“If the Malanga is split at the top, or tears easily, it’s poisonous.” Seizing the tip in his hands, Armando tried to rip the leaf along its central axis. Three feet long and nearly two feet across the translucent green leaf lives up to the plant’s alternate name, elephant ear. “This is a good one. If you cut the root into thin strips you can boil or fry them. Malanga is rich in potassium and provides three times the nourishment of the potato; and it tastes better.”
We’re inside the Schools for Chiapas building in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, walking through the experimental heart of a project that’s recreating the Mayan perennial food forests destroyed by enslavement in Spanish encomiendas (roughly equivalent to plantations in the U.S. South) and “development”. Jointly sponsored by Schools for Chiapas and educators from Morelia, one of five autonomous zones, or caracoles, run by the Zapatistas, the food forest project seeks out ancient earth-based wisdom by using the latest technology to connect with farmers, herbalists, and healers all over the world.
Four hundred ninety-nine years after Cortez landed in Mexico the attacks on the earth are coordinated on a global scale, and now so is the defense.
“Building a world where many worlds fit.” Following the well-known Zapatista slogan, nearly 50 of the plants have come to this open-air botanical incubator from beyond Mexico’s borders, including a persimmon tree from Japan whose fruit “tastes like mango”, according to Armando, the coordinator of the Schools for Chiapas food forest nursery and a man who, though not a Zapatista himself, works closely with Zapatista educators in determining the best plants for a given school.
We stop in the middle of a narrow path made of wooden slats.
Edible and medicinal plants surround us, reaching for the grey sky above but it’s the black earth below, in pots, little tubs, and plastic bags that provide this cosmopolitan conclave of vines, bushes, tubers, and junior trees with room and board.
“Where do you get all this good dirt? “
Armando didn’t answer right away. He just smiled and kneeling down pulled up a slat and peeled back a top layer of burlap mesh revealing earth. Earth: wet, black and darkest brown. Festooned with eggshells, moving with worms, beetles, and life. For bipeds prone to leaving their heads in the clouds the scene was a reminder from long before there were words or people to speak them that the life we see all around us came from, will end in, and couldn’t survive without the teeming organic networks beneath our feet.
“Composta”, Armando announced. We’d been walking on a covered bridge. There was a good foot of empty space between the bottom layer of burlap and the ground below. As if on the double-decked portion of the Oakland Bay Bridge the upper level was pedestrian only and the lower level filled with compost.
“We water the compost to keep it wet,” explained Armando, “and the liquid drains through the soil and into that bucket”. He pointed to a large topless bucket that just fit under one of the bridge’s mini stanchions.
“The liquid is then poured in into this bottle,” Armando picked up and shook a closed, half-filled jug standing sentry under the opposite stanchion, “which we give to the plants to make them greener, and estan a gusto”. (The translation here is comfortable, or at their ease, but gusto has broader and deeper roots. In this case, a common sense recognition, never lost among the farming people of Chiapas and many other places, of life’s continuum.)
Since the project started in 2015, baby food forests have been planted in 17 different high schools in the Morelia caracol. Each school has a garden fit for its environment. In contrast to People’s movements in the past, which were often steered by a centralized, top-down power structure, ‘leading from behind’ is an article of faith frequently recited by Zapatistas and those who work with them:
“We don’t arrive at a school to give orders”, Armando says. “First we meet with the community and ask them what kinds of plants they want. We research their answers and prepare everything. When we come back we hold three-day classes on caring for the plants.”
The collaborative style of the food forest plantings follows the template of the entire Zapatista educational system. The instructors at the Zapatista High Schools in the caracoles are called promotores, not teachers, to emphasize both the non-hierarchal style of instruction and also the content: determining what students want and need to learn, knowledge that fits their situation and village, with instruction in the students’ first language. The one size fits all approach of state or church-run education has been left behind.
“We all keep learning,” says Armando with a smile, “often from the most senior residents. So much knowledge has been lost but not everything…for example, if you harvest corn under a full moon it will be more resistant to pests; and the best earth for fertilizer comes from under the oldest trees, where the mushrooms grow.”
Maize, or corn, will make an appearance in nearly any conversation about food in Chiapas. The state is rich in ancient varieties, spangled with kernels that can be black or white, yellow, red, blue or green. Yet 80% of the state’s residents live below the Mexican Federal Government’s poverty level.
People living in what is today southern Mexico and northern Guatemala were the first to domesticate corn, about 10,000 years ago. Before the Spanish declared, under pain of death, that the first humans were made of Middle Eastern dust, the Mayans worshiped a Corn God who was unique in their pantheon for always being shown in human form, albeit often springing from a corn stock. And for good reason: According to the Popol Vuh, the Mayan Book of the Community, Plumed Serpent and Hurricane first tried making humans out of earth but the frequents rains that make Mayan lands so much greener than the Middle East kept dissolving the earth people. They tried wood next, but the wooden people all drowned in a great flood. The third time proved to be the charm—made from corn dough, people have lived in this part of the world ever since. So for the folks living in these mountains and valleys eating corn was and perhaps still is an act of physical and metaphysical renewal.
Driving through the mountainside villages above San Cristóbal, Armando points out a few of the 59 varieties of corn native to Mexico. A Mayan people, the Tzotzil have been here as far back as human memory reaches.
The native maize, standing in small, often slanting plots in front of family homes, displays a range of shapes, colors and sizes not seen in the U.S. A major reason for the yellow or white uniformity of U.S. corn is that 90 percent of it is GMO. And thanks to NAFTA, cheap U.S. GMO corn has flooded into Mexico. When it came to maize, Mexico before NAFTA was not only self-sufficient, it produced a surplus for export. In 2016, 22 years after NAFTA took effect, Mexico imported one-third of the corn it consumed from the U.S., some 14 million tons at the cost of $2.6 billion.
With NAFTA, import tariffs on U.S. corn disappeared and family farmers in southern Mexican states like Chiapas and Oaxaca had zero chance of competing against U.S. agribusiness with its enormous advantages in economies of scale, technology, and generous U.S. Government subsidies. Nine years into the trade agreement the average monthly income of self-employed Mexican farmers had fallen from a pre-NAFTA level of 1,950 Pesos a month to 228 Pesos. By 2007, 2 million Mexican farmers had lost their land due to the trade agreement.
End of Part I. In Part II, we’ll see how the people of the maize fought back.
[Updated 2108-07-18] 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.