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Corn Coalitions: Struggles for Food Sovereignty in Mexico


MEXICO IS THE BIRTHPLACE OF CORN and it is here that the world’s greatest biodiversity of this plant exists, largely under the guardianship of diverse indigenous farmers. The Maya of Southern Mexico have a particularly close spiritual and cultural connection with this plant, as their creation story details how their flesh is made from corn. However, the liberalisation of the Mexican economy, which has intensified since NAFTA came into effect in 1994, has resulted in a massive increase in the importation of cheap, mass-produced US corn into Mexico. The drive towards economic efficiency, at the expense of biodiversity and cultural sensitivity, is threatening the livelihood of many indigenous Mexicans. There are also reports that it has led to the unexpected arrival of GM cultivars in the region which threaten to contaminate and reduce the genetic variability of native corn, raising questions about food sovereignty and future food security. The presence of foreign GM corn in Mexico also poses a threat to the sociocultural identity of the Maya. In response to these occurrences, and encouraged by the Zapatista uprising, indigenous communities in southern Mexico and all over the country have been actively engaging in coalitional resistance movements which centre on a reappropriation of corn as a marker of cultural identity. These movements have positioned their struggle as one against neoliberalism and they have courted the support of international civil society to strengthen their resistance.

The purported presence of GM corn in Mexico challenges national sovereignty, regional security, and local practices. However, the rise of new political and cultural alliances centred on corn do not just represent efforts to maintain, or to revert to, the authenticity and purity of Mexican corn and its indigenous cultivators (though, this is an important element for many participants). It also represents a struggle to maintain economic rights and control of their products in response to concerns that transnational corporations may seek to patent local Mexican corn varieties. Furthermore, it serves to highlight the interconnectedness of the global food trade and global food security. The political and cultural alliances that have developed around corn do not just represent efforts to close down borders and to challenge the advances of technoscience to protect traditional or local interests. They represent localised movements working within contemporary global food networks, in an effort to protect their niche, way of life, and sociocultural subjectivities.

Conflict over resources is not new in southern Mexico, but the battle over corn represents the first time that these issues have taken on such a significant global dimension. This is largely attributable to the development of worldwide support networks, primarily in the form of international NGOs and their electronic portals. These networks were readily available to these corn movements thanks to the preparatory work of the EZLN which courted and operationalised global electronic support for their ongoing uprising which began in 1994.  The Zapatistas themselves benefited from the existing presence in Chiapas of many NGOs that had established bases in the state prior to the 1992 quincentenary celebrations of Columbus’s discovery of the “New World”, and had stayed in Mexico to assist the indigenous peasants fight against the alterations to Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution (which protected indigenous rights to communal land), therefore, against the implementation of NAFTA. The EZLN’s connection with a vast range of International NGOs led to them engaging in what has been described as a “netwar” facilitated (Ronfeldt et al., 1998). Indeed, Cleaver writes of a “Zapatista effect” which he claims has the potential to permeate and inform social struggles throughout the world and reweave “the fabric of politics” by demonstrating the ability of grassroots movements to form national and international collectives to challenge the power of the nation-state and global economic trends (Cleaver, 1998: 637).

The movements coalescing around corn began as localised collectives mobilising through existing indigenous networks in an effort to protect indigenous ways of life, however, the shape and structure of their struggle has also been formed in relation to contemporary global networks which resist neoliberalism and the threat it poses to indigenous traditions, economic sustainability, food sovereignty and food security. These concerns are articulated through the intensified information flows and interconnectedness that are the hallmarks of globalisation. As a result of the “Zapatista effect”, these corn-based movements have gained worldwide support to assist them achieve their local and regional goals. This success is largely attributable to the fact that their struggle has been successfully positioned within the intricate, interconnected global economic, political, cultural and communication network which is a defining feature of the current era.

In January 2002 representatives of national Mexican civil society, from environmental, human rights and peasant organisations gathered In Mexico City along with academics and Indigenous authorities “ranging from the Tzeltal nation on the southern border to the O’odham people on the northern” for the First Forum in Defense of Corn (Ross, 2002). This forum prompted the development of cooperative nation-wide strategies aimed at combating the presence of GM corn which was declared a threat to food sovereignty and the way of life of indigenous and rural Mexicans. More broadly, the forum positioned their struggle as one against neoliberalism, the dictates of which had enabled GM corn to enter Mexico and threatened their economic viability and sociocultural identity. The forum issued demands to the Mexican Government, calling for an end to the importation of GM food, and, importantly, also to international institutions such as the FAO, demanding they proceed with caution and engage in dialogue with local communities before introducing GM food and crops around the world (Herrera, 2004). This attracted further attention from international movements, especially those concerned with resisting the introduction of GM food, preventing biopiracy and protecting biodiversity, food sovereignty and food security. These included groups such as the Organic Consumers Society, GRAIN, Greenpeace, the ETC (Action group on Erosion Technology and Concentration), and the Indigenous Peoples Council on Biocolonialism. Perhaps the most significant node in this network is Via Campesina, an international movement which was established in 1992 with the principal aim of developing “solidarity and unity among small farmer organizations in order to promote gender parity and social justice in fair economic relations; the preservation of land, water, seeds and other natural resources; food sovereignty; sustainable agricultural production based on small and medium-sized producers” (

Meanwhile, on the local level with the support of national and international civil society rural indigenous Mexicans initiated independent testing of their corn. Concurrently, at the end of 2002, some of those coalescing around corn also joined a new rural organisation, “The Countryside Can’t Take it Anymore,” composed of subsistence farmer and as well as medium to large agricultural producers and peasant organisations. This movement has been vocal in its demands for a renegotiation of the agricultural chapter of NAFTA, but despite the government’s participation in discussions, the significant changes many in the rural sector are calling for have not been realised. Around this time, “members of Mexican civil society, international organizations and, in particular, indigenous and peasant groups from Oaxaca” petitioned the Commission of Environmental Cooperation (CEC), a by-product of NAFTA designed to promote tri-national dialogue, incorporating public input to preserve the shared environment of North America, to undertake an independent study into the effects of GM corn in Mexico (Commission for Environmental Cooperation, 2004). They agreed, and the momentum of the corn-based movement prompted the convening of the Second Forum in Defense of Corn in 2003. Here, the international dimension of their struggle was reinforced but increasingly the movements were feeling that change at the international level was going to take time. Aldo Gonzalez, a Zapotec corn farmer declared that “This is no time to beg for alms from the aggressor” (in Ribeiro, 2004). What followed was a refocusing of their energies on local community strategies, such as education programs to inform both the cultivators and consumers of the potential threats of GM corn. Despite these local moves, the importance of global connections in their local struggle are reaffirmed by groups such as Via Campesina, who continue to organise campaigns designed to protect food sovereignty and security around the globe. These efforts are highlighted by the mass protests and mobilisations against neoliberalism organised to coincide with the annual meetings of the World Bank and IMF in Singapore in September, 2006.

What Cleaver calls the “Zapatista effect” seems to offer a significant political advance for marginalised groups who previously would have struggled to find a national, let alone international media presence. However, he warns that such groups will continue to encounter strong resistance from those with a vested interest in maintaining the supremacy of the nation-state. This was demonstrated when the success of members of civil society and indigenous groups in petitioning the CEC study was tempered by the failure of the NAFTA nation’s to implement the recommendations of the report released in 2004. In fact, all of the governments have expressed concerns over the manner in which the independent study was designed, carried out, and how the results were compiled. Still, the use of information-age technology to stimulate the creation of collective transnational support networks presents as a useful strategy for contemporary social struggles, but it does not guarantee the procurement of significant political, economic and social change.

Mexican resistance movements revolving around corn should not be categorised as localised movements that simply make use of the technologies of globalisation to support small-scale, regional concerns. Instead, these movements are indicative of the globalisation of contemporary information and food networks. The shape and structure of the localised struggles are fabricated within contemporary global networks, not only in resistance to the consequences, and the neoliberal ethos, of the global food trade but in conjunction with the broader information flows and interconnectedness that are the hallmarks of globalisation. Those who are coalescing around corn are not simply reacting to localised fears of cultural annihilation, or appealing to notions of authenticity and tradition to justify their cause. They are situating their demands within global concerns for future food security and food sovereignty.

Works Cited

Cleaver, Harry M. Jr. (1998). “The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the Rise of an Alternative Political Fabric”. In Journal of International Affairs, 51(2), 621-640.

Commission for Environmental Cooperation. 2004. Maize and Biodiversity: The effects of transgenic maize in Mexico. Canada, Communications Department of the CEC Secretariat. Electronic document, Retrieved August 22, 2008.

Herrera, Ramon Vera. 2004. In Defense of Maize (and the Future). Trans. Laura Carlsen . Citizen Action in the Americas Series, 13. Americas Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center, August. Electronic document, …. . retrieved August 25, 2008.

Ribeiro, Silvia. 2004. The Day the Sun Dies: Contamination and Resistance in Mexico. Seedling, July. Electronic document, Retrieved August 22, 2008.

Ronfeldt, David, Arquilla, John, Fuller, Graham E. and Fuller, Melissa (1998). The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico. RAND, Santa Monica, California.

Ross, John 2002, February 28. In Defense of Maiz. ZNET. Electronic document, Retrieved September 8, 2008.

Author biography

Bethaney Turner is a lecturer in International Studies at the University of Canberra. Her research interests revolve around issues of sociocultural identity which are informed by theories of representation and discourse. In particular, she has an ongoing interest in the nature of social revolutionary movements in developing nations. Dr Turner’s PhD research examined the discursive practices employed by the Zapatista movement of Mexico.

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