Planting corn is a family affair for the Cruzes. When we went to visit their land, little did we know we were entering into an autonomous space called San Juan Chilateca. Román and his family form the nucleus of a grassroots initiative called Espacio KRUZ- a local hub committed to self-reliance and the open dispersal of information on the illegal practices of mining corporations, which have detrimental effects on communally held land and people. The family farms their land by traditional means, while also incorporating new eco-technologies (eco-tecníqas), which they also share.
When our delegation arrived, we were greeted by Yasmín and Román, their daughter Quetzali, and their cousin Dora. We passed by a large pile of corn waiting to be husked, two large bulls, and banana trees in mid-growth. Behind the street view of hand-assembled fences, a space of respite and ingenuity was waiting to be revealed. Espacio KRUZ (The Coordination of Resistance in Unity and Solidarity) occupies a small swath of land at the foothills of the countryside. Their home incorporates considerable eco-technology, where walls and roofing and tools are made from cañuela- a reed that functions like bamboo. Here they grow corn, pumpkin, garbanzos and other legumes and are experimenting with new crops such as carrots. All members of the family help with la cosecha (the harvest) starting with Román’s father who has preserved the oldest surviving corn seed in their family. He also fashioned the yoke which sits over the neck and shoulders of the family oxen used to plow their fields.
As curious farm stewards we had many questions for Roman’s family about how they prepared the fields. When do you plant the beans? How exactly are the fields plowed? When are the corn stalks cut? How do you replenish the soil, and with what manure? The Cruzes still use a traditional method of preparing the fields, creating rows and furrows. The corn and accompanying sister seeds are deposited into the furrows and then covered using soil from the rows upon reaching the shins/knees. This planting system is called la milpa, which addition to staple crops, produces flowers (for consumption, pollination, and celebration) and edible weeds like quelites. Each member of the family had something to offer, including Quetzali who shared that she chose to leave school after other students teased her, simply because her family worked the land. She explained that she had pride in this work, and that it was important that she knew how to take care of the land when so many other young people had lost interest.
The deep bonds this family has to one another and to tradition are readily apparent; yet interrupting this idyllic vision is the threat of rapid encroachment from mining companies predominantly of Canadian origin. Oaxaca is México’s fifth largest state, and due to its rich supply of underground minerals and precious metals, nearly 15% of the land has been leased/granted for international “development.” This is a violation of México’s constitution, which is supposed to prohibit foreign companies from consuming its resources but was altered to make concessions for international investors. Though it is illegal for communally held land to be proportioned off without the consent of its inhabitants and of local forms of government, foreign enterprises employ a variety of ethically devoid maneuvers to grab and go. Román pointed out “Though we own what’s above the land, we don’t own what’s below.” “It’s the same up north, no?” Looking at a map of the Valles Centrales region, in the center was a large, ominous square—denoting land that had been guaranteed to mining companies, whose resources would be dispossessed from its inhabitants.
Before we move into this weighty conversation, we are welcomed with an immaculate meal based in local ingredients and family recipes. The staple course is green mole with pumpkin seeds and a chicken that had been living on the ranch. The mole carries a smooth consistency and has a rich texture that satisfies every corner of the palette. Alongside the mole is a dish called chileajo (chile-garlic), which consisted of small cubed potatoes, red chile, and garlic. A critical piece of the meal were the food carriers-tostadas and memelas-a thin crispy tortilla and a thicker cake covered with a thin layer of beans and cheese- both made of cornmeal they had grown and processed. The corn husks had also been employed as fuel for the oven, which had been fashioned at one of the collective’s trainings. We were also served a dish typically made during weddings- an egg bake called higaditos, named for the finely diced pieces of pig liver that flavored the dish. And lastly, to cleanse the palette there were two kinds of fruit water- both pumpkin and tangerine. Somehow, after eating we managed to rise from our seats and husk a basket of corn before diving into dialogue.
Román began his discourse by critiquing an ideology of descampesinización, or the removal of campesinos, which had begun before the imposition NAFTA as more land was placed into the hands of foreign companies. He explained that millions of farmers were forced to leave their land as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The government has tried “Dispossess us of culture and place,” he said. Román’s family stands in opposition to many community members who favor development projects such as paving roads, which they see as signs of progress in the context of modernization. Yet, to the Cruzes, the paved roads do nothing but facilitate water runoff and create a red carpet for mining trucks to pass through the community with ease.
Companies pay low taxes on their gains, can sue the government for any circumstance deemed impediment to their advance, and have limited if any accountability to upholding human rights. In our trip to EDUCA, a nonprofit that works on advocacy and mobilization with indigenous communities, Neftalí and Felipe explained the consequences of NAFTA in relation to multinationals, namely the establishment of International Tribunals. A lesser known outcome of NAFTA’s ratification was the Investor State-Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system, which was created to arbitrate financial disputes between companies and the foreign countries in which operations are based: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/04/opinion/when-corporations-sue-governments.html. The tribunals are another means to protect companies, which sue host countries for losses in assets due to issues ranging from protest to further necessary environmental review.
The resistance is a constant David and Goliath struggle, which has not only placed indigenous and farming communities in a precarious position but also divided communities by those who favor mines, dams, and other development projects and those who advocate for local autonomy and land protection. The stakes in México and in indigenous communities throughout Latin America are perilous, as multiple activists and local leaders have been assassinated due to their positions on the mines, including Óscar Venancio Martínez, Félix Misael Hernández, and Honduran environmental activist, Berta Caceres among others. The parallel can be drawn with our Minnesotan and indigenous communities where debates over the merits of mines, fracking, and pipelines where the plan for economic growth entails potentially irreversible harm to the land. Nevertheless, there communities have been victorious; in Magdalena Teitipac (above), community banded together to resist the entrance of a silver mining company, Mineria Real Plata, into their lands. We can support these communities by following their lead and responding to calls for action against human rights abuses. Back home, there is also much work to be taken up in response to indigenous communities response to impositions on their sacred lands. La familia Cruz continues to fight with grace and love for one another in the place they reside and tend to.