On Friday afternoon we departed Oaxaca by bus for the northwest region of the state, known as La Mixteca. We were headed for the municipal capitol of Noxchitlán and once we arrived, we were greeted by Jesús León and Eleazar García and their pickup trucks, which carried us the rest of the way. Twenty minutes later, unloaded on the outskirts of Noxchitlán and shuffled into a small room furnished with only a bookshelf, a table, a circle of chairs and a poster which read “Yes, there are alternatives in the campo. The milpas criollas against globaization.” We had arrived at the offices of the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM).
To better understand the message behind this poster, let us first clarify some of the words. First, the term campo is not an entirely foreign concept in the United States, but still seems to defy satisfactory translation. The campo is more than just the “countryside” because it carries a much deeper and much more historical significance in that it is closely tied with the idea of Mexico’s ancient and early history, with agriculture, and with maize. The word campesino, a person who is from and works in the campo, is most commonly translated as “small farmer” or “peasant,” but these translations also lack the important social, historical, and economic context of the word. The term milpa refers to a traditional process of planting that mixes different varieties of corn, beans, squash, and often marigolds on the same plot of land (as opposed to mono-cropping) that has ancient roots in the pre-hispanic culture. The milpa process is one that allows for increased soil fertility (each plant using and depositing different nutrients), increased security (if unforeseen conditions cause one crop to be less successful, other crops with still prosper), and even pest control (marigolds are a natural insect repellent). Lastly, the term criolla indicates a native crop. Maíz criollo, thus, refers to native Mexican (or Oaxacan) corn varieties as opposed to imported U.S. seeds or genetically modified varieties.
A brief history of the crisis in el campo
Once we were all seated, notebooks and pens at the ready, Jesús and Eleazar presented the basic history, work and goals of CEDICAM. Officially, CEDICAM was co-founded by Jesús and a fellow campesino from the Mixteca in 1997, but CEDICAM grew out of local efforts to combat erosion that had begun in the early 1980s. Jesús and his fellow campesinos were introduced to some of the ideas that would become central to CEDICAM’s mission by Guatemalan refugees fleeing brutal suppression under that government and who brought with them alternatives to what were increasingly seen as the problems of the so-called Green Revolution.
The Green Revolution was an aggressive world-wide campaign promoted by the United States and U.S.-based agricultural corporations which stressed the need to introduce “modern” technologies (tractors and other farming equipment), petro-chemical fertilizers, industrial farming and mono-cropping, and genetically modified seeds. While the philosophy of the Green Revolution was promoted around the world, its effects have been concentrated in Mexico, Central America and India. While on the one hand the Green Revolution represented an incredible profit opportunity for U.S. capitalist interests, the rhetoric also addressed a real food shortage problem in the rural areas of these countries.
Initially the results were positive: there was an increase in the quantity of food production. But within only a few years campesinos became increasingly aware of the many downsides to their newly adopted agricultural philosophy and practices. For one, the quality of the crops (predominantly corn) was notably poorer. Jesús told us that one example of this lower quality was that tortillas made from the genetically modified corn varieties and chemical fertilizers were tasteless, brittle and less nutritious. These genetically modified seeds also produced markedly poorer yields even on the second planting (in traditional Mixtec agricultural practice, seeds from one year’s harvest are saved and replanted the next year and so on) which meant campesinos were forced to abandon their traditional seed-saving methods and repurchase seeds from (primarily U.S.-based) multinationals every or every other year. This seed-dependency meant increasing dependency on government loans and, inevitably, increased debt. Maintenance of their new “modern” technologies was also costly, and campesinos began worrying also about the effects of fertilizers on the local natural and human ecology. Abandoning the sustainable practices of traditional milpa agriculture also meant a steady degradation of soil fertility.
Perpetual crisis: soil erosion and water scarcity
All of these decidedly negative effects only compounded what was already an environmental crisis in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. According the United Nations, the Mixteca region has “one of the highest erosion rates in the world.” CEDICAM’s own findings, that the Mixteca region has lost at least 5 meters (about 16.5 ft) of topsoil to erosion since the conquest, reflect those of the UN. When the Spanish introduced their methods of agriculture into the region nearly half a century ago, deforestation to make way for nopal and other crops and the introduction of goats virtually eliminated natural forms of ground cover and plant life. Without this essential aspect of the local ecosystem the arrival of the rainy season means precious topsoil (along with virtually all of the rainwater) flows down the hilly landscape into the river and streams of the valleys and vanishes. In addition to harmful amounts of dirt in the water systems and destruction of stream and river ecosystems, the loss of topsoil from the once-productive land causes soil fertility plummet. Campesinos of the region, faced with increasing crisis, are thus more vulnerable to the gilded promises of the Green Revolution and current-government programs of the same philosophy, applying chemical fertilizers and genetically modified seeds to a lifeless landscape and receiving nothing but increasing debt in return.
Problems with erosion also bring a host of negative impacts to the other major ongoing environmental problem in the Mixteca: water scarcity. The aquifers in the Mixteca region have been steadily decreasing, and in recent years the increasing erosion has only accelerated the process. Because of erosion, periods of heavy rain do little to alleviate the problem because water is washed away into streams and carried away before it can be absorbed into the land and replenish the water tables. Water scarcity presents a huge problem for agriculture in the region as well as for human consumption. During the dry season (November-April) water scarcity becomes an especially critical problem.
The other side of the crisis: social dissolution
The growing environmental crisis in the campo has hugely adverse effects on the social cloth of the Mixteca region. Indeed, the Mixteca region has the highest rate of emigration in the entire state of Oaxaca, representing of 50% of all emigrants. Of those who leave, 85% of them are headed to the United States. Emigrants are, of course, overwhelmingly young men, meaning that the young, productive sector of the population is most adversely affected. Those driven to emigrate are overwhelmingly campesinos who have found it impossible to make a living in the agricultural sector, in large part due to the advent of the Green Revolution and no small part due to neoliberal, free market reforms like NAFTA. With highly subsidized, mass-produced U.S. corn flooding Mexican markets at incredibly low prices, campesinos can no longer compete. Close-knit Mixtec communities are also built around a completely different social structure than that found in the United States, where a philosophy of individualism is the predominant. Mixtec communities are based on a social-political-religious structure called usos y costumbres in which collective work and unpaid cargos (appointments, or jobs) are key. With U.S.-bound members unable to participate in this structure, many communities are simply collapsing (and often causing more migration out of the Mixteca).
Sarah Farr is PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The views expressed in this blog and on this website are my own.