“All this land used to be worked by local people”, my dad would say every time we visited his home town in the state of Puebla. “You could see milpas all over those cerros,” he would point to some hills that, to me, didn’t look any different than the rest of the hills of the sierra where his town sits. “But now just a few people still work in the fields.” I could see melancholy in his eyes as he talked about growing up in that part of the country, that didn’t mean much to the younger me, and while trying to explain the process of working the milpa.
Growing up in a big city can disconnect you from the problems of “el campo”, the country. Having food on the table is given for granted and knowing where that food comes from has no major importance. Being part of a family who owned a restaurant was another blessing for me. Food was always abundant, and even though I used to go with my dad to the markets to shop for their fonda, I didn’t use to give much thought to where those products originated.
But for my dad it was completely different. Food meant hard work in the fields. That hard work would start in May, right before the beginning of the rainy season, and would end in late November after the maize, beans and other crops had been harvested, dried and stored.
It was a life marked by the rainy season and the church fiestas, thousand-year-old traditions not written down in books but in the collective memory of the community. The most important crop, as in any other part of Mexico, was maize and people would grow it in milpas.
Milpa is the crop-growing system that has been used in Mexico for thousands of years that makes the most of the space used to grow crops, very scarce in many parts of the country due to the mountainous topography (I will write more about this system in future posts).
My dad’s face would radiate when he talked about the milpa harvest: maize, watermelon, melon, beans, chilies, squash and tomatoes. But then, it would sadden when he looked at the abandoned fields, especially if it was the time of the year when people should be working them.
Picture by Lente Fantástica
That was back in the early and mid nineties. Starting in the nineteen eighties, los campesinos mexicanos, Mexican small farmers, have suffered the consequences of the neoliberal policies that the government has implemented without even consulting them. The lands that generations of indigenous peoples had worked to sustain themselves were privatize and sold to the highest bidder.
NAFTA was the biggest blow to small farmers in Mexico. The treaty benefits international agricultural monopolies, like Monsanto, more than local and indigenous farmers. Today is cheaper to import transgenic corn from the U.S. than to produce heirloom varieties inside Mexico.
For indigenous people and small farmers maize has never been a big business and with the policies of the last 25 years the scenario has become even worse. Most families and communities that still produce maize do it for their own consumption, not for sale.
Picture by Kokosmeli
That’s one reason young people don’t want to work in the fields anymore. The option of emigrating to bigger cities or the U.S. as undocumented workers is more attractive than staying home, eking out a living in the small communities that are largely ignored by a government that works better for powerful international corporations than for its own people.
An equally dangerous threat to Mexican farming, maize particularly, is the pilot programs to grow genetically modified maize in Mexico by Monsanto. GMOs were banned from Mexico for several years. But if the past is any indication on how the government will act to protect local farmers and the food sovereignty of the country, the future of maize looks bleak.
Picture by Servin
Enter Campaña Nacional Sin Maíz No Hay País (without maize there’s no country national campaign). In 2007, more than 300 local and indigenous farmers, civil and human rights, and environmental organizations came together to launch a national campaign to educate people and demand the government to stop ignoring the problems of small farmers and the crisis the whole farming system was going through.
During the first months the campaign focused on getting some press and getting noticed by the government and citizenship. This initial phase was successful and the concerns raised by the campaign were noticed in Mexico and Central America.
During 2008 the campaign got stronger by getting audiences in different state houses of representatives around the country and finally reaching the National Congress. The main topics of discussion were laid down that year and they were consolidated the following year. These topics are: sustainable agriculture, diet and food supply, communication, public policy and GMOs.
On September 29th, 2009 the first Maize National Day was celebrated and it has been celebrated every year since. During all these years the campaign has become a reference for many organizations such as producers, human rights, environmental, consumers and citizen in general.
My dad yearned to go back to his home town and become a farmer again. He didn’t say as much, but we all knew it. Even though he has spent most of his life in the big city, his roots are in that sierra of Puebla where he grew up surrounded by a freedom and satisfaction that only the openness of the country and growing your own food can provide.
I’m sure that most people who have stopped working the fields in Mexico and have moved to other parts of the country and planet have the same desire to go back to the place where they were born and continue the tradition of taking care of the maize that represents everything to their communities, if we only give them the chance.
Picture by Kokosmeli
The threats maize and Mexican farming face are big, but not unbeatable. Food is an essential part of Mexican society and maize its most important crop. This quintessential truth is part of the everyday life of the indigenous populations throughout the country. Slowly, the problems of the farms are becoming more of a concern to the rest of the country that, in many ways, is connected to those communities through history, religion and food. Our future depends on solving those problems together. I want to believe that we’ll be able to pull through as a nation and save our maize, our history and our country because without it, we’re nothing.
If you have 40 minutes to spare I strongly recommend watching this documentary by Arthur Rifflet. It is a window into the lives of the indigenous peoples of the northern sierra of Puebla and how their lifestyle and the crop that their ancestors have been sowing for thousands of years are threatened.
This post is part of a series on maize. What’s Cooking, Mexico? will be focusing on a single Mexican ingredient each month. To read the rest of the articles on this series please visit this link.