How Mexico’s March Against Monsanto Became a Carnival of Corn!
01 Jun, 2013
On May 25, an estimated two million people across 50 countries participated in the global March Against Monsanto. Organizers estimate that these protests against the U.S.-based transnational biotech corporation were one of the largest days of coordinated action in history. Yet, despite the high level of coordination, the local actions were not all orchestrated by professional organizers—and nor were the resulting actions all traditional marches.
On Saturday, about 2,000 participants gathered in Mexico City for the Carnaval del Maíz, a “Carnival of Corn” to celebrate Mexico’s rich diversity of native corn, threatened by Monsanto’s plans to introduce a genetically modified variety of the crop. The fact that Mexico’s manifestation of the global March Against Monsanto took the form of a carnival is no coincidence. The current generation of Mexican activists is looking for new strategies to fight for social justice, and the March Against Monsanto provided an opportunity to fuse tradition and innovation into the building blocks for a global food revolution.
The beginnings of the action came from an unlikely source: a novice Mexico City activist named Thalía Güido. In early March, Güido found the “March Against Monsanto” Facebook page and learned there was to be a global protest on May 25.
“I started to see [actions] in Africa, in Boston, and I said to myself, how can it be that Mexico isn’t listed?” she remembered thinking. After the organizers confirmed that there was nothing yet planned for Mexico, she decided it was time to start planning.
She started by contacting student-activists who had belonged to her university’s chapter of Yo Soy 132, a movement that opposes Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the nation’s corporate media conglomerate. They liked the idea, so she began reaching out to other organizations.
“I started sending emails like crazy,” said Güido.
The momentum began building. At the first meeting, there were four participants; by the fourth, the group barely fit in the room. By the week before the event, more than 40 different organizations, as well as independent activists, were involved in the organizing efforts—although no one wore name tags identifying what institution they were coming from. Güido attributes the rapid growth of the planning meetings to the horizontal and citizen-oriented structure of the group, as well as to the carnivalesque nature of the event.
“The truth is I don’t want to be an ‘official organizer,’” Güido often told the others. “I want this to grow as a citizen initiative.”
Another reason the event attracted so much participation is because the target—Monsanto—is one of the largest and most reviled corporations in the world. The global scale of last Saturday’s event reflects the far-reaching influence of and animosity toward Monsanto, which is embroiled in controversies around patent litigation, health concerns, environmental destruction and small farmer oppression.
Yet, the corporation’s presence is particularly threatening in Mexico, where much of the rural culture centers on corn production. “It affects everything because our culture revolves around corn,” said farmer and activist Héctor Mendoza Rosas. “And with GMOs what you would have to do is, you wouldn’t be selecting seed, you would be buying it. You wouldn’t be saving seed. You’d have to by all of their stuff.”
This threat to Mexico’s rural agricultural economy and sustainability isn’t new. Since the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994, cheap corn from the United States has undercut small Mexican farmers’ ability to make a living while maintaining the traditional practices that preserve Mexico’s cultural and biological diversity. But today’s plans to introduce a genetically modified crop threatens the very global future of the crop’s genetic diversity because Mexico is, organizers explained, “the center of origin and diversification of corn.”
Monsanto’s presence in Mexico is also seen as an attack, particularly on the nation’s pre-Hispanic cultural values. “There is a very strong nationalism in Mexico based on a mythology,” explained carnival organizer Paula, who chose to share only her first name. “It has always been said that in one way or another, Mexicans come from corn.”
The idea for a carnival stemmed from the organizers’ understanding of this pre-Hispanic culture, known as indigenismo, in which these festivals represent challenges to the ruling power.
“The carnival in Mexico is subversive,” said Carlos Ventura Callejas. He explained that in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest, indigenous communities used the carnival as a way to preserve traditional religious cultures in the face of imposed Catholicism.
“Carnival time is a time to go out and think things that the system doesn’t allow you to think,” said Ventura.
So, organizers thought: What better way to go to battle against Monsanto than by having a Carnival of Corn?