This piece originally appeared in David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home, which combines incisive reporting on the resistance of Mexican communities to the economic policies that drive migration with the voices of activists themselves as they reflect on their experiences, analyze the complexities of their realities, and affirm their vision for a better world. The Right to Stay Home is now available in paperback.
In Guelatao, the town in the Sierra Juarez where I live, our main crop is corn. It’s a very healthy life. We get up early and have coffee to get ready to work. Your machete has to be sharpened, and then you walk to your field. It can be twenty minutes or two hours away. There’s no machinery for our farms, and the hillsides are very steep. When we need help, we ask for it from our neighbors, and when they need it, we give it to them. When we finish work in the field, we gather wood on the way home for cooking.
Our main problem is that the prices of agricultural products have fallen dramatically. The price for corn doesn’t cover the costs of growing it anymore, so many people have chosen to leave to get the money they need to buy food. The prices for coffee have also fallen, and people have migrated for that reason too. [In May of 2011 coffee sold for about $2.90 per pound, and a year later, in June 2012, it had dropped to $1.55 per pound—almost in half.]
The services people need are in the bigger towns—the municipal seats. The surrounding communities don’t have them. The roads going there are mostly dirt, so it’s hard to travel there, especially in the rain, and takes a long time to get there. Most towns have no electricity, running water, or sewage services. There’s a primary school in almost every town, but outside the municipalities they only go to the fourth or sixth grade. After that students have to leave, if their families can afford to send them. There are some clinics but no doctors—just nurses or recently graduated medical students. In our schools there’s a uniform national curriculum, so there’s no distinction in what’s taught from one school to another. But there’s also no accounting for indigenous languages. In the Sierra Juarez students speak Zapoteco, but the classes are all in Spanish. We have been involved for years in fighting for indigenous rights, and we’ve visited Zapatista communities in Chiapas, to see how they put their ideas into practice. They have their own educational model, and their own teachers. We’re trying to do the same thing, by developing our own materials and an educational model that preserves our cultural identity.
Here in Oaxaca, our teachers have been going through their own struggle, with the strike and events of 2006. But in our experience, they haven’t focused much on the question of indigenous education. Here in the Sierra Juarez we’ve started the Zapoteca Academy of Indigenous Rights. This grew out of the need for people in our communities to understand what’s happening in the broader world outside them. Our people understand what’s happening in their own communities, but when people arrive from outside, it’s often difficult for them to understand who they are or what relation they have to the rest of the world.
This has been a problem especially in relation to mining projects. There are a lot of older mines in Oaxaca, most of which were inactive for many years. But recently the government has been promoting renewed activity, especially by Canadian companies. The promoters and investors from these projects come to communities and speak very highly about their plans. Local people don’t know what the impact of mining projects has been in other parts of world. So in our academy we gather information about mining, so our people can make informed decisions.
In the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO), we organize a lot of different activities, including seminars, forums, and training sessions. From the projects and their supporters we get a lot of unfriendly reactions. “Look at these troublemakers,” they say. “Keep them quiet.” We feel threatened and harassed, especially when we see the assassination of mine opponents in Central America, Chiapas, or even here in Oaxaca. One community here staged a sit-in to oppose a mine, and the government called in a thousand police to stop the demonstrators. In the Sierra Juarez, land is held collectively. Decisions about land use must be made in a community assembly, which makes it more difficult for the projects. Still, some people get co-opted by the promises of the mine. Others are much more worried about the impacts. But in other parts of Oaxaca, the federal government has been looking for ways to convert land tenure into individual ownership. In these areas the mining companies arrive and start buying up land. By the time the community realizes what’s happening, it’s much harder for it to stop the project.
There are many problems in agriculture in the Sierra Juarez, especially economic ones. Many farmers have been forced to migrate to the US to look for work. We have been encouraging people to stay and continue farming. We’ve been promoting a sustainable form of agriculture that requires fewer inputs, and the ones it does require are local and organic.
Problems come when family members who have migrated send money back to their relatives at home. What is this money good for? Usually it’s used to buy things that are not grown or produced in the community itself. We see stores and supermarkets popping up that sell primarily imported goods. We don’t know where they come from or what their quality is. If the family members receiving the remittances use them to buy these products, then the money leaves, and just goes to whoever invested in these stores.
We’ve also seen that genetically modified corn has contaminated native varieties of corn in our region. This is a big problem. Mexico is the birthplace of corn, and it continues to be one of our staple foods. We can’t survive without corn, so we’re always looking for ways to preserve our native varieties. We have a saying in our organization: To sow and eat native seeds are political acts of resistance against globalization.
We want to talk about the right to stay home, the right to not migrate. We want to protect our native seeds, in order to stay on our land. We never expected globalization to come so close to communities that are so far from cities and from Western culture.
In 2006, when there was a lot of conflict in Oaxaca, a group of geographers arrived in our region from the University of Kansas, Carleton College, and the University of San Luis Potosi. They asked us to open our doors and give them access to our territory in order to do research on the PROCEDE program, the government program to certify land tenure. So we asked them to tell us more. They said they wanted to know more of local knowledge, of the local names for places in the territory. That sounded strange to us, because the names reveal many things.
The name Oaxaca, for instance, comes from the Nahuatl word Oajaca, which refers to a type of bean we grow and eat. [According to another source, the name Oaxaca comes from the Nahuatl word huaxyacac. Huax means gourd and yacatl means nose, so Oaxaca means “at the nose or top of the gourd.” Another source says the name derives from the Nahuatl word for a tree, guaje (Leucaena leucocephala).] My community, Guelatao, comes from the Zapotec word gelato, which means enchanted lagoon. In our region of very steep hills and mountains it’s very rare to find a lagoon, but there is in fact one here, which is why our community has its name.
In every community there are hundreds of names for local places like this. When people come in from the outside to document those names and map that biological and geographic knowledge, it can be used for things that won’t necessarily benefit our own community.
Another thing they didn’t tell us was that the financing for their project came from the Foreign Military Investigation Office of the US Army. That was another reason we decided we didn’t want them to undertake that research. That office is based in Fort Livingston, which earlier was a prison where indigenous people of the United States were held before being relocated to Western reservations. It’s now a repository of knowledge about indigenous people and territory, all over the world.
We know that some of this knowledge has been used for their Human Terrain System, which collects information about local people and passes it on to military commanders for use in military operations. They say the US wars must now be won by winning over the hearts and minds of people, and being less dependent on arms. But the objective of these wars is the same.
We’re not saying we expect war in Oaxaca and Central America, but we are worried. We do see an increasing militarization of our area, associated with the Plan Merida, supposedly designed to combat drug trafficking. But when we see this military presence along the roads and highways, it does not make us feel safe or secure. On the contrary. We certainly have no plans to incite military conflict or overthrow the Mexican government. We are Mexicans. But we do see that the Mexican government does have an interest in inciting social conflict and violence.
In Mexico we’re educated to think about our rights. In fact, there’s a saying by Benito Juarez, who was born in my town of Guelatao: Respect for the rights of others is peace. In spite of that, policies like NAFTA represent a real aggression toward the Mexican people. Many of these policies are biased toward the interests of large corporations. I don’t believe that it’s the people of the United States who are aggressive toward Mexico, but many of the policies pursued by the government are very harmful.
Many policies of the US government don’t just affect people who are in the United States. The have very harmful consequences for people all over the world. It’s important for people in the United States to realize and be conscious of that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aldo Gonzalez is an indigenous community leader from the Sierra Juarez region of Oaxaca, and today is the director of enforcement for indigenous rights in the state’s Department of Indigenous Affairs.