The trip from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Comitán is one of the many wonderful journeys the traveler can make on a tour of Chiapas. With my Slow Food colleague Carlo Bogliotti and Francisco, our Tuxla Gutierrez convivium leader, as traveling companions, I crossed the eastern stretch of the great central depression of Chiapas, a broad valley which extends for about 200 km from the Guatemalan border almost to the state of Tabasco) in an area mostly given over to sugar plantations. We wanted to see a palma del coyol, a tree that was once very common, but is now in danger of extinction due to a larva which eats its flower and thus hampers its reproduction process. The palma del coyol yields the palmito, or heart of the palm, which in the Chiapas tradition is pickled and served with seasonal vegetables and, inevitably, chile (dozens of different varieties of which exist in Mexico). In Chiapas, they also used to eat the fruit of the palm, the coyol, while the sap was extracted to produce Taberna, or palm wine, a lightly alcoholic drink that fermented in the hewn-out trunk of the tree. Story has it that the Indios used to exploit the inebriating effect of Taberna to indulge in meditation rites.
Following the directions given us by a campesino, we cut across a field, along a few hundred meters of dirt track lined on either side by corn, a plant you see and eat everywhere in Mexico.
We eventually came to two palm trees in a field surrounded by a barbed wire fence. On the other side of the road we saw a small wood shack and two kids playing. We went across. We entered the shack and asked a boy we found there if the trees were palmas del coyol es and if we could go across and photograph them. He said yes, those were the trees we were looking for and that we could go up to them, no problem. When we were done, we went back to the small rancho, where we’d left the car. The boy had now moved to the back of the shack. We started talking again, and we asked him a few more questions about the palm.
While we were talking I took a look round. At first, I’d thought the shack was some kind of tool shed. Now I realized it was a peasants’ house. At least five people lived there in a space of just a few square meters. The floor was bare earth and the roof was made of corrugated metal. On one side of the room, two wood beds and a hammock served as a ‘bedroom’. One the other, the kitchen cum living room was made up of a wood table and a few plates. It’s hot in Chiapas and people spend a lot of their time in the open air. So it came as no surprise to find, at the back of shack in the shadow of a small portico, an old woman of indefinable age cooking over a wood fire and an old-timer fast asleep in a rocking chair. The wood boards that were the walls of the house were fitted in a rough and ready way so that flies and mosquitoes could buzz easily in and out through the cracks – though they only seemed to bother us ‘foreigners’. My gaze moved from the walls to the floor and settled on a bag of corn seeds.
‘Are those corn seeds?’
‘Yeah’ replied the boy, smiling. Ask a stupid question …
Francisco put a hand into the sack and pulled out a fistful of garish pink seeds.
‘How come they’re pink?’
‘They’ve been colored,’ replied the boy.
‘So the sparrows won’t eat them.’
‘What if they eat them?’
‘Where d’you buy the seeds?’
‘In the village.’
‘Are they transgenic?’
‘Why d’you buy transgenic seeds?’
‘The corn grows higher and the sparrows die if they eat the seeds’.
‘But if sparrows die, won’t people die too?’
The old woman who was cooking smiled when I asked this last question. The boy shook his head to say no.
These people are grindingly poor, even though they live their condition with great dignity. Or so it seemed to me. Yet the allegedly ‘miraculous’ transgenic seeds of the multinationals have now got this far.
In every village we passed through on our journey the advertising hoarding spoke of three things only: Coca-Cola, politics (you get the impression there’s an election every day in Mexico!) and Monsanto’s products for agriculture, especially herbicides. Sometimes you see basketball courts in villages with baskets sponsored by Monsanto products.
In those parts there isn’t much of a living to be made from the soil, but they’ve nonetheless managed to persuade many peasants to spend the little money they have on chemicals – to improve a crop that they then sell for a pittance.
The picture painted for me by a Slow Food member, also a member of an ecological association, whom I met in Mexico City was a disturbing one: a thousand or so varieties of corn have been patented worldwide, but none of them ‘belongs’ to a Mexican company. Yet corn was ‘domesticated’ by the Mayas and was shipped all over the world by the conquistadores.
Emiliano Zapata’s revolution was fought to the cry of ‘The land belongs to the peasants’, and in most cases today Mexican peasants are the owners of their land, albeit of tiny plots. At this point, the slogan for the next revolution ought to be ‘The seeds belong to the peasants’!
Roberto Burdese is Slow Food Governor
Photo: a “palma de coyol”
Text adapted by John Irving