Across the world, farmers are fighting for their livelihood against big corporations and the forces of a globalized community. The Zapotec people of Oaxaca are no different—we interviewed Samuel Bautista Lazo, a local farmer and one of the many members of his community fighting to save agricultural traditions while supporting his family.
The Central Valley of Oaxaca is one of the cradles of [our] civilization. Our Zapotec ancestors were domesticating corn here around 10,000 years ago from Teocintle, a type of grass that still grows wild in some areas of Oaxaca. Corn [that was] 9,600 years old was found in the caves of Guilá Naquítz (near the archeological site of Mitla).
Knowing our ancient farming heritage is important for us as a society so that younger generations preserve the know-how and way of life that maintains the delicate balance between humans and the environment. It comes as no surprise that San Juan Guelavía (a town in Oaxaca) had the national corn production record in 1980.
My father, Mario Bautista Martínez, says that our family [has always had] farmers, and good ones at that. One of [my grandfather’s] sons, my great uncle, Perfecto Bautista, [once] decided to plant castor oil seeds on several plots of land that the family owns. That year, the rains failed and all their other plots of land failed to produce the much needed corn. My great uncle Perfecto harvested the castor seeds and went to Oaxaca City on mules to sell it. He struck a deal with a trader from Puebla and exchanged his castor seeds for a big truck of corn to take back to our village and feed the people.
After the peak in corn production in the 1980s, the weather patterns have [changed] a lot and we are no longer able to plant corn twice a year. For the last 10 years, it has been particularly difficult; we had to start carrying water to feed our livestock in the countryside because the streams dried up, something unheard of before and truly apocalyptic in the eyes of the elders.
These days we plant corn from the last weeks of June starting with the St Juan holidays for a couple of weeks [and] ending with the Precious Blood of Jesus holiday in July. It is like placing a bet to decide when to plant your corn…I remember my grandmother showing me the night sky to [predict] that the next couple of days would be dry and the soil would be moist but not too wet to plant the seeds. This is probably why we call ourselves Benizaá. Beni means “people” [and] zaá means “clouds” in our Dixzaá language (also called “Zapotec” by the Aztecs).
It’s related to the ancient rituals of offering the blood of a turkey to the land and having a big meal on the land when you plant the corn. On this holiday, every family in Teotitlán del Valle makes tamales using the corn leaves and seeds that they stored the previous year. It is like a ritual in which we commune with the corn plant and become one with it as we plant it and eat it.
Corn is at the center of our culture, in the rugs we weave, and we even have our version of the “Tree of Life” with a corn plant in the middle. One of my earliest memories growing up was a day I spent with my grandfather. I was probably six years old and [he] made me skip a day in school to take me to plant corn. I was following the oxen plow and he was teaching me that I should put two to three corn seeds every one step and a half and that I should let go of pumpkin and bean seeds freely. Many kids learn this way—the farming knowledge is passed from generation to generation at an early age.
Going to the countryside and communing with nature by getting our hands dirty is like a daily ritual and the roads are buzzing with people as every family goes to tend their own plots of land. Back in the days of my grandfather, people still practiced Gaalgueaás (Guelaguetza) a community practice in which you assured mutual help, “today for me, tomorrow for you”. People would ask for Guelaguetza to get their family, friends or neighbors to help them harvest their corn, one of the most labor-intensive parts of farming.
I know that, roughly, Mexico produces one third of the corn we consume in small peasant holdings, another third from the more industrialized farming operations in the north of Mexico and another third from imports from the USA.
Cheap corn from the USA is widely used to make “machine-made tortillas”. This pushes down native corn prices and creates a vicious cycle in which local farmers cannot make enough money to get their investment back by planting and harvesting.
Industrialized corn from the northern states is sold widely in the rural villages at very low prices, forcing local producers to lower their prices. It’s been proven that 90.4% of industrialized maize products in Mexico have traces of GMOs. Of the samples that tested positive for GMOS, 27.7% have traces of glyphosate (an herbicide used to kill weeds).
NAFTA was signed under the most disadvantaged conditions for Mexico, especially for farmers. The minimal wages in each NAFTA country are extremely different. In Mexico, the minimum wage is $80 pesos (less than $5 USD) per day, although most workers in the farm fields make around $170 to $200 pesos ($9 to $11 USD) per day. Families that make minimum wage are economically forced to buy the cheap tortillas from tortillerías, which use cheap corn imports. Farmers can’t make any profits from growing corn because the corn is so cheap so most of the young people don’t see themselves farming in the future. When there are no other sources of income, people migrate to the big cities in Mexico or try to cross the northern border.
Many villages have almost no young people to work the land [and now there are] more tractors and fewer oxen. There is almost no more Guelaguetza in our way of life—people hire workers from other poorer villages to help with farm work if they can afford to do so. All in all, cheap corn and cheap labor are the basis of many social problems that we face today; it is mostly wealthy politicians and rich investors that benefit from the maquiladora style of trading under NAFTA while the population bears the repercussions of the unfair deal (a maquiladora is a factory in Mexico run by a foreign company that exports its products to the country of that company).
Climate change and the way it affects rain patterns unpredictably [will put] our cloud reading to the test. Lack of water has been the main concern in the last decade [so] our village has begun to build a series of water rain catchment dams to slow down the flush of water and invigorate the natural aquifers.
We have preserved our weaving tradition, which goes hand-in-hand with farming. Fortunately, we are well known in the world for that. But villages that don’t have any other type of craft face serious difficulties. Some of the poorest villages in the Triqui region have been forced to grow opium poppy [seeds] because their land is very susceptible to drought. With no other sources of income, they have turned to the drug lords.
Unfortunately, the government has always underfunded agricultural programs and subsidies. A family growing around six hectares (15 acres) would get around $3,000 pesos ($160 USD) a year. That would just barely cover the cost of plowing the land once with a tractor. I was teaching sustainable agriculture at the local university but there is a lack of experts in this field and students are often demotivated by argiculture’s economic outlook.
Fortunately, most of the Oaxacan people farm not only for economic reasons but also to celebrate life and to live from the land. We are trying to make sure our families can be self-sufficient and to ensure that the foods that we eat are healthy and nutritious. After all, we are the people that were made out of corn, so we will make sure that this sacred relationship is always maintained.