Protecting the Land, the Culture, the People
For three weeks in early 2014, I travelled to Mexico. This is the fourth post of a series from that trip.
In Oaxaca City’s zocalo, the southern building is draped with banners. Workers are camped out, cook for each other, sit behind information tables or stand pressed next to each other, listening intently to stories of their own plight being told through a bullhorn. They come from small towns sprinkled across the state to protest the government’s neglect and their collusion with multinational corporations, allowing them to encroach on ancestral lands, threatening their people’s very survival.
With introductions through Grassroots International, I met organizers from UNOSJO (Union of Organizations of Sierra Juarez Oaxaca) and SERMixe to learn more about the diverse people of the area. Gabriela Linares Sosa of UNOSJO patiently explained to me that for the various indigenous groups that form her organization, corn is integral to their way of life; they are farmers and peasants who subsist on this main staple and other organic crops they grow. They regard industrial agriculture, with its insidious promotion of harmful pesticides and genetically modified seeds, as not only harmful to their health but also to their self-determination. While my Spanish was not good enough to catch certain nuances, I understood the situation since UNOSJO and SERMixe are part of a global social justice movement. Whether corn and coffee in Oaxaca, Mexico, or forest and fish in Palawan, Philippines, the stories are the same. Indigenous people and allies are pushing back against economic colonization that allows corporate agriculture to poison the soil and water, and wrests away control from local people.
In Mexico, their work is paying off. Like the Battle of Puebla (the victory of outnumbered and outgunned Mexican troops over the French on May 5, 1862), the persistence of indigenous people throughout the country to fight off powerful multinational forces has led the Mexican government to ban genetically modified corn from being grown within its borders.
But the fight isn’t just with corporate agriculture. SERMixe representatives also talked about how drug trafficking was wreaking havoc in the Mixe communities. SERMixe’s Marcelino Nicolas Sanchez explained that in Santiago Tutla, locals formed their own municipal guard since the government was not doing anything to protect them. They literally put chains around their town and outsiders had to ask permission and explain the purpose of their visit. The situation came to a head in 2007 when the townspeople detained a group of people they suspected of drug trafficking. Marcelino explained that since these suspects had connections with the ex-governor and others within the state and federal governments, the townspeople now have to defend their actions and the case continues to this day.
Again, I was reminded of the Philippines. Palawan NGO Network made citizen’s arrests and confiscated trucks and equipment used for illegal mining and logging since the local and federal government were not taking action.
I had hoped to photograph more extensively the work that UNOSJO and SERMixe were doing, but unfortunately, traveling to the remote communities in which they worked wasn’t possible during my relatively short stay in the area. Still, I am thankful that they took time to tell me their stories. Despite national borders and language barriers, we share the same vision of social and economic justice.
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