On a sunny late September day in the dry hills of the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca State, twelve visiting food activists, including myself, plus two interpreters are in a small mud-walled hut meeting with Eleazar Garcia and Phil Dahl-Bredine of the Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca (CEDICAM). We are in CEDICAM’s Milpa Museum, which despite its humble size, is packed with an impressive array of information and artifacts utilized by Eleazar and Phil to guide our group on a tour through the history of the region and CEDICAM’s efforts to restore the land and culture.
Through the museum, community projects, fairs, workshops and media, CEDICAM educates the public and campesinos, or small scale farmers, about the history of the Mixteca’s land, belief systems, traditions, architecture and agriculture and how they can help remedy current problems. They promote the use of traditional and appropriate technologies (sustainable and affordable tech) such as reforestation, development of corn seeds through selective breeding, sustainable water and soil preservation techniques, green composting, and milpas, an organic agricultural system that produces large yields and mixes a variety of crops, usually including maize (corn), beans and squash. CEDICAM also works with groups such as Witness for Peace to share knowledge with visitors that can benefit communities in other parts of the world.
For 10 days in September I was a member of one of the delegations to Oaxaca organized by Witness for Peace (WfP). Our itinerary was loaded with experiences like our meeting at CEDICAM, focusing on global trade, food sovereignty, migration, indigenous rights and agro-ecology (the application of ecological principles to agricultural techniques). WfP is an international grassroots organization founded in 1983 in response to U.S. Government-supported violence in Nicaragua perpetrated by Contra soldiers. They advocate peace, justice and sustainable economies by changing harmful U.S. Government and corporate policies. The WfP Oaxaca office opened in the Summer of 2006. During this period state violence against striking teachers seeking living wages and improved working conditions led to many deaths and human rights abuses.
Carlin Christy and Tony Macias, our delegation’s WfP guides and interpreters, also shared a wealth of information about the histories of Mexico, WfP and corporate globalization as well as practical skills to improve our group’s cohesion and functionality such as anti-oppressive practice and consensus decision making. All of the delegates also had much knowledge and a diversity of experience to contribute to these discussions and to our conversations with Oaxacan farmers and activists.
As explained by Eleazar, Mixteca means “place of clouds” because long ago it was an environment with regular rainfall and lush vegetation. Today it’s one of the poorest regions in Mexico and one of the most eroded areas in the world. The importation of goats, sheep, pigs and construction methods by the Spanish led to mass deforestation and soil erosion. More recently, some farmers use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and machinery that damages and compacts soil leading to increased crop failures, water runoff and worsened erosion. Besides the ecological damage, a devastated local economy made worse by unjust free trade policies has forced many young farmers to emigrate. Eleazar and CEDICAM’s goal is to provide the community with hopeful alternatives to preserve the land and natural resources so that people don’t have to leave for the U.S. and elsewhere to support themselves and their families.
Before our arrival at CEDICAM we met with a variety of allied groups based in Oaxaca doing equally important and beneficial work on related issues but with differences in focus and approach. The first organization we visited was an NGO called Services for an Alternative Education (EDUCA). According to Miguel Angel Vasquez de la Rosa, a founding member of EDUCA, their focus is on two main goals, democratization of Oaxacan communities and the defense of rights of disenfranchised Oaxacans. One of their projects is “Our Rights Are Born From Our Roots” a campaign to train and organize communities through forums and media on the issue of rights; namely, self-determination, rights to land and resources, political rights of women and rights to education.
Another project, “The Initiative for Peace and Justice”, is a partnership with allied groups to create a truth commission for state-sanctioned crimes against activists. Miguel also shared recent data about Oaxaca State: its population is about 3.8 million people, it has over 500 municipalities, 16 indigenous groups and 8 major geographical regions. It’s the second poorest Mexican state after Chiapas with high child malnutrition and maternal death rates and approximately 76% living in poverty. The majority of work in Oaxaca is connected to agriculture and many farmers lost their livelihoods after the implementation of NAFTA in the 90s. He estimates that today about 60% of youth entering the job market are unemployed, forcing many to emigrate or enter the black market.
The next morning we visited Zaira de la Rosa Jiminez, Martha Miranda and Pete Noll of Puente a la Salud Comunitaria, a group promoting food sovereignty through cultivation and distribution of amaranto, or amaranth crops. Amaranth is a plant related to quinoa and is indigenous to Asia and Mesoamerica (in fact, it is one of Mesoamerica’s oldest crops). Puente views amaranth as an ideal crop to help overcome the problem of malnutrition. It’s higher in protein than rice, wheat and corn, contains more fiber and less carbohydrates and is gluten-free. Amaranth is a practical and affordable crop because it’s highly drought-resistant, easily harvested, grows quickly and is easy to cook. After having had a chance to try amaranth in the forms of breakfast cereals, snack bars, and drinks, I would add that it’s also delicious.
That afternoon we met with farmers in the milpa system where the amaranth plants are grown with corn, zucchini, and pata de leon, a type of red flower used in Day of the Dead celebrations. At the end of the day we travelled to the library in Mazaltepec to meet with town authorities, campesinos, mothers, and their families. We discussed our respective backgrounds and their struggles as a community including protecting crops from GMOs, inability to compete with cheap subsidized corn from the U.S., and how that has contributed to economic problems forcing people in the community to emigrate.
Following Puente, we joined a large contingent from Red Autonoma para la Soberania Alimentaria (RASA), an autonomous network of people working for food sovereignty through training workshops, urban gardening and sharing of knowledge and resources. Representatives including Aerin Dunford, Lydia Zarate Ubieta and Jorge Narvaes Perez showed us some of the current projects of RASA members such as mushroom cultivation, a rooftop garden, a cornfield and apricot orchard on the city outskirts, and even invited us into the home of some of the RASA members where we had a feast featuring some of the best tortillas and oyster mushrooms I’ve ever tasted.
From there we returned to the central district of Oaxaca City where we met with Wilfred Mendoza, a member of the board of directors of the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez, Oaxaca (UNOSJO). They’re a prominent social organization which promotes sustainable economies, self-determination and respect for indigenous culture through media, technical assistance, fairs, educational workshops and conflict resolution for rural landowners. Wilfred sees agro-ecology as an ancient technology whose resurgence is essential for food sovereignty and a fundamental part of defending indigenous rights, a view shared by Beatriz Salinas and Esperanza Pilar Chagoya Minguer of the Center for Indigenous Rights Flor y Canto, whom we visited the next day.
Flor y Canto is a human rights center that promotes indigenous rights with a focus on women’s empowerment and the protection of natural resources through education, denouncement of rights violations, legal defense, and support of allied groups such as the People’s Committee for the Defense of Water. They see an extreme polarity between indigenous cultures that care for the earth and a capitalist system that commodifies and destroys the earth. Many laws are dictated by money and capital so one of Flor y Canto’s roles is to create spaces where solidarity and humanity are respected. By helping indigenous communities obtain water through well construction projects and legal defense of water rights, they’re also addressing the problem of emigration. The national water commission ConAgua charges for water at price levels beyond what many campesinos can afford. During drought years such as in 2006, waves of migrations occurred because farmers couldn’t access enough water to irrigate crops.
After our delegation’s meeting with CEDICAM, we travelled further out to the countryside to San Pedro Coxcaltepec where we had an opportunity to stay with a local family of subsistence farmers dealing with many of the issues we learned about throughout the previous week. While there we had an opportunity to speak to town elders, learn about different aspects of the local culture, learn more about the work involved in managing a milpa, as well as participate in the work by shoveling and mixing green compost. This was an especially valuable segment of the delegation because it gave us a glimpse into the daily experience of Oaxacan campesinos, revealed a sense of the beauty and challenges of life in the Mixteca, and gave us time to bond with the family. It’s one thing to read about struggles of farmers or even hear about them through allied advocacy groups, but to meet campesinos who express their concerns directly while sharing their hospitality (as we also did with Puente and RASA) is an empathic experience creating a personal connection to the issues we came to Oaxaca to learn about. This will undoubtedly inspire all of us in the delegation to make use of the knowledge passed on to us in our own lives and to share it with others. Given the current political and economic situation in America and most of the world, strategies for food sovereignty, education and community organizing will be increasingly important for all of us.
Two weeks after returning from the delegation I was at the Occupy Seattle demonstration where I had a chance encounter with a protester attending the rally because he was “tired of getting screwed by government.” I told him I was tired of everyone getting screwed by transnational corporations and financial institutions backed up by corrupt governments. He went on to say “Obama cares more about Mexicans than the American people,” to which I replied “I recently got back from Mexico where I heard firsthand accounts of how our government and Wall Street harms Mexican workers as much as American workers if not more. They wouldn’t need to migrate if they could support their families back home.” Rather than argue, he muttered “Well, they’ve been screwing all of us in the 99%…” before wandering back into the crowd, which wasn’t a bad outcome but sort of a letdown. I was ready to help him understand in greater detail how and why immigration and mass unemployment are both symptoms of neo-liberal policies at the core of economic crises in America, Mexico and around the world. It’s possible he simply didn’t feel like debating, but perhaps someone with a common but erroneous view that Mexicans (presumably immigrants) are a source of their problems was, in fact, with a few words and widened context, able to accept that they’re as much victims of an unjust system as ourselves.
Amidst the masses in Westlake Park, consisting of a diversity of ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds, I visualized the Occupation Movement strengthening their solidarity, not only within separate communities but with the global 99% uniting against the wealthiest 1% who benefit most from the current system and are the true source of the most pressing social-economic-environmental problems of our time. If this were to happen we might stand a chance to ensure a better world for future generations. La lucha sigue! (The struggle continues!)