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Upside Down World, an online progressive magazine focusing on Latin America, carried a story last week about a Zapotec festival held in the town of Santa Gertrudis earlier in February. The fourth annual Feria of the Cornfield—Globalization and the Natural Resources—was organized by a local group, the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO). The group tries to preserve the indigenous Zapotec culture and the purity of their corn, untainted by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), specifically genetically modified corn seeds.

The fair attracted participants from around Mexico and many other countries who are interested in the Zapotec farming culture—and the GMO controversy. The theme of the fair this year was a specific focus on the dangers of genetically modified corn. It emphasized and showcased indigenous corn, the basis of the Zapotec culture. One community leader, Rodrigo Santiago Hernandez, said during the opening plenary session, “If we don’t cultivate corn, we have no life. It is central to our existence. We are the people of corn.”

Another Zapotec leader, Baltazar Felix, said pretty much the same thing. “To be a campesino or campesina allows us to respect and understand the profound worth of our [earth].” He argued that corn provides the basis for their identity and is central to their customs, culture, and way of life.

The Mexican government of President Calderon recently reversed an earlier ban on the importation of GMO corn into Mexico. The Zapotec farmers emphasized at the fair their concerns for the purity of their corn, which is threatened, as they see it, by the GMO seeds.

The second day of the fair celebrated the rich traditional Zapotec culture with demonstrations of local food dishes from different communities made with corn in various ways. At the booths, cooks explained the techniques and skills of cooking corn from such communities as Asunción Lachixila, San Cristóbal Lachirioag, and Santa Maria Temaxcalpa. The exhibitors produced dishes such as canavalia, tortilla de platano, pozoncle, pozol, and mazorcas.

One lady, Doña Maria from Lachixila, explained that, even without money, she could eat if she had preserved corn seeds. It is those seeds which give the Zapotec their treasured autonomy. When people can no longer be self sufficient in food, when they have to go out and buy it, they are unable to govern themselves. Autonomy is essential to the Zapotec people. The absence of state power—army or police—is a noticeable feature of their communities. The reporter observed that a drunk had just been incarcerated in the town jail, which is located directly under the restaurant, demonstrating the local power of the community to control itself.

On the third day of the fair, the attendees visited a farm and an exhibit of small scale agricultural practices. One outspoken campesino, Don Carlos, told the visitors to his farm that the government would prefer them to work in the maquiladoras rather than stay on their small plots and work with their hand tools. “They don’t want us to remain as campesinos. They say we are unproductive and useless. But we are going to stay here, in our cornfields, in our communities because this is what we want; this is what the people want.”

Zapotec representatives at the event discussed other issues that confront their communities. Mining by a large Canadian firm threatens villages in the region where the mine is located by polluting their waters and their natural environment. Local inhabitants are “carrying out direct action against the mining company,” according to one speaker, by blocking roads and the movements of heavy mining equipment. Large-scale, industrial animal operations also pose threats to small communities.

In the opinion of Aldo Gonzalez from UNOSJO, contaminating corn by the introduction of GMOs is a crime. GMOs contaminate not only local corn but also local culture. He insisted that the Zapotec people have an intimate connection to the land, which is based on corn. Their corn represents, to them, water, land, and culture, he suggested.