The Perennial Seeds of Zapata
By Simon P. Tye and Eric R. Hagen
Land and Liberty
Industrial agriculture has increased global food production over the past century while accruing disproportionate economic and societal benefits for industrialized nations. Across North America, these benefits have primarily been achieved by increasing production efficiencies, issuing extravagant corporate subsidies, and engaging in widespread habitat destruction that has transformed about half of the contiguous United States into cropland and pasture.1 Since the Industrial Revolution, and especially after scientific and economic developments of the early twentieth century, the cumulative effects of industrial agriculture have rapidly transitioned land ownership to a visible handful of shareholders.
Some of those hardest hit by mass consolidation of agricultural production are Indigenous people who struggle to maintain agrarian lifestyles and subsist in modern economies. Many Indigenous resistance movements have fought agricultural colonialism across North America, however few movements have countered oppressive economic, cultural, and societal conditions mediated by agricultural colonialism as successfully as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) of Chiapas, Mexico. Under the banner of Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata, their movement has maintained territorial control for over twenty-eight years without official recognition by the Mexican government beyond the failed San Andrés Accord.2 Their movement has also captured worldwide public attention, in part due to writers like Homero Aridjis and Gabriel García Márquez and bands like Rage Against the Machine that skillfully described the formation, momentum, and endurance of the Zapatistas to their audiences.3
We are among those who have been inspired by the Zapatistas, both as socialists of some form who wish to see their project of radical democracy and Indigenous empowerment prevail, and as biologists who believe their agricultural practices can help form sustainable alternatives to the climate-ravaging, profit-oriented pursuits of industrial agriculture. We are not affiliated with the EZLN, nor do we speak for them; instead, we wish to outline their history and agricultural practices for those who are unfamiliar. In particular, we believe that previous writing on the Zapatistas has paid insufficient attention to imminent environmental threats facing their agricultural autonomy, and we wish to partially fill that gap.
Maize and Revolution
The Mexican Revolution and ensuing constitutional reforms promised widespread land reform and redistribution, which was primarily enacted by government-mediated partitioning of foreign-owned plantations into ejidos (or small cooperative farms).4 Although these government programs substantially increased land opportunities for agrarian workers, the revolutionary momentum waned under immense pressure from estate owners and corporate influence over the twentieth century. Then, in 1992, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari amended Article 27 of Mexico’s constitution to facilitate the dismantlement of ejidos and rapid growth of industrial agriculture.5
This rapid privatization further impoverished Indigenous agrarian workers across southern Mexico, who had already struggled to grow food and build homes on their stolen land. That same year, the Mexican government signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allowed American farmers to sell maize below the cost of production across much of Mexico due to extensive subsidies.6 In turn, many Indigenous farmers were forced to give up agrarian lifestyles, and over 100,000 would leave to work at urban factories by the year 2000.7
After the passage of NAFTA, members of Indigenous groups across southern Mexico, including the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolab’al, and Ch’ol, rejected neoliberal tyranny across North America and revolted against the federal government. Rather than kneel on Zapata’s spilt blood, the EZLN declared territorial independence and began forming autonomous communities in central and eastern Chiapas. Today, the Zapatistas maintain tenuous, semi-peaceful relations with the Mexican government, and about half of Chiapas comprises the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities where “the people rule and the government obeys.”8 They have since expanded their territory to encompass forty-three communities, where they educate people, expand human rights of historically excluded groups, maintain agricultural independence, and peacefully persist amidst unabated globalization.9 These community-based goals are often implemented through regional schools, which, unlike state-sponsored schools, provide educational opportunities for both children and adults in native languages.10
While community education and outreach are key to the Zapatistas’ enduring persistence, another key element of their empowerment has been their focus on agroecology and sustainable community-owned farming. We believe that agricultural and other biological scientists have paid insufficient attention to how Indigenous knowledge can help form sustainable alternatives to industrial agriculture. In particular, we believe that weaving Indigenous knowledge into mainstream scientific inquiries can simultaneously increase the sustainability of food systems, reduce the use of environmentally destructive agricultural practices, and promote local food autonomy across societies. We hope this case study about the Zapatistas encourages discourse about the benefits of radical agricultural practices and growing costs of industrial agriculture.
Maize and Persistence
Maize has been a dominant crop in the Americas since it was domesticated in south-central Mexico around nine thousand years ago. The cultivation of maize also led to the development of the milpa system, a slash-and-burn farming method that is low-intensity and may even help ameliorate regional deforestation. In milpa systems, multiple crops are grown simultaneously for around two years, then left fallow for several years before subsequent use.11 This innovative system preserves topsoil and prevents excessive erosion, which are critically important in the nutrient-poor highlands of Chiapas.
Milpas include diverse compositions of crops, such as maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, and peppers, that are intentionally arranged to form intricate symbiotic relationships. Specifically, these crop arrangements allow squash leaves to shade the ground and retain moisture on rainfed farms, as beans fix nitrogen in the soil and climb sturdy corn stalks without additional structural support. Collectively, this forms a small agroecosystem that conserves resources, repels common pests without synthetic chemicals, and limits habitat destruction. These polycultures and regenerative agricultural methods are a far cry from the acres of monocultures that now dominate the once Great Plains and their fertilizer runoff that has made part of the Gulf of Mexico uninhabitable for most marine life.12
Defenders of industrial agriculture often argue that milpas produce lower yields than industrial farms, and thus they cannot be used along with other small-scale or organic practices to feed billions of people. But this is actually a matter of fierce debate: the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) estimates about 75 percent of farms worldwide are the size of an average city block, and small diversified farms have been estimated to produce two to ten times as much food per acre as large monocultural farms.13 Moreover, beyond being a more sustainable food system, milpas also strongly reaffirm the Zapatistas’ food autonomy. For example, if the EZLN wished to engage in monoculture-style farming, they would become economically dependent on companies like Bayer that sell highly-integrated networks of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and hybrid seeds. These hybrid seeds must be repurchased annually at exorbitant prices to avoid lawsuits for copyright infringement and may interfere with the use of native maize seeds due to interbreeding or gene introgression.
These worries are not unfounded, as a gene present only in genetically modified (GM) maize was found to have introgressed into native varieties of maize in Oaxaca in 2001, soon after Mexico banned imports of US maize used for human consumption.14 Indeed, despite the Zapatistas’ early victories against industrial agriculture, they have been increasingly faced with agricultural colonization through maize homogenization. These fears have been realized for other small farms across North America, with companies such as Monsanto (which has since been acquired by Bayer) having filed over ninety lawsuits and spending about ten million dollars annually to prosecute farmers that infringe on hybrid seed patents.15 Such oppressive litigation tactics and financial penalties would be insurmountable for Indigenous groups.
Merely acknowledging Indigenous knowledge is insufficient and, instead, we must include Indigenous researchers in the production of science.
In response, Schools for Chiapas—a nonprofit organization that provides educational and building assistance to remote regions of the state—and the EZLN began working with ecologist Martin Taylor to develop the Mother Seeds in Resistance Project. This program created a seed bank to protect regional agrobiodiversity, began genetic testing to preserve native maize varieties, and is part of a growing number of Indigenous seed sovereignty initiatives created to protect heirloom varieties around the world, including the Anishinaabe Seed Project and the Indigenous Seed Sovereignty Network.16 While non-Indigenous movements against GM organisms have largely focused on more controversial claims of health risks, the Mother Seeds of Resistance Project is an anti-colonial and ecological project that preserves the autonomy of agrarian farmers and rejects the environmentally destructive practices of industrial agriculture.
Climate and Nature
However, regardless of whether the Zapatistas are able to preserve native maize diversity, all maize varieties are expected to experience detrimental climate change over coming decades that will reduce crop yields. For example, both native and hybrid maize varieties that have relatively high yields over consecutive years are strongly affected by environmental stressors compared to varieties with low yield stability.17 Under an optimistic perspective, standing genetic variation within native maize could provide selective breeding opportunities for adaptations, such as increased yield stability, that may be beneficial under future climates. Even so, sustained increases in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide are expected to decrease the nutrient content of most crop plants due to energetic trade-offs. Without substantial global cooperation to mitigate future climate change, environmental degradation will exacerbate nutrient deficiencies already experienced by the global poor, including the people of Chiapas.
In southern Mexico, climate change is expected to primarily manifest in the forms of increased mean annual temperature and precipitation variability, as well as increases in the frequencies of droughts and floods during critical growing seasons.18 These increases in environmental variability may profoundly impact regional maize production and potentially result in mass crop failures during extreme years because most regional farms are rainfed rather than irrigated.19 If realized, these extreme environmental conditions may also cause a suite of less predictable negative feedbacks that additively or synergistically diminish regional maize yields. One prominent example is that heavy rainfall can cause nitrogen to leach from soils, especially in regions with limited topsoil with low nutrient content such as the highlands of Chiapas.
Yet, while climate change has become the focus of global change activism, habitat destruction is an oft-overlooked element of the global environmental crisis. For example, Chiapas harbors some of the richest biodiversity across Central America but experienced one of highest global rates of deforestation during the 1970s and 1980s.20 In total, about half of the Lacandon Jungle was destroyed between 1975 and 2000.21 Regional deforestation has been driven by cattle ranching, natural resource extraction (such as a ten-fold increase in land used for palm oil production since the enactment of NAFTA), and human population growth.22 These economic pursuits for regional resources extend beyond the land, with major corporations such as Coca-Cola extracting over 300,000 gallons of water daily. In the neighboring town of San Cristobal, inhabitants have greater access to soft drinks than pure water, which has eroded local health conditions.23 Collectively, these circumstances unequivocally threaten the land, water, and forests that Emiliano Zapata and other Mexican revolutionaries fought and died for.
Autonomy and Camaraderie
The case of the Zapatistas is one of many Indigenous communities that are adamantly combating environmental degradation caused by the remnants of colonialism and the rise of neoliberalism. From the Standing Rock protests and other movements for water sovereignty, to northeastern Ecuadorians filing a class action lawsuit against Chevron for poisoning their people through oil spills, to Oceanic nations that beg the international community to abandon fossil fuels so their islands don’t disappear, it is clear that some of the most powerful movements against environmental destruction are led by Indigenous people. Amplifying their voices and knowledge is imperative to combat global change and enact global reform to include diverse community members as decision-makers and shareholders.
As scientists, we can counter the erasure of Indigenous peoples and work to build more sustainable global agrosystems by removing barriers between scientists, agrarian farmers, and Indigenous people. This idea is not new, and was notably proposed by biologists and SftP veterans Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. Indeed, Indigenous agricultural systems have been studied by anthropologists and other theorists but largely ignored by agriculturalists and biologists in favor of industrial techniques, despite a few exceptions. Moreover, such biases have materialized as the deep entrenchment of agricultural corporations across American universities.
In general, scientists across fields need to increasingly consult and attribute Indigenous knowledge, as well as other knowledge from outside academia, to facilitate scientific progress. For example, Richard Levins frequently invoked the case of Cuban meteorologist Fernando Boytel, who incorporated knowledge of wind patterns from charcoal workers to make a more accurate wind map of Cuba’s Oriente province. Beyond regional environmental conditions, Indigenous knowledge can also greatly increase biodiversity and conservation efforts across agricultural landscapes by promoting transitions toward low-intensity farming methods and reducing the use of synthetic fertilizers and other pollutants. However, without substantial funding increases for Indigenous researchers, particularly those that focus on enriching and understanding their cultures, such as the Mother Seeds for Resistance Project, calls to incorporate Indigenous knowledge will not empower autonomous research. Merely acknowledging Indigenous knowledge is insufficient and, instead, we must include Indigenous researchers in the production of science. Thankfully, there is a growing list of innovative, scientific methods and practices that include Indigenous people and share their perspectives.24
Outside of science, we can all assist the Zapatistas, in particular by donating to Schools for Chiapas, buying their native maize, and advocating against the violence they face. Soon after their revolution, militants supported by the Mexican government brutally murdered forty-five members of a Tzotzil pacifist organization Las Abejas in the village of Acteal. Also during this time, more than 115,000 people were displaced from Chiapas due to generalized violence.25 The Mexican government has inadequately addressed these conflicts about farmland, religion, and political power, while Indigenous people continue to endure rampant food insecurities. More recently, drug cartels have expanded their presence in Chiapas, which previously had relatively low narco-violence compared to greater Mexico. Last year, members of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Sinaloa Cartel fought on the streets and left several dead.26
We strongly suggest scientists across fields increasingly attribute, study, and use Indigenous knowledge while also advocating for their self-empowerment and persistence. If we do not, we would be knowingly complicit in furthering the very environmental colonialism that led to the Zapatista Revolution and oppression of Indigenous people worldwide. We also hope that scientists who read this piece will think critically about how to use their work to support Indigenous movements like that of the Zapatistas and spread word of their struggles. Future inclusion efforts across science and society must extend beyond offering short seats to tall tables and include greater considerations of radical perspectives. To start, please consider donating to Schools for Chiapas and planting your own Seeds of Resistance in solidarity with and in economic support of the Zapatistas. ¡No país sin maíz!
- Dave Merrill and Lauren Leatherby. “Here’s How America Uses its Land,” Bloomberg, July 31, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/.
- Nicholas P. Higgins, “Mexico’s Stalled Peace Process: Prospects and Challenges,” International Affairs 77, no. 4 (October 2001): 885–903, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2346.00224.
- Tom Hayden, The Zapatista Reader (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002); Rage Against The Machine, Evil Empire, Epic Records, 1996.
- T. R. Fehrenbach, Fire & Blood: A History of Mexico (New York: Da Capo Press, 1995), 540.
- James J. Kelly, “Article 27 and Mexican Land Reform: The Legacy of Zapata’s Dream,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 25 (1993–1994): 541–570.
- George A. Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello, Basta!: Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2005).
- James D. Plourde, Bryan C. Pijanowski, and Burak K. Pekin, “Evidence for Increased Monoculture Cropping in the Central United States,” Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 165, no. 15, (2013): 50–59, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agee.2012.11.011; Nancy N. Rabalais et al., “Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia, A.K.A. ‘The Dead Zone’,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 33 (2002): 235–263. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.33.010802.150513.
- Associated Press, “Zapatista Rebels Extend Control Over Areas in South Mexico,” ABC News, August 19, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/zapatista-rebels-extend-control-areas-south-mexico-65057290.
- Subcomandante Insurgente Moises. “Communique from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee,” General Command of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation, August 17, 2019, https://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2019/08/20/communique-from-the-ezlns-ccri-cg-and-we-broke-the-siege/; Marisa Brandt, “Zapatista Corn: A Case Study in Biocultural Innovation,” Social Studies of Science 44, no. 6 (2014): 874–900, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43284257.
- Leanne Reinke, “Globalisation and Local Indigenous Education in Mexico,” International Review of Education 50 (2004): 483–496, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4151614.
- S. Ochoa-Gaona, “Traditional Land-Use Systems and Patterns of Forest Fragmentation in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico,” Environmental Management 27, no. 4 (April 2001): 571–86, https://doi.org/10.1007/s002670010171.
- Plourde, Pijanowski, and Pekin, “Evidence for Increased Monoculture Cropping”; Rabalais et al., “Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia.”
- High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE), Investing in Smallholder Agriculture for Food Security (Rome: Committee on World Food Security, 2013), https://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-6_Investing_in_smallholder_agriculture.pdf; David R. Montgomery, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 159.
- Brandt, “Zapatista Corn.”
- Center for Food Safety, Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers, January 3, 2005, https://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/reports/1401/monsanto-vs-us-farmers.
- Tania Aguila-Way, “The Zapatista ‘Mother Seeds in Resistance’ Project: The Indigenous Community Seed Bank as a Living, Self-Organizing Archive,” Social Text 32, no. 1 (2014): 67–92, https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-2391342; Reinke, “Globalisation and Local Indigenous Education.”
- A. T. Mastrodomenico et al. “Yield Stability Differs in Commercial Maize Hybrids in Response to Changes in Plant Density, Nitrogen Fertility, and Environment,” Crop Science 58, no. 1 (2018): 230–241, https://doi.org/10.2135/cropsci2017.06.0340; Carolina Ureta et al, “Maize Yield in Mexico Under Climate Change,” Agricultural Systems 177 (2020): 102697, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agsy.2019.102697.
- Götz Schroth et al., “Towards a Climate Change Adaptation Strategy for Coffee Communities and Ecosystems in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, Mexico,” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 14 (2009): 605–625, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11027-009-9186-5.
- Rodrigo G. Trevisan et al., “Multiyear Maize Management Dataset collected in Chiapas, Mexico,” Data in Brief 40 (2022): 107837, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dib.2022.107837.
- Rhiannon Elms, “Mexican Coffee Production Continues to Rebound from Coffee Rust Disease,” USDA Foreign Agricultural Information System, May 31, 2019, https://apps.fas.usda.gov/newgainapi/api/report/downloadreportbyfilename?filename=Coffee%20Annual_Mexico%20City_Mexico_5-31-2019.pdf; Eduardo Mendoza and Rodolfo Dirzo, “Deforestation in Lacandonia (Southeast Mexico): Evidence for the Declaration of the Northernmost Tropical Hot-Spot,” Biodiversity and Conservation 8 (1999): 1621–1641, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1008916304504.
- Luis Cayuela, José María Rey Benayas, and Cristian Echeverría, “Clearance and fragmentation of tropical montane forests in the Highlights of Chiapas, Mexico (1975-2000),” Forest Ecology and Management 226 (2006): 208–218.
- Richard E. Bilsborrow and David L. Carr, “Population, Agricultural Land Use and the Environment in Developing Countries,” in Tradeoffs or Synergies? Agricultural Intensification, Economic Development, and the Environment, ed. D. R. Lee and C. B. Barrett (Wallingford, UK: CAB International, 2001); Héctor B. Fletes-Ocón and Alessandro Bonanno, “Responses to the Crisis of Neo-liberal Globalization State Intervention in Palm Oil Production in Chiapas, Mexico,” International Journal of Society of Agriculture and Food 20, no. 3 (2013): 313–334; David L. Carr et al., “A multilevel analysis of population and deforestation in the Sierra de Lacandon National Park, Peten, Guatemala.” Documents D’analisi Geografica 52 (2008): 49–67.
- Oscar Lopez and Andrew Jacobs, “In Town with Little Water, Coca-Cola Is Everywhere. So Is Diabetes,” The New York Times, July 14, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/14/world/americas/mexico-coca-cola-diabetes.html.
- Saima May Sidik, “Weaving Indigenous Knowledge into the Scientific Method,” Nature 601, no. 7892 (January 2022): 285–87, https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-00029-2.
- Redacción Yessica Morales, “Chiapas suma 37 desplazamiento forzados desde 1994; más de 115 mil personas desplazadas,” Chiapasparalelo, June 3, 2020, https://www.chiapasparalelo.com/noticias/chiapas/2020/06/chiapas-suma-37-desplazamiento-forzados-desde-1994-mas-de-115-mil-personas-desplazadas/.
- “Cartel Territorial Battles Escalate in Chiapas as CJNG Attempts to Muscle in,” Mexico News Daily, July 12, 2021, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/cartel-territorial-battles-escalate-in-chiapas-as-cjng-attempts-to-muscle-in/.