Translation By: Stephanie Friede, PhD Candidate at Duke University
“It is ‘Day Q’anil, the day of the seed,” explained Antionio Gonzales of Guatemala, referencing the calendar used among the Maya people. “It is time to harvest.” This is how Gonzales began his presentation on the first day of this event – the second international meeting ofcampesinasand agroecologyin America. The primary themes for the event included food sovereignty, climate change, and agricultural technologies. Held at the Autonomous University of Chapingo in central Mexico, the meeting was a gathering where a multiplicities of voices from the global south could share their ideas with each other.
The event brought together students ,campesinos, academics, and researchers from an array of organizations and nationstates including Mexico, Venezuela, India, Brazil and Guatemala. Attendees came in search of different kinds of seeds – seeds of knowledge that could conjure potential alternatives. Participants included Brazilian agronomist Sebastio Pinheiro, who led a handson workshop with participants. With their hands in the dirt all together, everyone quickly forgot each other’s professional credentials. Pinheiro was explaining in this workshop the history of the socalled “Green Revolution” which changed the agricultural world after World War II. This socalled revolution was ideological, bringing the scientific developments and new technologies to speed up natural cycles. The green revolution brought a profit logic into the field. “Following 1930, and the end of the Second World War, billions of lives have been altered as a result of the imposition of chemicals into agriculture, and the rendering technical of the lives of the people, causing grave harm” explain Pinheiro.
The event was an excellent space where knowledge, ideas, reflections were exchanged, and there was even a fair share of self critique. The setting itself, however, was notable. The event was held in the School of AgroEcology, now celebrating its 25th year. Nelson Montoya, director of the Department of AgroEcology explained that this meeting was a critique of the institution which has based much of its work on the“Green Revolution,” which are obsolete. “For this reason we are having this conversation in this place, we want the institution to hear what we are saying,” explained Montoya.
There was little interest by students and professors outside of this department, perhaps because the institutions ethos is built on using technology to exploit land, and not men. Perhaps it is alive and well. “We are at a university where Mexico’s best agricultural engineers are being trained. Unfortunately, the motto of the university remains, teach students how to exploit mother earth,” explained Victor Toledo, Director of the Institute for Ecology at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM).
Coevolution: Corn and Culture
The Autonomous University of Chapingo has long been both a headquarters and a laboratory for those who advocated the industrialization of Mexico’s food industry. Here is where the most strident advocates for the industrial colonization of Mexico’s food supply were taught and trained to use the technologies provided by large multinational agrochemical corporations. “Universities have always been where world’s multinational corporations trained their representatives. They have always maintained an interest in maintaining a monopoly over the country’s food supply, and in that sense, the lives of the public We are lucky, tho ugh. Throughout Mexico, los pueblos have maintained their knowledge, the wisdom to respect the earth, what I like to call the biopower of the c ampesino” explains Pinheiro.
The Autonomous University of Chapingo is nestled in the foothills of the mountain where the Aztec rain god, Tláloc, is said to have lived. Tláloc was referred to as the “provider,” because it was in his power to bring the rain, something everyone knew was needed for the corn harvests. This is also the same place were the Poet king, Netzahualcóyotl was said to have his baths and gardens. Nearby is the Lake of Texcoco, where the great city of Tenochtitlan, with its complex and technically advanced irrigation networks and floating greenhouses (called Chinampas), were constructed, and unfortunately destroyed upon the arrival of the Spanish. Pinheiro underscores, “This has always been a place of knowledge.”
“While science was been created during the last 300 years, but we humans have existed for more than 200,000 years – so the question is, did knowledge exist prior to science? Of course it did. It is exactly the kinds of science which existed throughout our history which allowed for traditional agriculture. This kind of knowledge is not forgotten, despite the collective
Alzheimer which was spread across Mexico. Mayan agriculture has existed on the Yucatan Peninsula for more than 3,000 years. Near the Pátzcuaro lake in the State of Michoacán, signs of pollen from maize was found from more than 3500 years ago” explained Victor Toledo, coauthor of the book, “BioCultural Memory” or “La Memoria Biocultural.”
When Europeans arrived in Mexico, more than 150 languages existed. Of these, “60 to 65 languages” survived. "Simultaneously, there are more than 69 known varieties of maize,” explained Toledo, who went on to compare the evolution and diversity that exists among Mexico’s languages to the evolution and diversity of agriculture. “It wasn’t that the people of ancient Mesoamerica that domesticated corn, it was went both ways. Corn also domesticated the people of Mesoamerica. Over the last 7 to 9,000 years, our culture and our corn have coevolved – just as we see a diversification of cultures over this time period, we also see a diversification in the varieties of corn across the region.”
Toledo is questioning the model of industrial agriculture which has become dominant over the last century, and the negative effects it brings, such as deforestation and climate change. He also throws into doubt the methods which are now being put into place to try and conserve what remains of the nature world. Toledo assures us that, “it is impossible to conserve the natural world without conserving culture as well...We need to develop a BioCultural approach to conservation in Mexico” which takes the environment and culture as one, explained Toledo.
Toledo claims that within the Autonomous University of Chapingo there is a wealth of diversity, where 60% of it’s students
a re from indigenous communities or were raised in farming (campesina) communities. “If you ask students in the agronomy department what indigenous language they speak” you will hear any number of languages spoken throughout Mexico. Toledo claims that despite what some people may think, the region’s indigenous populations are not in decline. In fact, he continues, “its exactly the opposite. Around the year 2000, the government statistics reported between 8 and 10 million people who spoke an indigenous language. In the year 2010, a question was added to the census which had been removed since 1920. They started to ask, Do you consider yourself indigenous? The government was reinserting the idea of selfidentification. The question was not asked because the government considered the very idea somehow dangerous or subversive. But, when the question was added to the census in 2010, the number of people who identified as indigenous reached 17 million. In 2015, the official statistics were even higher, 24 million people identified as indigenous in Mexico”
Campesino = Subversive
According to the nonprofit organization GRAIN’s recently published study, while more than 90% of the world’s farmers identify as either campesina or Indigenous, they control less than a quarter of the world’s fertile terrain. “Foreigners came here asking us to produce food supplies for them. But we should focus on producing for our own children. If there is extra, then sure we can sell it, but its unfair that they come here and dictate the prices.” Pinheiro argues that the prices should be more equitable, and this fight would benefit all of us.
In their 2013 report, “Behind the Brands,” Oxfam International highlighted ten companies thy claim control the majority of the world’s food supply and fertile land. They highlighted the company Nestlé in particular.
Historically, Mexico has been an example for countries across Latin America with regards to land ownership – the ejido system which brought collective ownership to much of the public after the Revolution – proposed a logic entirely distinct from the mercantilist logic which existed before it. However, when the Mexican government passed a series of reforms to our progressive agrarian laws, they transformed its undergirding logic which was built on ideas of collective ownership into a logic based on private property. In essence, this reform, which preceded the signing of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) allowed ejido land to be sold to private developers. The effects of this change have been felt by the country’s vulnerable indigenous and campesina families who are more likely to suffer from the negative consequences of megaprojects like mining and industrial agriculture. “The effort was to takedown the agrarian reforms. Across Latin America, from Argentina to Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, the fields have been destroyed. The Mexican Revolution, which started in 1910, was an example for the world, because it was a redistribution of power. The agrarian reform that followed the revolution were an example for the world because we were able to maintain an ancient culture. The powerful forces of global capital saw this example as subversive,” added Pinheiro.
After years of debate, The United Nations Program for Agriculture and Nutrition, finally agreed to include small farmers in their policy suggestions. “They did not, however, agree to actually use the word c ampesino. It remains dangerous.
Campesino is still widely considered a dangerous word. They reported in 2014 that 60 % of the world’s food comes from small family farms, and they still refused to use it,” explained Toledo.
“If they want to be consistent, the UN should mobilize an AgroEcological framework and promote agrarian reform across the globe. The future of AgroEcology in Latin America depends on legal reform. Large land holdings need to be redistributed. They can not continue to promote large cattle farms and industrial agriculture, and also promote AgroEcology these forms of production contradict the goals of AgroEcology and conservation efforts more generally.” Toledo affirms that the decision to recognize the importance of small farmers, “threw into question the international institution’s faith in industrial farming as the best way to meet food demands worldwide.”
What is AgroEcology?
“This meeting will help determine the role of academics in the future of this movement and how the diverse range of interested parties involved can engage with one another. How will students, researchers, indigenous peoples, and campesinos, understand their roles and work together? This meeting offered the space to question the current capitalist economic models which now dominate the agricultural sector. We need to find alternatives which can support ‘un buen vivir' or a good life for all people. The seeds of the many possible future for Latin America, for Mesoamerica, are living in communities across the globe. It is a political act to value all kinds of knowledge” explained Antion Gonzales, an indigenous Maya.
Across the dozen or so universities in Mexico where there are Departments of AgroEcology, “there are at least 600 specialists in AgroEcology who are searching for new ways to incorporate traditional agricultural practices into our food system. They will continue to search for new and better alternatives” to what currently exist, explains the Director of Chapingo’s AgroEcology Department.
At the end of the three day conference, participants agreed to form the “Network of Education Programs for a Degree in AgroEcology.” Sebsatiao Pinheiro of Brazil agrees that “AgroEcologists can be involved in helping to solve food sovereignty issues in Mexico, and across the globe.” But first, Pinheiro goes on, “we must leave our academic bubbles.” Academic AgroEcologists need to leave their academic departments and head to the fields where they can learn to listen to and respect the knowledge of indigenous peoples and small farmers. The agricultural sector needs to abandon production methods based on increasing profits, and shift their focus “instead to life – this is AgroEcology’s true goal”
The ideas of selfdetermination over territory which has gained widespread support in recent years places AgroEcology within a broader geopolitical debate. When the Zapatistas began building their autonomous regions, they integrated concepts from AgroEcology into their broader geopolitical message. In coming years, Victor Toledo explains, “I imagine we will see other kinds of autonomous regions emerge where decisions are build around four key principles: selfmanagement, autonomy, selfreliance and selfdefense. Across Mexico there are already some examples of this. This is where specialists in AgroEcology need to work.”