Mexico is corn
The tide is turning in Mexico toward food sovereignty.

Posted November 9, 2006


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Food sovereignty or food autarchy is still a political pipe dream, but not a slogan. Via Campesina, a global grassroots movement of small family farmers and campesinos, has been lobbying the international system for several years on behalf of family and peasant farming, biodiversity and indigenous people. It has made food sovereignty a respected policy option in societies struggling to get out of the colonial legacy of the plantations, whereby most of the best land is still in the hands of a few families or corporations.

Seen in this spirit, food self-reliance or sovereignty focuses attention on the dangerous imbalance between the massive accumulation of land and power by agribusiness and cash-crop plantations, the near landlessness and landlessness of peasants in the tropics, and the precarious status of small family farmers in North America and Europe. Food sovereignty, in fact, captures the expectations of peasant culture and of small family farmers, especially those pushed to the brink of extinction. For example, the number of black farmers in the United States declined by 98 percent in the twentieth century.

This threat strikes a sensitive chord in the culture of Mexican campesinos because campesinos rely on crops like corn and beans that are embedded in their land and religion and life, allowing no loss of land without disastrous consequences. Corn and beans, for example, are indispensable in the life of the Mexican campesino and in the life of Mexico. While in Mexico City attending a Rural Coalition conference on peasant and family farming, my colleagues and I ate beans and corn three times a day.

Corn is Mexico, and Mexico is corn. Thus bringing into Mexico—especially in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, two of Mexico’s most impoverished regions—“free trade” that auctions peasant land like it was a commodity is an invitation to the dissolution of Mexican culture (and Mexico).

Corn was the chief topic of complaint of the campesinos at the Rural Coalition conference. Attendees worried about the introduction into Mexico of American corn, produced so cheaply by state-subsidized giant agribusiness firms and large farmers in America that it competes nicely with Mexico’s own campesino corn. They blamed the North American Free Trade Agreement for that, demanding that NAFTA be renegotiated, leaving agriculture alone. They worried also that the imported American corn, mostly hybrid and genetically engineered, could contaminate their corn—the center of origin of zea mays—with catastrophic consequences.

However, what touched me the most was the campesinos’ quiet determination of maintaining their culture, defending their sacred corn, practicing and living (to the degree they could) food sovereignty, teaching each other, and bringing to their communities the encouraging message of the Rural Coalition that other people like them—those from North America—cared for them. Nothing could be higher than that. They heard of the problems North American black and Hispanic farmers and farm workers faced, so they knew they were brothers and sisters in everything.

Listening to a campesina proudly defending her way of life, how she planned to give encouragement to other women in her village, a little bit every day, reminded me of the lessons taught, in the 1960s, by the famous Brazilian anthropologist Paulo Freire, lessons of consciousness-raising: understanding one’s needs, building one’s moral character, self-esteem, solidarity, and resisting the intruders. I told her that and she nearly cried, hugging me and thanking me. I did the same thing back, thanking her for her courage and wisdom.

The agrarian hope, I said later on to myself, had a future in Mexico where 25 million campesinos still raise food or live in the countryside close to those raising food. The import of US corn is making campesinos landless, forcing them to become illegal migrants to the US, something that is good neither for them nor us. They also resent their forced destitution.

American corn, however, is politicizing more Mexicans than the campesinos. The result is that Mexico is not quiet at all, having “elected” two presidents, one elected by the elite, who is likely to succeed Vicente Fox. This man got the support of those who see NAFTA as a good thing; the other, the campesinos’ president, received the votes of the suffering majority. The two presidents provoke daily protests, anxiety, solidarity and discussion. Above all, the majority of Mexicans resort to actions of resistance that are making a difference in protecting Mexico’s corn, putting a brake in the corporate agenda of expelling the campesinos from the land. So the campesinas’ quiet determination is the determination of millions.

E.G. Vallianatos

E.G. Vallianatos, a former US EPA analyst, is the author of “This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World” (Common Courage Press, 2006).