Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 3, Part 2 - A Tri-Lingual, Multicultural Corn Experiment

This is the sixth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. Our third day was our first full day with the Zapatistas. We spent it in one of their administrative centers ("caracoles") in the highlands near San Cristobal de las Casas. This diary describes our work with the agroecology team as we tried to plan an experiment using neem to help preserve corn.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

This was when the real work of defining the experiment began. (The experiment is described here.)

Peter started by asking the Ag team how to say the name of our experiment in Tzotzil. They wrote the following words on the white board:
Xchanobil: Experiment
Sbikit: Mini
Snail: House
Ixim: Corn
*X is pronounced “sh”

This cleared up a lot for me. I knew the Zapatistas were into snails, but I could not figure out why the word “Snail” was written on every single building in English. Now I realized that it wasn’t English at all. It was Tzotzil for “House.”

Then Peter asked how “xchanobil” translated into Spanish. Aprendizaje, said the Ag team. Learning. Peter asked what they thought the experiment was for. They replied, “We are doing something practical that will teach us something.” And that the experiment is “to look at something you don’t know, first with books, and then do something practical to see if you get results.” Yup. Pretty much. But they weren’t really down with the idea of controlled variables.

Ultimately, Peter concluded that they just had too much at stake to slowly test out the neem using one variable at a time. Each member of the Ag team oversaw other Agroecology experts, who were coming to them with problems, and those experts had tons of farmers coming to them with problems. The handful of guys in the room were being bombarded with questions about corn storage by thousands of the world’s best corn farmers.

While this discussion went on, Susan and I made lists of the variables in the experiment. First, there were the variables we could not control: Each of the four locations had different climates, different varieties of corn (adapted to those climates), and different species of pests and fungi affecting the corn. In addition, some places store the corn with the husks on, and some stored it with the husks off. One area store the corn as kernels, off the cob.

We also had a choice of whether to stack the corn or just toss it in the storage container willy nilly, and whether or not to purposely exclude ears of corn with noticeable pest damage. The farmers here already remove the most damaged ears and feed them to their animals, but Peter and Susan had come across some research that showed that leaving out ears with even slight damage and eating those first, storing only the undamaged ears for the long term, would reduce the amount of pest damage.

Aside from that, we had to decide how long the experiment would last, and how to apply each of the three neem products. And that question was what really puzzled us. We had two fine powders and an oil. One of the powders, the leaves, were water soluble. The other, the seed, had to be mixed with water using something to emulsify it, like soap. But if we used water on the corn, would it cause the kernels to germinate? We could also use something like ash to mix the neem in with the corn. And perhaps we could use the oil to paint the inside of the storage units.

The Ag team told us that in the past, people here had used ash to keep the bugs out of their corn. That worked, but it was dirty. More recently, they began using cal, the lime they use with their corn to make tortillas or tamales. Cal worked for a while and now it did not. We tossed around various ideas, keeping in mind that most of the families who would implement any solution we found have nearly no cash, and almost certainly no car to take them to a store. For a rich American with a car, diatomaceous earth might work (but then again, so might Tupperware or a freezer). Here, that would be impossible. It seemed that ash was the best choice, and the Ag team clearly understood why ash was a good idea, but still worried that their farmers wouldn’t accept it. Also, sun zaps the active ingredient in neem, so treating the corn with a wet neem mixture and drying it in the sun was out of the question.

One of the most classic Zapatista moments of the day was when the subject of religious ceremonies came up. Apparently, some of the farmers have performed ceremonies to try to keep the bugs from getting their corn. Peter suggested that, if the Ag team wished, we could have a ceremony when we put the corn in our experimental storage units.

The Ag team replied, calmly and politely, with a rather lengthy statement about how much they respected the communities and any religious beliefs or ceremonies they held. However, they are technicians, and they are here to kill bugs. Translation: No ceremonies. They put this even more simply a few minutes later when they said “Objective: Maximum weight of corn. Enemy: Bugs.”

(From what Peter has told me, this was a very Zapatista answer, in its politeness and delicate wording. He told me of another instance when he and his delegation had been shopping at both a Zapatista-owned and a non-Zapatista owned store… the Zapatista leaders approached him and said something along the lines of, “We don’t mean to offend you, and, um, we’ve noticed that you shop at both stores and, now – we don’t want to tell you what to do but – we have heard that the owner of the non-Zapatista store has stockpiled weapons and we are afraid that he might attempt violence against us, so – you don’t need to do this, but – we have decided not to buy from that store owner and, if you want to not buy from him too, that would be okay with us.”)

The Ag team was also interested in looking at which species of bugs were eating their corn, if possible. They told us that palomillas (weevils) and gorgojos (moths) were some of the pests. However, the corn in the tropics gets eaten quicker than corn in colder areas. When the municipality of Magdalena (in Oventic, the colder area) bought 20 tons of corn from tropical La Realidad, that corn was eaten much quicker than corn grown in cold areas. It seems that the pests came along with the corn. We asked to make sure that the tropical bugs they introduced to Magdalena were dead, and it seems that they are. The corn had been stored in a metal working shop and they no longer store corn there. But it did bring up the question of whether pests are moving with the changing climate.

The team decided that they are looking not only at the bugs, but also at the life cycle of each of the bugs. And they are interested in whether certain varieties of corn are more resistant to the pests. That brought up the subject of corn varieties, which is quite interesting. The Agroecology promotores are smart enough to know that they have no idea how many varieties of corn are around here. Farmers can easily identify corn by color, but there are numerous varieties of corn within each valley here in Chiapas. With mountains going through the state, splitting it up into many little valleys and microclimates, the biodiversity of the corn is practically infinite.

Additionally, the team decided that in each place, the 2 storage units and the corn in them would be identical except for the neem. Also, the treatment of the neem used on the corn should be the same in all places. As the corn goes into the storage units, they planned to record how much corn went in and how much neem went in. And they planned to fill the storage units all the way to the top, leaving as little space for bugs as possible.

Aside from the talk about the experiment, I managed to ask a few general questions about agriculture in this region. In Oventic, the corn is planted from March to June and dried corn is harvested November through January. Corn on the cob is harvested around August. When corn isn’t on the fields, they plant fava beans, squash and peas. It’s also likely that they graze their animals – sheep is more popular than cows in this region – on the fields after the corn harvest, allowing the animals to eat the leftover crop residue and fertilize the field with manure.

After what seemed like endless hours of negotiating the details of the experiment, I slipped out to buy a snack. On my way to the store, I saw three people waiting at the Caracol’s gate. I asked if one of them was Raquel, and a woman – Raquel – walked over to me. Raquel and her team – Martha and Juan – had come from elsewhere in Mexico to join our delegation, and we had been expecting them early that morning. I grabbed my snack (a rather sweet wheat bread roll) and returned to the Ag meeting to tell Peter that Raquel had arrived. Hearing the news, Peter suggested we take a break so he could help make sure the Zapatistas allowed Raquel’s team into the Caracol in a timely fashion. When he asked the Ag team if they thought Raquel would get in, one of the members replied, “Ojala!” (God willing.) Oh boy.

This is more or less as far as we got. Peter and Susan went back to talk to Agroecology again at another point, and they decided how much neem would be used on each storage unit full of corn (we basically split the neem up evenly), but Agroecology still has to decide how to actually apply it. Let's hope this works.

The Agroecology version of ag inputs... you can see that one bottle says "Micorrizal" (i.e. fungi that lives symbiotically with a plant's roots)

This bottle says "Azotobacter," a type of bacteria that lives in the soil and fixes nitrogen so that plants can access it.

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