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Interview with Gustavo Esteva
The Society of the Different

Part 2:
We Are People of Corn: Life, Metaphor, Autonomy

Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico

Gustavo Esteva in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Gustavo Esteva at the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico. All photos by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In a field of corn, Oaxaca.
In a field of corn, Oaxaca.
A field of corn and mountains around Oaxaca.
A field of corn and mountains around Oaxaca.
A corn field across a path by some homes on the edge of Oaxaca.
A corn field across a path by some homes on the edge of Oaxaca.
A chicken among the corn and other plants growing in the milpa.
A chicken among the corn and other plants growing in the milpa.
White corn.
White corn.
Kernels of corn, a ball of masa, and masa ready to make into a tortilla in the home of Magdalena Antonio. Oaxaca.
Kernels of corn, a ball of masa, and masa ready to make into a tortilla in the home of Magdalena Antonio. Oaxaca.
Magdalena Antonio explains the process of making a tortilla
Magdalena Antonio explains the process of making a tortilla - from corn to masa to tortilla.
The stages and early use of corn in Mexico as depicted by muralist Diego Rivera on the inside walls of the National Palace in Mexico City.
Corn/Zapatista painting
A Zapatista painting on a wooden wall shows ski-mask wearing people as kernels of corn. Near Oventic, Chiapas.
Gustavo Esteva is an author, a local and international “grassroots activist and de-professionalized intellectual”, and a founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico. He is also a former corporate executive, a former guerrilla, a former high-ranking official in the government of President Echeverría, and an advisor with the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas for the negotiations with the government. This interview was conducted (and later edited) by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine on September 6 and 7, 2005 in Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.

The interview is presented in three parts and followed by a lecture given by Professor Esteva to a group of university students visiting Oaxaca from the United States. 1 | 3 | 4


The creation of corn

In Motion Magazine: Could you please talk about Oaxaca? Can you talk about the connection between the people in Oaxaca and the history of maize or corn? You were saying that in many ways maize started here. Is there a relationship between the development of maize and the history of the indigenous peoples here?

Gustavo Esteva: Not only here in Oaxaca, but almost in the whole of the American continent, when the people are saying that we are people of corn, they are having a kind of empirical description of their own history.

First, the creation of corn. Apparently, it was nine or ten thousand years ago, ten kilometers from here, in a place called San Jose El Mogote. I am talking about this place because apparently it is the oldest. There are some archeological remains of corn and these are the oldest ones. In that place there were some remains of corn and the hypothesis constructed with these remains, these elements, very old elements, is that, at that time, the people living in this area had already some agricultural knowledge of how to cultivate beans, to cultivate squash, and some other things, and they applied this knowledge to the ancestor of corn that was a plant called Teosintle. There is another theory that it was a different kind of plant that is Tripsacum. Perhaps there were two families of corn in the beginning.

This was a tree, a perennial. The problem with this was the cob was covered and was very, very small, just a few centimeters, it had only a few very small grains. It was not the size of the current corn. It was very, very small and the problem was that when this cob fell to the ground, because it was covered, when the cover rotted the grains also rotted. The natural reproduction of Teosintle was very difficult. It was not easy. It was a plant that perhaps will not reproduce. But the people applied their agricultural knowledge and used this small cob with the small grains. They planted these grains and the real corn was born, that was the non-perennial corn.

Dialogue between the men and the plant

Anyway, the story was that corn is a peculiar plant that has a very small range of adaptation, ecologically speaking. Every variety of corn needs a specific ecological niche. If you have wheat you can cultivate the same variety of wheat in many different conditions, climate, altitude, etcetera, etcetera. In the case of corn, it has a very small range of adaptation but every variety, in contrast, had an incredible capacity for mutation.

This is, in my view, a question of the dialogue between the men and the plant. It is not the corn itself alone. It is not men themselves alone. It is the dialogue, the interaction between the plant and the people that have created these thousands of varieties that we know now.

Corn, during several millennia, spread through the whole of the American continent. An interesting point is that many of the indigenous people in the American continent talk about that they created corn. You can talk with an Iroquois and they have some legends and some myths talking about how they created corn. Then, if you go to Peru, there you have people talking about how they created corn. Apparently, the corn that was spread through the whole continent, it created a possibility of life in this permanent dialogue between the men and the corn.

For example, Peru is the only place on earth that has more varieties of corn than Mexico basically because they cultivate above the level of the sea to 4,000 meters of altitude in Lake Titicaca. It is the highest place where you can find corn. They created a lot of different varieties of corn and potatoes in Peru.

In every place you have the myths, as the original myths, people who are born of corn. That is the basic myth in the American continent. “And then they become corn”. You have different legends. In the Popol Vuh of the Mayas you have “Flesh is made of corn, the flesh of men is made of corn.” These original myths are associated with corn in all the indigenous people in the American continent.

In just one century after the Spanish came, corn was everywhere on earth. It is fantastic. It is a beautiful story. There is a book by Arturo Warman that is called “A History of a Bastard” that is a beautiful book explaining how just in one century it reached every place. How in China it was called the “wheat of the barbarian Westerners”. How it took many different names. In one century it was everywhere. In the 17th century it was the main diet in Europe. Ninety percent of the diet of the peasants was corn and potatoes. Also, corn allowed the agrarian revolution to produce meat because it was then used for animal feed. It was possible for the people in Europe to eat meat, thanks to corn.

Unique in its hospitality

In the whole history of this area of the world, for the indigenous people, corn is the key. It is at the very center of the culture and it is still today among the indigenous people. For many of them it is a god or a goddess, depending on the area of which you are talking. They have every kind of praise and every kind of associations and rituals with corn. It is really the center of life.

We are also using these elements of corn as a metaphor for the country and the attitudes of the people here. For example, corn is a unique plant in its hospitality. You can have extremes. Eucalyptus cannot allow anything around -- that is the main problem with eucalyptus. It absorbs in a selfish way all the nutrients around. You cannot see around a eucalyptus any other plant. There is only eucalyptus. A forest of eucalyptus is a dead forest because everything around is dead. But in the case of corn you have the traditional milpa created by these people, these people of Oaxaca. They invented this combination: a combination of corn, beans and squash. It is a magnificent combination because the corn takes nitrogen from the soil, and beans fix that nitrogen in the soil. The leaves of the squash cover the land, the soil, and then keep the humidity in the soil for the growth of corn. The combination is very creative.

Also, there are something like one hundred species of quelites. Quelites is the generic name for many different plants, most of them edible plants, very good plants, that the people use in their diet. It is so rich and so good that even now there are people cultivating these specific plants that grow naturally with the milpa, with the corn. They proliferate like wild herbs.

Commercial agriculture (on the other hand) tries to have only corn, for many different reasons, but particularly to use machinery, etcetera, etcetera. They use a lot of money and chemicals to kill all the herbs -- and these herbs are very good herbs.
The peasants have, here in a milpa, crops for six months. During the whole period of the growth of the milpa, they collect these herbs. They are eating from the milpa before having the final grains. They are collecting them and eating them, or using them for the animals, or to enrich the soil, for many different purposes. Commercial agriculture kills them. Destroys them. They use a lot of money to destroy all these plants that are growing with the milpa. That illustrates very well the hospitality of the milpa.


Metaphor for our culture -- diversity

There is also another reason why we use milpa as a metaphor for our culture – that is diversity. As I mentioned before, because of this fact that the range of adaptation of corn is very short, in each specific niche you have local varieties of corn. You have tens of thousands of varieties. There is no agreement among the experts, but we are talking about fifty, sixty, races of corn. For every race, we have thousands of varieties of corn. Every variety is for this specific ecological niche, for this specific valley, for this specific place. The people have this relationship with their own “maiz”, their own seeds that they collect and they keep going and they improve continually. All the time, they are testing these varieties and combining local varieties to create something.

This is a perfect example of diversity and I would say it is the harmonious coexistence of the different in the same place. This is a metaphor we are using to illustrate what we are trying to say about the cultures.

What we have here in Oaxaca is the best example. In one place, in this territory, you have fifteen or sixteen different indigenous cultures, indigenous peoples. They are really different. The languages they speak are not of the same family. They correspond to different kinds of people. And these people, these indigenous people cannot even be reduced to these definitions of sixteen different peoples. They say the biggest one is the Zapotecs, but the Zapotecs of the Isthmus, the Zapotecs of the Central Valleys, and the Zapotecs of the Sierra speak three different kinds of Zapotec, very different. Yes, it has the same root, like Latin is a root for European languages, but it is as different as Italian, or Spanish, or French, or Romanian. A person from the Isthmus cannot really understand a person from the Sierra or from the Central Valleys.

For example, Kiado here (at the university), he belongs to a small group of communities in the Sierra. He is a Zapotec and his culture is the culture of this group of communities in the Sierra. He does not see himself as a Zapotec in the abstract or as a Zapotec of the Sierra. He sees his real definition of culture, his “we”, his use of the first person plural, as these people of the Rincon who have a dialect and a specific variant of the Zapotec of the Sierra.

You have here in Oaxaca literally thousands of different cultures and different languages and different ways of being, an incredible richness of people. And for all of them one of the things that they have in common is the relationship with corn. The centrality of corn is very profound, very old, and very real in life today.

The strategy included migration

Let me mention, for example, that in many cases of the people going to the U.S. as undocumented workers -- many people from Oaxaca are now going to the U.S. -- they are sending dollars to pay for the milpa, to grow the milpa. We have now statistical proofs, analytical elements, to show that when the government in the last twenty years dismantled all the support to peasant agriculture, to the cultivation of corn and other plants by the peasants, the peasants adopted a strategy: first, to expand the surface, the territory for cultivation, and then to increase productivity. They were without the subsidies of the government, the corrupt subsidies of the old regime; without the support of the whole system created by the Mexican government to support the peasantry, and when they dismantled all this in the neoliberal phase, it was the peasants themselves that reacted with a brilliant strategy. And the strategy included migration. They go and they collect some dollars to cultivate corn.

In many cases in Mexico, corn is not profitable for them. It is an expense; it is not profit. They are spending money in cultivating corn. Economically speaking, it can be better to buy corn instead of cultivating the corn. But what they are doing is, basically, to keep the centrality of corn in their life; to keep a way of life which includes that specific privilege of taking from the milpa to your plate without transition. That is a specific luxury that implies having the corn and then milling it; having the fresh tortilla in the comal (dish for cooking tortillas), that is really great and different from the tortillas you can buy in the market. They are cultivating that privilege and they are cultivating that possibility of having in the milpa a lot of edible plants. Keeping one way of being going through dollars earned the hard way in the U.S.

GMOs: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

In Motion Magazine: So, to extend the metaphor, what do you think of genetic engineering and what have people done about it?

Gustavo Esteva: Genetic engineering is exactly the opposite. It implies, first of all, arrogance. What I think is, the whole thing of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), it is right now the sorcerer’s apprentice. It is something extremely dangerous but we don’t know exactly how dangerous. They are responsible, playing with it without knowing the consequences.

The main argument for genetically modified organisms is “no study has proved harm to the environment”. But most people know, even the scientists in favor of GMO, that the main impact can be long-term impact. We don’t have long-term studies because we have not long-termed yet. It is very recent. We have not had the time.

Usually, I make the analogy that for x-rays we required forty years to discover that they were damaging, that you cannot use them for a pregnant woman because the baby can be damaged with x-rays. We did not know the damage of x-rays. You cannot take, by yourself, an x-ray. You need a medical prescription because we know now that you cannot use, irresponsibly, x-rays. This is not an argument against x-rays but it is asking for humility. Let’s know this. Let’s study this. Let’s explore the thing before sending it to the market. This is not done with GMO.

Cross-pollenization: Destruction of diversity

The main element of GMO is the homogenization and standardization of corn. It is exactly the opposite to the diversity of corn. Thinking that in this place here, Oaxaca, that is the world center for the creation of corn where we have the greatest variety of corn, to have GMO implies having the destruction of our variety through the use of GMO.

One of the problems with the case of corn is that you know you have open cross-pollenization through the winds, that it can be pollenized. If you have here one plant with GMO you can contaminate a whole area. This will create with one single element the destruction, the homogenization of the plant, the destruction of our diversity, and, in time, the creation of dependency on the companies that will sell to you or will force you to pay for your own corn. It is exactly arrogance, hubris, homogenization, destruction of diversity, and destruction of autonomy. Those are the threats.

GMO moratorium / U.S. imports

It is important to mention why we suffer contamination. After a long struggle in the ’90s we succeeded in getting, in 1998, a moratorium for the cultivation of GMO in corn. GMOs were already used in cotton, and are still used in cotton, but for corn we succeeded in creating a moratorium with a law established in 1998. This was a product of our struggle. It was not the government spontaneously doing this. It was our pressure that forced the government to create this moratorium. (According to the moratorium) it was not possible to cultivate transgenic corn, not even for research. It was forbidden to have cultivation of transgenic corn in Mexico.

But the government, through a public agency, was importing GMO corn. I must say that this seems very foolish, but this has been specifically the purpose of official policy of the Mexican government for at least fifteen years. They want to destroy our capacity to produce corn. But, because of peasant pressure, there was included in NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) a section for protection for 15 years, to delay the presence of American corn here. A quota was defined for imports from the U.S., according to the terms of NAFTA. But still the government started to import three to six times more than the quota established with the specific purpose of discouraging the local producers to produce corn.

The main argument is profitability. The argument of our current minister of agriculture is “We cannot compete with producers in Iowa, or Wisconsin. We will never be able to be as efficient as the producers in the United States. Of course, we have some efficient producers in Sonora, Sinaloa, and some other places in the north, but in all of the center and the south of the country we cannot compete with the commercial agriculture of the United States. Furthermore, they have subsidies. We are enjoying the subsidies of the American government for our benefit. Importing corn is the best thing to do.”

They are trying to discourage, destroy, both the production and consumption of corn. They also think that the Americans are right that corn should be for animals, not for people; that we must eat, like any civilized people, bread not tortillas. They are trying to discourage the consumption of both: the consumption of tortilla in all its thousand or more forms and the cultivation of corn.

One specific tool for this was selling corn through DICONSA, the public agency. The old CONASUPO (described earlier) died but one of the areas of CONASUPO survived. DICONSA has now 15 000 small shops all over the country to sell basic staples -- among them corn. It imports corn from the United States and it sells this corn with the subsidies of the American government and the subsidies of the Mexican government.

Dr. Ignacio Chapela describes contamination in Sierra de Juarez

Let me mention the specific case of Sierra de Juarez, where the contamination started. In Sierra de Juarez, the local price of corn was four pesos per kilo of corn. There were some producers producing corn, for their own consumption, but they also had some surpluses and they were selling these surpluses in the local market at four pesos every kilo. DICONSA, the public agency, started to sell their corn with this double subsidy (the American and the Mexican subsidies) at two pesos a kilo, that is half the price. People started to buy the subsidized corn. Of course, people don’t like much this kind of corn, because it is yellow, it is bad quality, it is corn produced for pigs not for people, but still it is half the price. That is too much for the people. Every family consumes several kilos a day. That price represents a big difference.

This is interesting because it is a deception by the government. This government is against subsidies. They have been suppressing every kind of subsidy to the peasantry but they are using heavy subsidies for corn. Their purpose is not to help the economy of the poor people, but to destroy corn agriculture. If you are selling corn at two pesos a kilo, the local producers can no longer sell their product at twice as much, at four pesos a kilo.

Anyway, one woman, she bought the corn for consumption. It was accepted to have this corn for consumption. It was not forbidden in the law of 1998. But, as many peasants are always doing their experimenting, she said, “I will try some of this corn, imported corn, for my milpa.” She used some of this corn to cultivate and then the contamination started. The whole scandal of (Dr. Ignacio) Chapela started.

Basically, Chapela is a brilliant Mexican scientist working in California at the University of California at Berkeley and he was doing some research at Sierra de Juarez. He discovered this contamination. He published an article in Nature about this discovery and immediately another article in the next issue of Nature rejected this and disqualified the research of Chapela. Nature refused to publish the clarification of Chapela, the answer of Chapela. This became a big scandal.

Chapela was dismissed. He was in the process of tenure at the university and he was dismissed against the opinion of his committee. All his colleagues were supporting him and the committee judging his tenureship celebrated him, but the boss took the decision against the committee and dismissed him. This was a big scandal and the last class of Chapela in Berkeley was attended by thousands of people. There was mobilization, etcetera, etcetera.

Of course, we reproduced all this information here in Oaxaca and national newspapers started to continue their activities against transgenics and disseminated part of the information. People here started to be very, very concerned, particularly indigenous people. Very soon, myths and legends started to circulate -- some of them absolutely wrong, these were local inventions.

The Oaxaca forum on transgenics

But, there was, at the same time, a real hunger for information. What is this? What are they doing? What is the danger of this?

There were many groups of people, like ourselves and many other people, who started to disseminate information. What is the threat? What is the problem? How we can react?

Finally, because we felt there were the conditions for this, we organized on March 10, 2004 a forum here in Santo Domingo in Oaxaca with the support of Francisco Toledo, the painter, who is also the leader of many popular courses. We learned from him when we were fighting against McDonald’s in the main plaza. In the course of that struggle, Toledo, with some friends, was distributing tamales in the main plaza free to the people, to the tourists, etc., to demonstrate what it is we are defending, what we are protecting, why we don’t want McDonald's here. And of course, because it was Toledo, he had The New York Times there. You have a note in the front page of The New York Times about the struggle against McDonald's. There was a lot of pressure on the local government.

With the forum, the transgenic forum, we had a lot of people, indigenous leaders, experts, every kind of person. We used the opportunity that there would be that very day, in Oaxaca, a meeting of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of NAFTA of the three countries Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Because of our pressure with Greenpeace and others, we forced the commission to do a study about transgenic corn and the impact of transgenic corn.

We had confidential information leaked to us by one of the scientists involved with this committee of the commission about the conditions of the report. “They will have a meeting here in Oaxaca to present the study.” So, we organized ourselves, first, to be in the meeting, to spoil the meeting as much as possible in a big fancy hotel, and at the same time to have our own meeting open to the public to discuss the whole thing of transgenic corn.

The forum was a great success. Our boycott of the meeting was a great success – we really spoiled the meeting. And we forced them to produce a very interesting report that is a solid, prudent report talking about the community, saying, “We really don’t know. We are asking for a principle of prudence, the principle of being prudent in the use of certain things.” There is an established principle called the “the precautionary principle” and there was a scientific report about transgenic corn saying exactly that, “We don’t know. We need to be prudent. We don’t know what will happen. Better not until we know, until we continue our research.”

Also, in the forum, we produced this -- previously discussed with many people – manifesto (Defender Nuestro Maiz, Cuidar La Vida). The essence of the manifesto is that we declare Oaxaca territory free from transgenics. Meaning, we will stop with direct action any transgenic corn invading Oaxaca. Since then we have been very aware of any ship bringing corn to Oaxaca to see what kind of corn it is.

In a sense, the forum was very successful in that because of this a public agency recognized that they were responsible for the contamination and they said that they would not bring one transgenic corn, never again, to Oaxaca. They have written a statement inside the agency, we have a copy of it, giving instructions of this from the general director of the public agency.

But still, the government is importing corn and more than we need. Importing transgenic corn. Our current struggle is to prevent these imports and to force this public agency to say to the producers in the U.S. “You need to offer us certification that this corn is not transgenic.” Right now in the U.S. this is very difficult to do because you only have a few areas that supposedly are free of transgenics. The contamination is all over the United States, they are quickly advancing in that direction. Perhaps very, very soon all the corn in the U.S. will be contaminated.

Destroying the soil

The reason is that the American producers, four companies that control 80% of the world trade of corn, they are convinced that the regime of production will collapse pretty soon because you cannot continue destroying your soil with the chemicals, and pesticides, that you are using today. Instead of being the best and final productive system in the history of mankind, it is a very ephemeral one that will last only fifty years with the use of chemicals and pesticides etcetera. First, you need to increase the dose every time. Then, there is the moment when in increasing the dose it becomes unprofitable to continue putting more and more chemicals, pesticides, etc., in the crops. The other element is that you are destroying the soil. You cannot continue forever destroying the soil.

For them, they need to find quickly an alternative for this and transgenic is the alternative, in the sense that you don’t use pesticides any more. That is the argument they are using for the environmental benefits of GMO. You are not using pesticides. You don’t need to put those chemicals in the plant and the soil, thanks to GMO. But, in fact, they don’t know what to do.

Technological corn: the future of agri-power

And there is another element. We are convinced that there is a change in the attitude about corn in the last twenty years, technologically speaking. To illustrate this, there is a declaration of the president of the organization of the corn industry in the United States (Corn Refiners Association), the organization of agribusiness processing corn in the U.S., that says that, “In 150 years we have created ten different lines of products with corn. In the first decade of the 21st century we will have a thousand different lines of products.”

Apparently, it started with Colgate in 1848 producing starch (, which you use in shirts and in 99% of all medicines in the market. In 150 years you had ten different lines of products with corn, of course corn flakes, but many different other things. Today, they have discovered that you can do almost everything with corn. Forty percent of the gasoline used in Brazil comes now from corn and sugar, from ethanol. They are producing parts of cars, shirts, socks, everything. They have been able to produce, now, polymers, the basics for plastics. It can be a very good substitute for oil. Almost everything can be produced with corn.

Right now, 25% of all the products that you buy in Wal-Mart have some corn in it. Not only food, but many other things. Corn has many, many qualities. The U.S. is producing now half of the world production of corn -- basically to export. They need to keep that operation for the future of corn, the technological corn, and they think that they cannot do that with the old system. Transgenic is the alternative.

Also, perhaps, the U.S. is the only country on earth in which you don’t have a real public debate about transgenics. All over Europe you have discussion and even recent decisions about transgenic corn that you cannot bring it to Europe. In every country there is some kind of debate about this, except the U.S., where you have some small sects circulating information, but not much.

Apparently it is of critical importance for the present and future of the agri-power, the possibilities of using this for many different purposes.


To a human size: the level of the municipality

We perceive the threats and we know that our (anti-GMO) declaration is symbolically very powerful, but it has no legal, practical effect. We cannot check every road or every truck coming into Oaxaca. What we are doing is trying to advance a procedure at the level of the municipality, our equivalent to U.S. counties, the basic political unit in Mexico.

In Mexico, in the constitution and in reality, you have the federal government, the state government, and the municipal government. The municipal government is the basic unit of the system. In Oaxaca, because of the struggle of the indigenous people, we have less than 5% of the population of Mexico but we have 20% of the municipalities of Mexico.

In the whole of Mexico you have 2,500 municipalities. In Oaxaca you have 570 -- that is 20% of all the municipalities. Why? Because of the struggle to have the municipality -- that was created by the Spaniards as a tool of control of the people / it was the decentralization of the administration to have control of the people -- used by the people to regain control of their lives. They transformed the municipality into their own tool for relations with the government but also for their own operation to bring the municipality to a human size, to a size in which the communities can really control the municipality. In Oaxaca, most of the municipalities are 3, 4, 5, 8 communities together. They can control this municipality.

To make the comparison, I think this is important, it explains many things. Oaxaca and Chiapas have more or less the same territory and the same number of people, population – three million and a half, more or less. But, in Chiapas they have 115 municipalities, in Oaxaca we have five times more.

In Chiapas, you have the biggest municipality in the whole country; that is Ocosingo, with 300 small indigenous communities. All of them communicate with Ocosingo the capital, but not between them. You cannot have horizontal links between the communities that are very far from each other: there is vertical dependency on the capital. Here, in Oaxaca, you have a completely different situation. The agencies are controlling the head of the municipality, and in fact controlling the government. In that sense, we were advancing in autonomous government in Oaxaca more than the Zapatistas, before the Zapatista uprising. It was all along a struggle to have real independence from the government, to have the local organizations controlling autonomously the life of the people.

Politically active Indians

I would like to connect this to explain the situation of Oaxaca (as asked about in the original question). In 1994, the governor was afraid of the contamination of the Zapatista uprising to Oaxaca because we are the only state where the majority of people are Indians, very strong Indians, and very politically active Indians. He was worried what to do. He started with the idea of something like a New Deal. He came to the conclusion that what was really needed was a new agreement, a New Deal, meaning, “I am dealing with you, I am treating you in a different way.” And the principle was, “We are governing with the people, Indians, not governing to.” Having a kind of agreement and respect. And this covered legal aspects, political aspects, and administrative aspects in many different ways. This was very successful. The government was creating a different possibility. In 1995, there was a very important change in the legislation in Oaxaca.

Honorary service to the community

I need to explain. The people were creating their authorities in the municipalities in their own way, in a kind of radical democracy. Do you know what is a “cargo”? It is an honorary service to the community and it is quite clearly hierarchical. You start giving your cargo, free work for the community when you are 14, 15 years old. You start with the lowest cargos, such as cleaning the municipal palace, or taking the young people out in the fiestas, being messengers, etcetera. But you are advancing in giving service to the community.

In a lot of different positions, during a cargo, you don’t get any payment for the function. The municipal president doesn’t get any payment. In fact, he spends a lot of money. This was also used as a kind of equalization condition. You have a person who becomes a little rich, who has accumulated a certain amount of money, and then you elect him the next year to be the mayordomo, the principal for the fiesta of the village. He spends all the money that he had, even he becomes indebted, to have a big fiesta, to have the prestige of organizing very well the fiesta. He changes money for prestige in the village. And he is recognized as such.

You are advancing depending on the service you provide to the village and, at the end, you can be municipal president only if you have fulfilled well all the other cargos to the village. Every year you have only five, eight people who can be elected as municipal president because you need to have all the other cargos well served in the community.

To make public the consensus

In my village, in the year in which we will have the election decision, in January, we start to talk everywhere, in the cantina, in the houses, at home, we start to talk about the eight or ten names that are eligible, that we can choose between. In this period, you talk a lot with the mothers, the women. “How were these people when they were kids?” “They were pestering everyone?” “They were competitive?” And the people say, “No, that guy is very responsible.” Or, “That guy drinks too much”. And then, by March, you have five names. By April, you have four names. Finally, in September, October, you have only one name left and then you have the assembly.

The assembly is a kind of ritual. It is not really for the election, it is to confirm, to make public the consensus, what is now the consensus. When we come to the assembly, everybody knows what will happen. And what will happen is that the current authority will ask, “Well, what do you think about this guy to be the next municipal president?” and we all raise our hands. We say “Yes”. And then he must say “No”. He must say, “No, no, I can’t, I have too many problems.” “My wife is sick.” Just to show that he is not interested in power. He is not interested in the job. That he needs to be convinced. And then the community will impose on him the cargo of municipal president.

The government / the people

The point is, in many communities, in many municipalities, we respected the official constitutional term of three years, but in many other parts, most of the municipalities, three years were too much. You cannot be in the cargo for three years without payment, abandoning your own responsibilities. So, they changed this and they’d have presidents for one year or one year and a half. In some cases, they created a combination. Every three years, they chose two people. And, in many other parts, they don’t respect anything and they choose one every year and a half. That implied a kind of simulation, a kind of cheating. Everyone knew about this cheating.

So, on the day of the election, the authorities collected all the ballots and documents and sent them to the city, basically to the PRI -- to the dominant party. Sometimes, they sent all the documentation in blank and the PRI filled it in. It was a public simulation and every three years it created a lot of problems because sometimes when they sent this documentation to the PRI, then they changed the name. One cacique, one local boss, one member of the PRI, introduced the name of another municipal president. So, you had two municipal presidents. One, officially recognized by the government, and one defined by the people. Every three years you had at least one hundred post-electoral conflicts in which the PRI and the community were discussing -- sometimes with a violent struggle -- conflicts that lasted for a year. We had that problem all the time.

Governor Diodoro Carrasco

Well, as I said, in 1995 there was this change in the legislation. It was a very smart movement by that governor, a governor of the PRI Diodoro Carrasco (in office 1992-1998)

It was smart in two ways. First, it was good to pacify Oaxaca, to create an opening for the indigenous people to prevent the extension of Zapatismo. And the other was that this governor knew that the political opposition, all the other parties, was advancing a lot in Oaxaca, particularly because of the fraud of the Salinas / Cuauthemoc Cardenas election in 1988. Cuauthemoc Cardenas clearly won in Oaxaca and there was a lot of resentment against the PRI and there was a clear proliferation of success by the political parties, the political opposition. He knew that the mid-term elections will be a problem for him because the PRI will lose in many municipalities. Because of these two reasons, he decided to change the law to legitimize the autonomous decisions of the community. To give them recognition. To end the simulation.

Laws to control the state

Well, there was a discussion with many leaders and NGOs. Many people on the left were asking for legislation establishing the conditions for the alternative way of designation of authorities. Many communities, we opposed this idea. We said, what we need now is what we called umbrella laws, that is the opposite of the normal law. The legislation usually tells the citizens what to do or what not to do. “You have this right. You have this obligation. You must do this or you must do that.” What we need, we said, is laws for the state, to limit the state, to control the state, to give instructions to the state, not to us. We wanted a very simple legislation that was finally accepted telling the government, “You must respect the decision of the community whatever it is, no matter the procedure.” We did not want a standard procedure in the law inviting intervention of the state. We wanted the state to recognize whatever the community decided.

This was an incredible change. In the first election with this procedure, in 1995, it was amazing the impact on the people. A feeling of victory of autonomy. The affirmation of dignity. In some villages you started to see graffiti in the villages. “In this village no party is allowed, and even less the PRI.” It was an affirmation of, "We are ourselves and we are doing this by ourselves". It was a very impressive manifestation, affirmation of autonomy.

We created a new law for the indigenous communities of Oaxaca that is the best law in this aspect in the whole American continent. It applied almost everything from the Agreements of San Andres to the state law.

When the constituted powers violate the law

It is a very, very good law and we have been using it. It has been symbolically very important. But I must say immediately at the same time that the new governor, after Diodoro Carrasco, who was a personal enemy of Diodoro Carrasco, was clearly against him and tried to destroy everything Carrasco did. He tried to change the law. He could not because of the resistance of the people, but the fact is that the constituted powers of Oaxaca have been violating the law for the last seven years. Every day.

One of the reasons is because it is a very interesting law and it requires changing all the other laws of Oaxaca. It is in contradiction with all the other laws. Well, the state, the government, the prosecutors, the judges are using the old laws and not this one. You have double legislation. You need to fight and you need to struggle every time for the new law to be respected.

And this is connected with the Sexta and the position of the Zapatistas. Meaning, what is it that you do when the constituted powers violate the law? When they are not listening to the people and are doing every kind of horrors? I know that it is universal, that 30 million people in the streets were not heard against the war in Iraq. It is happening everywhere that the people want something and the governments do something else. But here it is absolute evidence for indigenous people of how the constituted powers don’t respect the will of the people.

A new consensus for a new constitution

Yet, in Mexico, people are interested in the elections because in the elections next year (2006) there is the possibility of one leftist candidate to become president. There are some possibilities for Lopez Obrador (Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City) and because there is a lot of danger with the other candidates, particularly the one of the PRI, Madrazo (Roberto Madrazo, former Governor of Tabasco), he is a gangster, he is clearly associated with the drug traffickers, it can become a horror to have the PRI back because of the ineptitude of Fox (President Vicente Fox). Many people are interested in this election to support Lopez Obrador who can be a Lula for Mexico. And when the Zapatistas come and say terrible things against Lopez Obrador in the Sexta, it looks foolish. “They are dividing the left.” “They are boycotting the possibility of an alternative candidate.”

But what they are expressing is the disenchantment, the profound discontent of most people in Mexico with the constituted powers. They are saying, “We need to do something else.” And this something else is two things at the same time. They are very explicit. First, to create the public force that can control the government. A political force, by the people, that can be mobilized to paralyze the government, to stop the government in some decisions, to oppose the government in some other decisions, for the transition. And second, to start the reconstruction from the bottom up. With this reconstruction of the society from the bottom up, like the caracoles, then you can create a new consensus for a new constitution to define a different kind of society.

In Motion Magazine: I knew there was a story in corn.

Published in In Motion Magazine April 8, 2006

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