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Retreat to Subsistence

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Aldo González is a tall, square-shouldered Zapotec Indian of 45 whose long hair falls halfway down his back. He is one of 400,000 Zapotecs whose ancestors built Monte Albán, one of the greatest and earliest cities of Mesoamerica, and who have lived in this part of Oaxaca, high in the Sierra Juárez mountains, for thousands of years. The Zapotecs refer to themselves as the "people of the clouds," and most in the villages speak Zapotec. Virtually all land is held communally.

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About the Author

Peter Canby
Peter Canby is a senior editor at The New Yorker and the author of The Heart of the Sky: Travels Among the Maya (...

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González studied electronic communication at a polytechnic university in Mexico City, but soon after receiving his degree he returned to Oaxaca, where he helps run the Unión de Organizaciones de la Sierra Juárez de Oaxaca (UNOSJO), a civil organization that represents Zapotec communities and their concerns. At the top of the list is corn, the farming of which is at the heart of Zapotec culture, as it is for all indigenous cultures in Mexico. But corn culture, and indigenous Mexicans, have been under siege ever since NAFTA went into effect in 1994 and the Mexican government concurrently initiated a number of measures designed to eliminate the country's small-farm sector, which includes most indigenous corn farmers. The thinking behind the government's decision was more economic than anti-indigenous—although it was arguably that too. Small farmers have long been the poorest of the poor in Mexico, and from the time of Mexico's revolution they have received government subsidies. The government's position on corn has been succinctly explained by Jorge Castañeda, former foreign minister under President Vicente Fox and now a professor at New York University (Fox was elected in 2000, six years after NAFTA). In his book Ex Mex (2007), Castañeda observes that it was "unclear...whether the rest of Mexican society should continue to subsidize 2.5 million families that will never escape from poverty growing corn on barren, rain-fed, tiny plots of land."

Like the Zapotecs, many of these farmers consider growing corn more than an economic activity. It is something closer to a defining way of life. Since NAFTA, to the surprise of government planners in Mexico City, many indigenous farmers, including the Zapotec members of UNOSJO, have in effect chosen to withdraw from the national economy, some weaning themselves off expensive chemical fertilizers and subsisting on the corn they can grow, harvest and barter. Economists refer to this phenomenon as a "retreat to subsistence," and life has not been easy for those who have stuck with farming. Poverty has descended upon the Mexican countryside and especially its indigenous areas, which are concentrated in Mexico's south. In 2003 the World Bank reported that 40 percent of Mexicans lived in poverty but that in the heavily indigenous southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, 70 percent lived in "extreme poverty," a condition in which a population is unable to secure a daily minimum food requirement.

Despite those who continue farming, like Aldo González, many others have quit. By some estimates, dispossessed farmers account for almost half of the 500,000 or so Mexicans who, until the recent recession, immigrated illegally to the United States each year. González told me of whole villages where only the elderly remain.

Maize—"corn" in the vernacular—is, in the amount produced, the largest grain crop in the world. In most places it is grown as animal feed; but in Mexico, for reasons unique to the country's culinary history, it provides some 70 percent of the caloric intake of rural families. Part of the process of making tortillas and tamales in Mexico is the pre-Columbian practice of lime cooking known as "nixtamalization," which increases the availability of calcium, amino acids and niacin in corn. Nixtamalization makes maize—especially when combined with beans—a complete protein. In the Popul Vuh, the ancient Maya book of origins, the first men are made of corn; part of the sway that corn holds over the region is that it evolved here. Archaeobotanists believe that some 9,000 years ago in the Rio Balsas valley in the Mexican state of Guerrero, early agriculturists began cultivating teosinte, a native grass, by carefully selecting for a series of mutations that included a sealed seed head and multiple rows of kernels attached to a central axis.

To this day, indigenous farmers continue to comb their fields for successful plants with useful characteristics, saving their seeds and exchanging them with neighbors. This process is central to indigenous culture in Mexico, and through continuous breeding indigenous agriculturists have internalized and accelerated the process of not just crop domestication but also plant evolution. In the Mexican countryside there are fifty-nine corn "landraces," distinct cultivars that have been carefully developed over millenniums by indigenous farmers for different attributes: growth at high altitudes, early or late maturation, the ability to withstand drought or heavy rain and utility for particular dishes or shamanic rituals.

Mexico's landrace corn is consumed locally, but because it benefits from 9,000 years of breeding for diverse conditions, it represents a reservoir of genetic adaptability that many consider essential to the future of the world's commercial corn crop. Kathleen McAfee, a political economist at San Francisco State University, observed that Mexican landraces "may even prove vital in the future to the continued productivity of corn farming worldwide, given that new traits must be continuously added to maize and other crops as crop pests evolve and climatic conditions change."

Landrace preservation, moreover, reflects a larger issue. Mexico has long been recognized as one of the world's most biodiverse regions. Along its mountainous spine, the climate ranges from neotropical to Nearctic. Over time, as the earth has warmed and cooled, various plant communities migrating between North and South America have become isolated among Mexico's deep valleys and high peaks, where they have evolved in exotic isolation. Indigenous cornfields in Mexico are known as milpas. Typically, milpas contain not just landrace corn but also squash, beans and other crops that farmers have coaxed out of their biodiverse surroundings through astute and assiduous husbandry. Because so many staple crops evolved in the region, it is considered a "center of origin" of crops, one of the few in the world.

What's particularly notable about Mexican cornfields are the "weeds" that coexist with more established crops and, in many cases, have herbal and culinary uses. A 2004 report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), an environmental organization created by a side treaty of NAFTA, noted that "this group of species are not 'weeds'" in the narrow American and European sense. "The relationships of Mexican poor peasants with their 'weeds' may be quite complex," and weeds "represent a rich genetic resource on which selection towards domestication may take place."

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