Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Defending Corn and Culture in Rural Oaxaca

By Carlin Christy, WfP Mexico Team

Corn is sacred in Mexico. Indigenous groups, of which there are 16 in Oaxaca, consider corn to be a gift from the gods. It forms the basis of the way they have structured their communities, marked the cycles of the year, and maintained their fundamental connection to the land for thousands of years.

Despite corn’s 8000+ year history of cultivation in Oaxaca, present-day threats could possibly wipe out the traditional, sustainable farming practices used by indigenous farmers in the region.

One of these threats is the massive out-migration that Oaxaca has experienced for several decades. Some rural communities are virtually abandoned, with half-constructed homes waiting in anticipation of their owners (unlikely) return from the north.

Other threats are environmental. Climate change has made weather patterns erratic. Heavy rains or extreme droughts can wipe out an entire harvest, leaving small scale farmers wondering what they are going to eat for the next year.

A very real threat to the native seeds which have been passed down over time is the introduction of genetically modified seeds in Mexico. GMO corn has already been found in Oaxaca, and the Mexican government has approved a pilot project of planting Monsanto’s GMO corn in the northern part of the country.

For over 18 years now, the North American Free Trade Agreement has lead to the devastation of the Mexican countryside, through removing price supports and credits to small farmers like the ones in Oaxaca. Through subsidies from the U.S. government, large scale agribusinesses can sell their corn below the cost of production, undermining Mexican farmers’ abilities to sell their own crops at a decent price.

Collectively, these threats have lead to an abandonment of the countryside. The present day reality is that much of the knowledge of traditional farming techniques is in the hands of a rapidly aging population. With so many factors pushing people off of the land and out of the countryside, there are few youth left behind to inherit the knowledge which has been passed down for thousands of years.

For this reason, the organization CEDICAM (Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca) has been working for over 25 years to preserve the land and traditional planting techniques of the Mixteca Region.

In order to share knowledge and provide a forum to discuss the threats to small scale farming, CEDICAM hosts an annual “Feria de la Milpa.” The “milpa” refers to the integral planting system which features corn, beans, squash, and wild edible plants all growing together in the same plot.

At this year’s third annual fair, 18 local Mixtecan communities proudly displayed their native seeds, crops, and traditional dishes made from these ingredients. CEDICAM staff also read a declaration which reinforced their commitment to preserve and protect the traditional sustainable farming practices that lead to greater food sovereignty for some of Oaxaca’s most vulnerable small farmers.

The slide show below includes pictures from the Feria de la Milpa. Click on each photo to see text that explains each photograph. Additionally, the captions can be found below.

Photo 1: Welcome to the 3rd Milpa Fair
The banner reads "The milpa is a legacy from our ancestors, to practice and promote it enriches our knowledge and the productive systems developed by indigenous men and women, small farmers, contributing to the food security of our families and communities, and the biodiversity of our region."

Photo 2: Local Crops

Photo 3: Local crops
Featured crops include radishes, carrots, corn, oregano, squash, wheat, peas, and chiles.

Photo 4: Small farmers
These women grow all of the food featured on their table here in small plots of land next to their homes in rural Oaxaca.

Photo 5: Native Corn Seeds

Photo 6: Small farmer or "campesino"
Joel is a small farmer in a community about 2 hours outside of Oaxaca city. He grows organic tomatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers and cilantro. Many small farmers who continue to work the land are in their 50's, 60's and 70's like Joel. Getting youth to stay on the land --and not migrate-- is an ongoing struggle that seriously threatens the future of farming in Oaxaca and other Mexican states that have historically been based upon small scale agriculture.

Photo 7: Blue Corn Seeds
"Seasonal Blue Corn. Planting date-June. Production Date- September. Withstands drought." These seeds and many more were available for trading between the different communities present at the Feria de la Milpa.

Photo 8: Native Beans and Corn

Photo 9: Squash or "calabaza"
Squash or calabaza as it is known in Spanish. This crop is one of the three integral components that make up the milpa system. The other components are corn and beans which are grown together in the same plot along with the squash. This is an ancient technique used in Oaxaca for thousands of years and CEDICAM is working to revive and preserve this practice.

Photo 10: Native Corn

Photo 11: WfP signing the Cedicam Declaration
Witness for Peace Mexico Team Member Moravia de la O signs in support of CEDICAM's declaration to preserve and protect indigenous farming practices in the state of Oaxaca. The declaration called for a ban on GMO seeds entering Oaxaca and for resistance to neoliberal economic models based on market fundamentalism.

Photo 12: Music
Music to celebrate the hard work of CEDICAM and all of the farmers at the Fair.

For a direct link to view these photos in flickr, click here. To learn more about CEDICAM’s work, watch this video presentation by staff member and farmer, Eleazar Garcia.

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