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Mexican Corn Farmers: Retreat to Subsistence

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.

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."

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