In Part 1, we met Armando, the Schools for Chiapas coordinator of the effort to restore the ancient Mayan system of sustainable food forests in the regions of Chiapas, Mexico, in consultation with Zapatista educators. In Part Two we explore the mortal threat posed by NAFTA and the heroic resistance to the attempts to culturally, and at times physically, exterminate the First Peoples of southern Mexico.
The mortal threat posed by U.S. corn to the people who first domesticated it is not the cheapness of Midwestern maize but its bio-engineered genetic uniformity. According to a 2017 study by scientists from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), GMO corn from north of the border has infiltrated up to 90 percent of corn tortillas and 82 percent of all corn-based products throughout Mexico.
Wind riding GMO corn pollen contaminates non-GMO fields with ease leading to a loss of genetic diversity that makes any living system less resilient and at greater risk for catastrophic plagues. And the myriad creatures who live in the rivers and streams that absorb runoff from nearby GMO fields when the rains come? Collateral damage, whose numbers and health can only be guessed at.
Superweeds are already appearing in GMO fields in the U.S., descendants of hardy survivors who passed their immunity to Roundup weed killer onto future generations. Loathe to listen to any messages coming from lifeforms not wearing an Iowa Hawkeyes cap or banker’s suit, the engineers at Monsanto are at work on second generation GMO crops, escalating their biochemical arms race against nature herself.
Monsanto, which produces 80 percent of U.S. GMO corn, prohibits farmers from sharing Monsanto seeds with other farmers or planting seeds they have not purchased from the agro-giant, seeds that must be bought anew every year. In Monsanto world, ancient practices like seed banks and 10,000 years of farmers sharing and experimenting with seeds have become illegal. A living, genetically modified page from dystopian science fiction has pollinated reality: the seeds of a nation’s food supply are now owned by distant multinational agro-chemical corporations. Slavery as Progress.
An unknown group training in the mountains of Chiapas saw it all coming: When the Zapatista Army of National Liberation swept out of the jungles and into the world’s consciousness on January 1, 1994, Subcomandante Marcos left no doubt as to why the day was chosen:
“Today the North American Free Trade Agreement begins, which is nothing more than a death sentence to the indigenous ethnicities of Mexico, who are perfectly dispensable in the modernization program…”
Twenty-four years later food forests have become a critical part of the Zapatista firewall blocking the invasion of GMO corn, along with Mother Seeds in Resistance, a Schools for Chiapas initiative that helps inform the descendants of the Mayan agronomists who first domesticated corn on the risks of GMO crops as well as providing test kits, enabling farmers to check their fields for contamination. And unlike Monsanto, the Zapatistas share their seeds with growers all over the world.
Armando reports that 95% of the crops grown in the caracoles are GMO and pesticide free, the lynch-pin of the Zapatista backed effort to achieve food sovereignty, or self-sufficiency, in some of the Mexico’s poorest villages. The researchers from UNAM back up Armando’s claim. They found that “Tortillas made in peasant communities solely from native maize (grown in those communities) contained almost NO transgenic proteins or glyphosate”. [A herbicide and known carcinogen, glyphosate is the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO corn is unaffected by the glyphosate sprayed on it because the corn has been genetically engineered to be resistant.]
Backed by multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns, the lure of GMO crops, along with chemical herbicides and pesticides, is undeniable. Yields from GMO fields can be from 5 to 25 percent higher than organic, and using natural methods to combat pests and weeds can be more difficult and time-consuming than spraying chemicals.
How to convince desperately poor farmers not to use pesticides or other shortcuts that offer immediate productivity gains in exchange for long-term environmental damage and dependency on distant multinational chemical companies and agribusiness conglomerates?
“It’s a process of education” Armando replies, who is not himself a Zapatista but works closely with them through the Schools for Chiapas initiative. “And it’s difficult, it’s not easy. The work is constant. We must begin by changing our own lives. It begins in the house, to have values, to do things differently. And from there, things need to be different in our government. If they (the PRI-Green coalition that rules Chiapas) offers me a house, or bricks, or a roof, I don’t want it. I want a good school, a good hospital, and justice.”
From the more things change the more they stay the same department, cultural archeologists recently unearthed a passage from B. Traven’s General from the Jungle, a 1939 novel about a peasant uprising in Chiapas:
“…the conception of libertad was nothing more than the clear, simple wish to be left in peace from everything connected with the government, State welfare, increased production, economic development, capture of markets, obedience, duties without rights, docile submission to the national destiny, and whatever other such senseless and idiotic virtues as were pumped into them…”
After military attempts to annihilate the Zapatista Army failed, the Federal and State Governments began mixing carrots in with their still swinging sticks. As with political machines everywhere, regular folks who accept help, ranging from building materials to pipped in drinking water, pay with their political support. The more they play ball the more rewards they may gain, but these people begin to be passive or sometimes active participants in a deeply corrupt and violent system. The differences between the ins and the outs sometimes fall along tribal lines, often the flash point is a land or water rights dispute.
For example, starting in October of last year masked paramilitaries drove over 5,000 men, women and children out of their homes in Chalchihuitan, an hour north of San Cristóbal. Terrified of the roving gunmen, the people scattered, sleeping in small groups under tarps on mountainsides where nighttime winter temperatures fall to near freezing. There are no reliable numbers on how many died of exposure, but at least four children and babies are among the dead. The still ongoing attacks stem from a land dispute between two neighboring Tzotzil communities, only one of which has access to military-grade assault rifles — a mystery no one in the state government can explain.
Traditionally a river marked the peaceful boundary between Chalchihuitan and Chenalho, the neighboring municipality. A 1973 decision by Mexican Government moved that border, drawing new, artificial lines in the name of ‘reform’, and violence has flared ever since.
State governments all over Mexico still resort to massive violence if confronted by even peaceful attempts by indigenous organizers to build parallel power structures.
During these attacks, law enforcement officers are mysteriously absent. In the case of the massacre in Acteal, Chiapas, State police actually set up a roadblock just above the tiny town, directing traffic away as armed men burst into Acteal’s Sunday morning church service shooting, and then hunting the men, women, and children who had managed to flee into the canyon below. The killers took two hours to kill 45 people, including four pregnant women whose babies were cut out of their mothers’ stomachs. Wooden crosses on the walls of the sanctuary still bear the bullet holes. Somehow the police, and soldiers in the army barracks right next to the town never heard the shooting or the screaming. Acteal’s crime? Being the birthplace of the Las Abejas (The Bees) a pacifist Catholic community organization in sympathy with Zapatista goals.
In the mountain towns above San Cristóbal Armando explained how you can tell who is with the government. They have newer, red roofs — not a small thing in a climate with lots of rain.
But we also see other houses further up in the mountains with hand-drawn paintings of Emiliano Zapata covering their doors. A few kilometers away from the Oventic Caracol a Mexican Army truck zooms by. Infantrymen sit in the two open benches in the back dressed in freshly pressed jungle camo. They’re squeezed in shoulder to shoulder, sporting U.S. style helmets (with camo mesh covering) and assault rifles. The army has constructed two new forts, one on either side of Oventic. An uneasy peace continues to hold, but the attempts at intimidation and surveillance are intentionally obvious. One-third of the entire Mexican Army is now based in Mexico’s poorest state.
As with GMO seeds and pesticides also for government-funded carrots — it must be a hard sell, convincing folks with very little not to accept them.
“Ultimately, it’s not worth it”, replied Armando. “It’s not worth selling yourself for a gift.”
Building food self-sufficiency while using only natural methods requires bushels of optimism and more than a soupcon of faith to keep hacking a path around the ruins of numerous ideas that sound good but don’t work out.
“Humans were made to experiment”, says Armando with a broad smile. Sprinkling a trail of tortilla or breadcrumbs so that ants will leave plants alone, planting corn along with squash and beans together, or further apart…farmers have always been inveterate experimenters, and that open spirit animates the food forests program.
But every so often regrets from better times, long lost times, blow through, riding on the same winds that bring life-giving rain, and filled the sails of the conquistadors.
End of Part II. The third and concluding installment will explore libraries of Mayan knowledge forever lost and hopes for a future modeled on the humblest of creatures.
[Updated 2108-07-23: Just after this reporter left Chiapas, Armando, who has done so much to help get the food forest program off the ground, suffered a massive stroke. Readers wishing to help can go to a GoFundMe page or this Facebook page.]