy machinery.”

Canadian mining companies are not the only foreign industry negatively impacting the lives of the Zapotec indigenous. Concerns are raised about large-scale industrial farm animal production overseen by US agro-giants Tyson and Smithfield, generally held responsible for the outbreak of Swine Flu in November 2009, emanating from their enormous pig-factory facilities in nearby Valle de Perote, Veracruz. 64,322 cases of Swine Flu were confirmed in Mexico, resulting in 573 deaths.

The rich and abundant natural resources of the stunningly beautiful Sierra Juarez have also come under the scrutiny of more high-tech intruders. In 2009, Zapotec communities led by UNOSJO expelled US geographers mapping the region with GPS and data processing technology for failing to reveal their connections with the US military or their use of Pentagon contractor Radiance Technologies. Charging the Kansas University geographers with geo-piracy – stealing the traditional knowledge of the indigenous communities – the academics left in disgrace and subsequently were not heard from again. UNOSJO outlined how the military-funded geo-pirates had successfully been stopped in their tracks, and through the employment of people-power and media pressure, the affected Zapotec communities were able to protect and preserve their cultural heritage.

Usos y Costumbres

Nevertheless, the 4th annual Zapotec Feria of the Cornfield – Globalization and the Natural Resources – is not only concerned with the problems and struggles facing the Zapotec communities, but is also a celebration of their rich culture and food sovereignty. Day two of the feria brought a festive culinary demonstration of a myriad of corn dishes and locally produced food.

Among the various bustling stalls, the cooks explained their skills and techniques. A range of mouth-watering corn recipes were on the menu, including atole blanco, tortilla de platano, totpos de maiz, pozol, pozoncle, atole, tamales de 3 picos, mazorcas, and canavalia. Each dish can trace its origins to a particular place or district mapping the diversity of corn uses in Sierra Juarez. Alongside the dishes are source community names like Silvano Cruz Cruz, Santa Maria Temaxcalpa, San Cristóbal Lachirioag or Asunción Lachixila.

“Without money I can’t buy corn or beans. But if I plant the seeds, I can eat even if I don’t have money,” said Dona Maria from Lachixila. Explaining the connection between food self sufficiency and autonomy, she outlined the philosophy of the usos y costumbres. “A people who have to buy their seeds – in place of having a local bank of seeds held over from all the years – and who have to go out and buy their own food, these are people who cannot govern themselves.”

Autonomy is the cornerstone of the culture and political struggle of the Zapotec indigenous. With legal recognition of their traditional usos y costumbres, they are afforded a sense of identity and continuation with the past. The absence of state presence, or federal police and the army, in the communities is noticeable. We foreigners were treated to the somewhat surreal sight of autonomy in action as community authorities bundled a definitely worse for wear drunk in the community jail. “Before he hurts himself,” whispered Don Armando into my ear, himself enjoying the fine locally produced mescal that was the cause of that disheveled prisoners misfortune. Somewhat comically, the cheerfully painted village jail is positioned underneath the village comedor, or restaurant.

Looking Towards the Future

The drunk tank dweller undergoes a rude awaking on the third and final day of the Feria with the appearance of a 12-piece local brass band thundering their tunes directly outside the jail cell during the communal breakfast. More autonomous community punishment?

The highlight of Day Three was a tour of a cornfield and an exhibition of traditional small scale agricultural methods.

“The government would prefer that we all emigrated or worked in maquiladoras,” said Don Carlos, proudly showing the visitors his family corn patch, straddling the side of a steep mountain side, every inch of which he had patiently and painfully worked with machete and hoe. “They don’t want us to remain as campesinos. They say we are unproductive and useless. But we are going to stay here, in our cornfields, in our communities because this is what we want; this is what the people want.”

Back at the plenum, Zapotec leader Aldo Gonzalez of UNOSJO sums up the themes of the feria and articulates the conclusions of the event.

“The contamination of corn by means of transgenic seeds is a crime, because in this way, not only the food chain, but also our culture is contaminated. Corn is the base of resistance; it is water, land, culture. We have an intimate relationship with the land. That’s why we protect and conserve the diverse varieties of criolla maize which we have improved over the length of history and in this manner, we are defending our ancestral knowledge.”

Ramor Ryan is an Irish journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico. His book Clandestines: the Pirate Journals of an Irish Exile was published by AK Press in 2006.