top of page

Resisting GMOs and Preserving Indigenous Culture in Rural Mexico

Thanks to a union of land cooperatives, people in Puebla have food sovereignty and education in Nahuatl instead of mega-projects and a Walmart.

Originally Published on Yes! Magazine, October 24, 2019

In Cuetzalán, a collection of remote villages in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Puebla, I visited a remarkable union of cooperatives that is achieving food sovereignty through agroecology. The Tosepan Titataniske cooperatives had drawn on Indigenous Nahuatl traditions and used their remoteness to try to carve out not just an area free of genetically modified crops, but a territory free of megaprojects. It hadn’t come easy.

When the environment ministry announced the large “Cloud Forest” ecotourism project for the area in the late 1990s, the community mobilized. They had already seen the negative impacts of such projects. Mines were contaminating rivers. Hydroelectric projects, taking advantage of the abundant rains in the mountainous area, were destroying the local environment. There were 98 land concessions for such projects in the area.

Tosepan Titataniske, which means “together we shall overcome” in the local Nahuatl language, organized, taking advantage of a national law that allows communities to zone for different land uses. With a series of technical studies and community consultations that involved up to 5,000 people, they approved their “Ecological Land-Use Zoning for the Sierra Norte of Puebla.” The plan identified areas approved for conservation, restoration, sustainable use, and protection (including the main watersheds). Mining and most other megaprojects were defined as categorically incompatible with all four zones.

Getting the plan enforced was another matter, as the companies pushed back. Tosepan created its own Territorial Defense Committee to monitor company activities and led a class action suit to have its zoning plan recognized and enforced. They won their case in March 2015, but enforcement is still a problem. Still, Tosepan leader Enrique Fernández told us that they had successfully stopped four hydroelectric projects and a Walmart through a mixture of legal action, lobbying, and direct action to stop the bulldozers and backhoes.

Stopping Walmart and the national electric company got my attention. Was this another little David taking on a different set of Goliaths? Little wasn’t the word that came to mind as I learned more about Tosepan. The organization, which started in 1977, now has 410 cooperatives involving more than 30,000 families in 25 municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) across the remote region. Leonardo Durán Olguín, the young multilingual local who briefed our small group on the organization, said the goal of the group was yeknemilis in Nahuatl, buenvivir in Spanish, and of course we don’t really have a good phrase for such a lovely concept in English. Good living? No matter, they showed us what they meant.

Cuetzalán is a collection of remote villages in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Puebla. Photo by Jacobo Zanella/Getty Images.

Cuetzalán is a collection of remote villages in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Puebla. Photo by Jacobo Zanella/Getty Images.

Their schools, which were in session, were a good place to start. Tosepan runs its own autonomous school system recognized by the government under a program for remote communities. They get no funds from the government, just some books. It’s supported like many other cooperatives in the community, with donations and a lot of volunteer labor. Their teachers, however, are trained on the Montessori model as bilingual Spanish-Nahuatl instructors. Indeed, in one fourth-grade class the teacher went back and forth between the two languages seamlessly. The goal is to have all children functionally bilingual by sixth grade. She said that younger children come in with stronger Nahuatl (or Tutunaku, the other indigenous language in the region) than Spanish. They want children to be able to function in the larger Spanish-speaking society, assigning books and book reports in Spanish. (“In a country where our president does not read books,” one teacher told us, “we want children who read.” Amen, I thought in 2015, and I didn’t even know what was coming back home.) They keep older children from losing their local language by involving them in cultural projects, including their own weekly radio show in Nahuatl, called Vida Digna in Spanish. (Again, our English isn’t up to the elegance: Dignified Life?) It includes high-schoolers interviewing their grandmothers or older community leaders in their native language.

These were impressive kids, particularly the girls, so poised and articulate as they toured us around the school, showed us their school newspaper, explained how they make biological fertilizers as part of their practical work curriculum. No wonder. Their regular school day involves only two and a half hours of academic instruction. The rest is spent on farmwork, physical education, and arts and local crafts, with an hour for recess and lunch. The food is donated by community members and prepared by a student-staffed cafeteria. Everybody’s involved in community projects. The eco-lodge we stayed in, made entirely with bamboo from a Tosepan project that makes furniture and building materials, is run by a youth cooperative. Other students staff the community store, selling eggs and other farm produce. It is just part of the culture, with all community members participating in tequio, or community labor.

Economic projects center mainly on coffee, which grows on beautiful shaded hillsides that contain 150 different plant species. Their cooperative control of the process has boosted farmer income from coffee 200 percent. Cooperatives also have a successful organic bee/honey operation and the bamboo workshop producing furniture for the local market. We visited the large processing plant in town where they produce high-quality organic pepper for export to the Middle East and Europe. And of course they grow maize, usually inter-cropped with beans, squash, chiles, and other edible plants. Leonardo said the community is largely self-sufficient in basic foods.

It was easy to romanticize Tosepan as being “off the grid,” but as Leonardo made clear, they know that with megaprojects threatening them, they need to engage with the larger national and international economy. They just need to do so strategically, not letting the market decide their collective futures. Certainly Monsanto was not going to decide what they grow or eat in Tosepan.

Copyright © 2019 by Timothy A. Wise. This excerpt originally appeared in Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, published by The New Press and edited and reprinted here with permission. 

bottom of page