“Why is Mexico hinging its future on a neoliberal economic model when it’s failing everywhere in the world?” asks Edith Morales, a conceptual artist from Oaxaca whose work draws paradoxically from her Mixe roots and her background in accounting. Her artistic practice is extraordinarily meticulous, bordering on the neurotic, and her process is painstakingly repetitive–carrying the visual banality of office life. The materials she uses–file folders, staples, stamps, and receipt tape–draw heavily from the activities required for her day job as an accountant for artists, teachers, and NGOs.
We’re settled around a rickety wooden table in Morales’ work space/experimental urban farm in the hills above Oaxaca. In the open air garden, endemic varietals of maize best suited to a symbiotic system of agriculture known as milpa grow wildly beneath a tangle of telephone wires. Next to the garden is a bamboo and brick-walled gallery where Morales displays dozens of clusters of corn kernels and their places of origin. She hopes to develop the space into an artist’s residence and community center in the future, but for now its main purpose is as a repository of Oaxacan maize.
Of the sixty-seven types of maize found across Mexico, thirty six are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. It took Morales five years of ethnographic field work visiting communities across the state to collect samples and document local agricultural practices–a conceptually simple yet rigorous process of community mapping.
She explains that in terms of both diet and cultural history, maize is the most important crop in Mexican foodways, and recent findings suggest that maize was first cultivated here in Oaxaca 12,000 years ago. Yet, as the Mexican government continues to provide subsidies for industrial agriculture that compromise local land rights and subsistence farming practices in favor of commercially-oriented, genetically-modified (GM) crops. Maize is among the most extensively studied plant species in the history of genetics due to its use as food, feed, fuel. “Well-established breeding strategies [and] easy-to-follow phenotypes” make it relatively easy to sequence and modify. Its genetic advantages also leave it vulnerable to biopiracy, and patents are being sought for industrial and pharmaceutical purposes.
Morales shows us images of a particularly desirable olotón variety with sticky, mucus-coated “aerial roots” that poke out of the base of the plant like stunted crab legs. Wild olotón maize is capable of growing nearly twenty-feet-tall, even in nutrient-poor soil. But what astounded plant scientists from University of California-Davis and Mars Inc. was olotón’s ability to “pull nitrogen from the air and feed it to the plant.” The findings were hailed as the “holy grail” of nitrogen fixation research–the first example of a self-fertilizing corn that could significantly reduce the demand for fertilizer worldwide and prove extremely lucrative if mass produced.
The “discovery” is not without drawbacks or concerns when thousands of years of agricultural development and knowledge are being privatized and co-opted for commercial use. Recognizing long-term potential, BioN2, a subsidiary of Mars Inc., signed an agreement to share financial benefits from the commercialization of olotón with the Mixe community of Totontepec. But farmers in the mountains of Oaxaca are finding it increasingly difficult to grow crops for their own consumption and there is a justified sense of dread that if the land remains unproductive landowners will be either be forced to use genetically-modified crops or sell their land to Mars Inc. or other transnational food producers.
Morales explains that local farmers are generally wary of partnering with biotech firms. The introduction of GMOs into agricultural communities has left a legacy of adverse effects on the soil that has reduced productivity and increased imports from the United States. Flexible laws for GMO cultivation in Mexico, resulting from agreements imposed under NAFTA, prevent the Mexican government from subsidizing maize cultivation for export. To guarantee that cultivation deadlines are met and yields maximized, cheap, genetically modified seeds are distributed widely to replace local species and toxic herbicides are used to tame the wild ecosystem.
Morales’s objective is to strengthen the ancient milpa agricultural practice in order to safeguard symbiotic systems from being destroyed by industrial monoculture farming. The milpa system is a precursor to modern biodynamic agriculture and permaculture, a technique honed over presumably thousands of years that involves planting complementary crops–principally maize, pumpkin, and beans–that create a functional micro-ecosystem suited to subsistence farming in nutrient deficient soil. One milpa crop, for example, can produce enough food for a family, depending on the size, for six months to a year.
The milpa system is a marvel of human ingenuity and genetic evolution, It’s little wonder that it developed in Oaxaca, where the world’s oldest cultivated pumpkin seeds (cucurbita pepo) were recently unearthed–a find that makes it likely agricultural production dates back some 7-10,000 years in the mountains of southern Mexico. The milpa system is symbiotic by design; it seeks balance. In rudimentary terms, a milpa crop field will be seeded with maize (a nitrogen-consuming plant), a specific species of bean, which produces nitrogen, and pumpkins that provide ground cover. Milpa farms can be cultivated every two years and lie fallow for eight years to allow for the natural regeneration of vegetation.
For Morales, preserving the agricultural legacy of her people is only a part of her motivation. She believes that “valuing indigenous knowledge and practices is an expression of love to the land.” She works closely with the National Network in Defense of Maize (Red en Defensa del Maize) on projects that aim to revitalize the milpa system across Oaxaca. The network promotes a return to indigenous practices of subsistence farming, which she sees as integral to the struggle for autonomy and sustainability for local farmers.
Morales’ work is an exploration of the connections between geography, cultural diversity and biodiversity. 570 of Mexico’s 2,446 municipalities are located in Oaxaca alone, making it a unique and complicated socio-political landscape that has been called “a mixture of anarchism and autonomy.” The spirit of protest is palpable in the streets of Oaxaca city and throughout rural corners of the state due to an enduring legacy of organization among teachers’ unions contesting low wages and income inequality during the 1980s and parallel efforts to safeguard indigenous land rights.
When colonial haciendas (primarily in Oaxaca and Chiapas) were broken up and redistributed to Indigenous inhabitants after the Mexican revolution, the government implemented a new system of land tenure that combines communal ownership with individual use called ejido. The constitutional amendment was loosely based on the pre-Colombian Aztec calpulli system and gave farmers tenuous communal ownership over parcels of land provided that it was cultivated at least every two years. But it forbade owners from selling their land, instead obligating them to pass it down to their children. This all changed dramatically in 1992 when then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari caved to pressure from NAFTA signatories and nullified Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution which prohibited ejidos from being leased or sold. The result has been devastating on production, and Oaxaca is now a net-importer of maize.
Morales is critical of current President Lopez Obrador, who she argues has done little to address the dire situation of farmers in southern Mexico. She refers to Lopez Obrador’s political strategy as a manifestation of “neo-indigenismo,” which pays lip service to cultural preservation while justifying extractivismo, or the expansion of extractive industries. She concedes that he inherited policies of neglect that have resulted in decades of mass outward migration to the United States and severely reduced the number of young farmers. But the challenges remain: “We are on our own,” she states without a hint of hyperbole.
Edith Morales refuses to shy away from or be defined by the difficulties of being an artist who engages complicated issues. She is, after all, Indigenous and a woman in a country that routinely dispossesses both. Despite opportunities to travel and work abroad, Morales chooses to live and work in Oaxaca: “I stay to resist machismo. I have to work twice as hard for the same. But that’s OK, because the Mixtecos, my people, we are warriors.”
*Learn more about Edith Morales’ work at: www.edithmorales.com.