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Chiapas Article

Zapatista Seed Saving Project Puts Its First Collection of Traditional Corn Seeds Into Deep Freeze Storage in Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico

       CHIAPAS, Mexico, Sept. 12 (AScribe Newswire) -- The prayers of the kneeling school board members and education promoters were sung softly in Tzotzil. Eventually they floated above the burning candles and escaped through the metal door smiling as they gently caressing the fog-shrouded mural newly painted on the front of the massive concrete library.

       "We're praying for survival of the mother seeds of corn and the success of our students who have just graduated," murmured the president of the school board. "With our wives and the new teachers we ask the creator to allow this school to continue and to give us the strength to continue our resistance."

       The weeks before offering prayers at the school library were a blur of frenzy at the First of January autonomous secondary school in the Zapatista civilian center of Oventik, Aguascalientes II located in the highlands of Chiapas near the municipal center of San Andres Sacamch'en de los Pobres. Two years after opening the first autonomous, indigenous secondary school there was plenty to do. Dozens of varieties of corn seed had to be readied for final storage, students had to practice for their first-ever graduation day, dances had to be finalized, poems had to be memorized, and a feast had to be prepared for graduation day. The prayers would only come after all the work was completed.

       Visiting scientist supports young teachers

       Teachers certainly had plenty to do, but attending classes in seed saving techniques from a visiting scientist topped the agenda for every single education promoter at this civilian Zapatista center know as Oventik, Aguascalientes II.

       "We just wanted to tell you how exciting it is to study about preserving our original corn." Juan and Pedro, young teachers - as young as the students themselves - told a workshop organizer during the first week of study. "We want to thank you for these talks and discussions. It's good to talk about these things in Tzotzil because it is our own language."

       Mother Seeds in Resistance from the Lands of Chiapas is a popular seed bank established on Jan. 1, 2002 by the autonomous, indigenous school system in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. "The big companies like Monsanto are sending their genetically modified corn everywhere," commented one education promoter during a January 2002 interview in Oventik, Aguascalientes II. "We have to save our original corn from infections by these dangerous new forms of life."

       Safe Houses for the Mother Corn

       Large sheets of butcher paper covered the walls of the new second story classroom. One sheet boldly described in Spanish and Tzotzil two types of "safe houses" for Mother Corn.

       "We have to protect these little seeds because they are under attack just like our communities," softly explained one young, education promoter. "My grandfather was killed because he defended the traditions of our community and he believed in justice and democracy. Now even if I am an indigenous woman I have to defend our corn so that our traditions can continue." There were drawings of the safe house for the seed itself and there were drawings of "safe houses" for the indigenous knowledge that surrounds and gives the seed and the Maya people their eternal cycle of life. "You see the seed that cannot survive without its' people, and we cannot survive without our corn."

       "What sort of a camp is this?" demanded the city dweller who had driven three hours into the mountains from the state capital of Tuxtula Gutierrez. "Where do all these people come from and what are they doing?" The indigenous community leader's only comment was that the hospital was taking care of patients, the school had students, and some people were visiting to help with some project.

       The drivers' jaw dropped open farther as he saw the sprawling hillside complex beside a tiny Maya village included brand new school buildings, a massive auditorium, an Olympic sized basketball court facing a large plaza, metal and woodworking workshops, a beautiful church, and rough wooden dormitories with dozens of Mexican and foreign visitors on school construction teams or attending language classes. The delivery man's questions continued as the freezer was connected to the new electrical service and a silent and dark Virgin of Guadalupe complete with Zapatista mask took her place on the wooden wall above the humming white machine.

       "Before the seed can sleep for many years in the freezer," explained the visiting scientist, "our laboratory techniques must prove that the moisture content of the see is below 6 percent; otherwise when the water inside the corn seed freezes it will expand and burst the cell membranes killing the seed."

       The promoters set up their own production line in one of the new two story classrooms as the day dawned and light streamed into the room still waiting for chalkboards and electricity. One team sifted the seed out of the lime where they were stored temporarily to keep them dry and safe from insects. Their red bandana masks that usually protect their identities and identify them as Zapatistas had the more practical purpose of filtering out lime dust.

       Inside, teams of indigenous youth shuttled pots full of corn out to the sifters and another team wrote registration numbers and collection data on the foil and plastic bags and labels and entered each collection into a central registry. The seed teams poured the corn seed into the marked bags and took them to the drying team. There the education promoters carefully placed open bags on pans of a gypsum-drying agent inside a waterproof environment created by two large plastic bags tied with bright colored thread. Several days later found the entire group of education promoters bashing dozens of multicolored corn seeds that balanced precariously on rocks placed on the classroom floor.

       "If the seed mashes it proves that the water content is above the six percent we need," explained one teacher who happily waved a large steel hammer in one hand while balancing a baby on her hip with the other hand. "When the seed shatters it is dry enough to be sealed in these foil bags and placed in the freezer where it will be safe for many years from infections by genetically modified pollen."

       Later in the day students switched to one hundred percent Tzotzil as they explored the uses of corn in their communities. "I'll write it for everyone," exclaimed the enthusiastic education promoter leaping forward. Everyone shouted out names and spoke excitedly, all laughing and debating and talking at the same time over the finer points and the many variations among their far-flung communities. "You really are men and women of corn," joked a visiting teacher trainer as the list of Tzotzil nouns grew longer and longer.

       After the students walked the muddy pathways returning to their homes, a tiny red spot glowed brightly outside the freezer's building signaling that the high tech machine was functioning. And as the moonlight streamed brightly above, light from the large candles still burning in the school's library seemed to accept and welcome the weaker illumination from the safely sleeping seeds. Let us all pray that these people and their corn can survive this brave new world.

       Maya Seed Saving as an Educational Program

       Mother Seeds in Resistance from the Lands of Chiapas is both educational and practical. The project encourages indigenous students to assume responsibility for continuing the science and culture of corn passed on from their Maya ancestors, for thousands of years.

       In addition to collecting and preserving these vital original seeds, students are researching, recording, and studying a vast amount of agricultural and cultural information from these farmers. This data includes the types of soils and mini-climate most suited to each seed type, recipes for preparing each type of corn, as well as ceremonies and stories associated with each variety of corn.

       The Zapatista Education System's seed bank management is integrated as a continual relationship between the farming families and the schools; between the high-tech freezer and the traditional milpa. Collecting, learning and guarding their heritage is a learning process for all students. The entire community of adults and elders who plant and harvest corn to live, are therefore the principal teachers of the students and the education promoters who have replaced the government's teachers in the autonomous schools.

       Mother Seeds in Resistance from the Lands of Chiapas is also a response to the threat posed by the contamination and displacement of indigenous corn varieties by the genetically engineered and high input varieties from the industrialized north that are flooding rural Mexico in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

       Mexico, which is the center of origin of corn and carries the world's greatest diversity of corn, banned cultivation of transgenic corn in 1998. However, the ban is only on the cultivation not on the import of corn seed. Five million tons of North American corn, almost all transgenic, is imported every year. Transgenic corn was found growing in Oaxaca in 2001. Then in 2002 Mexican scientists reported that 12 percent of the plants they sampled from Oaxaca and Puebla were contaminated or were transgenic varieties. The alarming situation forced the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico City to check all of its corn stocks for contamination.

       Attending the National Forum in Defense of Mexican Corn in January of 2002, Zapatista representatives Ricardo and Genaro noted that "We are people who are made of corn and earth" and declared their fear that "agro-chemical companies have patented our natural corn so that we will then have to buy trans-genetic corn." At the forum they announced their intention to start their own seed-banks to preserve and protect their "mother seeds" safe from contamination and annihilation by the invasion of foreign corn strains.

       Students collected sixty-one local varieties of corn from communities throughout the highlands, earlier in the year. In a series of educational and practical workshops during August, these collections were dried to a low moisture content, sealed in special seed storage bags and placed into long term storage in a freezer in the Schools for Chiapas office in Oventic.

       Oventic was established as Aguascalientes II, after the destruction of the original Aguascalientes in the community of Guadalupe Tepeyac by the Mexican Army in the failed 1995 offensive to arrest the EZLN leadership.

       The five Aguascalientes are regional civilian cultural centers with schools, clinics, meeting places, businesses and workshops to serve and support the Zapatista communities and to promote the Zapatista culture and spirit. The Zapatista spirit is made visible in Oventic. It is a spirit of autonomy. It is a spirit of resistance to the global system that sneers at them and wants them gone. It is a spirit of dignity as they resist, and as they walk, creating their own path before them.


       "Declarations of Zapatista Delegates to Forum in Defense of Mexican Corn," Jan 2002

       "NAFTA group to study transgenic corn in Mexico," ENN. June 21, 2002

       "Has Transgenic corn invaded Mexico?" Food First, March 2002 Transgenic Corn Found Growing in Mexico. Nature Sept 2001

       For additional information, contact Libby Navarro, School for Chiapas at 619-232-2841,

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