The Culture of Corn: Effects of Globalization and Free Trade on Indigenous Culture in Mexico

By: Anna Moneymaker, FCLC ’21


The goal of this research was to illuminate the friction that occurs throughout the process of globalization. Cultural differences and identity themselves become trade barriers as deep integration occurs between nations. The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), or Zapatistas, found enormous support across the globe and political motivation for their cause—the protection of indigenous forms of agriculture and self-determination in the form of political and agricultural sovereignty. This is significant because it means conflicts such as this one will become increasingly decisive in the sphere of free trade. The question of cultural preservation is being tested by the state’s goal of neoliberal economic policy, with the promise of stability and growth. This paper seeks to outline the friction ushered in by the North American Trade Agreement, NAFTA, and to tell the story of the Zapatista and the broader concept of corn as sustenance, livelihood, and ultimately identity. 

The Culture of Corn: Effects of Globalization and Free Trade on Indigenous Culture in Mexico

Mexico has the largest population of Indigenous peoples of any Latin American nation. The Indigenous population is composed of an abundance of diverse ethnic groups, the three most common being Nahuas, Maya and Zapotec. They account for 12.7 million people, many of whom live in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. This region and its Indigenous inhabitants received little international recognition until the events following the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). They would soon capture the world’s attention and force scholars around the world to ask new and more challenging questions about the precarious position that heritage and identity take up in the face of globalization.

A Short History: Who are the Zapatistas? 

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) or as they are more popularly known, the Zapatistas, are a Mexican revolutionary force made up of predominantly Indigenous Maya Peoples. They are publicly represented by radical insurgent Subcomandante Marcos, one of the few non-indigenous members, who according to the group’s non-centralized structure, is subordinate to the indigenous commanders (“The EZLN‘s Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee’s General Command,” n.d.). Their aspirations were political and cultural autonomy for the indigenous people of Chiapas and the rest of Mexico. Often described as far-left, anarchist, or Marxist, the EZLN refuses such categorizations and most accurately falls under the specific ideology of anti-globalization. The group’s name honors Emiliano Zapata, who led the agrarian revolution and was the commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, between 1910 and 1920. They are named such to evoke his legacy of peasant movements and agrarian insurrection. Their movement would break onto the world stage after the violent rebellion against the Mexican State took place in 1994.

This research was not done with the intention of formulating a prescriptive policy to preserve and protect the indigenous farming culture of the Indigenous Peoples living in Chiapas, nor to present a position and conclusion about the motivations behind the Zapatista movement. After all, the state of affairs in Chiapas following the genesis of the Zapatista movement has remained precarious, with continuous high rates of poverty. The goal of this research was simply to tell a story that pushes readers to consider the place of identity and culture in the global economy. The narrative of the Zapatista rebellion is acutely relevant today, as the ever-accelerating rate of globalization demands increasingly deeper levels of integration within bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Deep, as opposed to shallow, integration is defined as “a process of economic integration that erodes differences in national economic policies and regulations and renders them more compatible for economic exchange” (Kim, 2015). Considering the nature of consent in the classically liberal sense takes scholars to a familiar place of friction. As economies become more integrated, a number of domestic policies, including certain protections placed on land, fall under close scrutiny. Liberal economic policies come into conflict with a person’s or culture’s right to self-preservation. In the case of the Zapatistas, we see self-determination represented by the cultivation of corn as sustenance, livelihood, and ultimately, identity.

The Zapatista rebellion was a response to a set of economic reforms put forth by the Mexican government, intended to equip Mexico for integration into NAFTA, establishing a free trade zone between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Particularly egregious to the Zapatistas was the 1993 amendment to the Constitution of Mexico. The amendment introduced land reforms aimed to privatize traditional peasant communal farms known as ejidos. In a weekly newsletter from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 1992, senior economists Ronald Schmidt and William Gruden outline the changes to the constitution and their potential effects. Overseen by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the reforms were presented to Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies as an initiative for changes to the Mexican Constitution’s Article 27, which covers agricultural land tenure. In the ejido system, a group of peasants could essentially petition the government for access to farmland. The government could then dedicate public land to ejidos, and additionally acquire land for them from large private holdings (Schmidt and Gruben, 1992, paras. 4–5). These ejidos did not make up an insignificant portion of Mexico’s land, Schmidt and Gruben continue,  

When the government formed an ejido, part of the land was held as a group enterprise, with the rest allocated to the use of individual farmers. By now (1992), nearly half of Mexico’s total land mass is held in 28,000 ejidos, occupied by more than 2.5 million farmers.  

(Schmidt and Gruben, 1992, paras. 6–7)

 Under the reforms, the specific protections afforded to these ejidos would be removed. They continue:

Under the new rules, members of an ejido collective can rent land to non-ejido members, and can obtain full rights to the land-including the right to sell to other parties. Moreover, to protect those rights, the constitutional right to new ejido land has been eliminated, reducing the threat that newly private lands would be appropriated by the government for new communally held ejidos. Limitations on ownership are greatly reduced. Corporations now can own ejido land, for example. Moreover, foreign investment now is encouraged and foreign corporations can own Mexican agricultural land.  

(Schmidt and Gruben, 1992, paras. 7–9)

The Zapatistas held that NAFTA, in addition to new land reforms, would lead to even more severe impoverishment of Indigenous groups and threaten to erase historic cultural forms of agriculture native to the region replaced by industrialized agriculture and markets flooded with American corn. 

High Stakes: Cultural Preservation

Traditional agriculture in the Chiapas resembled the practice of polyculture, which is defined as agriculture where up to 12 crops are grown together. This Mayan agricultural practice would take place on plots of land called milpas. The crops grown (most commonly the “three sisters” [beans, corn, and squash]) are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. The milpa, in the words of H. Garrison Wilkes, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created” (Mann, 2005). In addition to being remarkably sustainable and preserving the quality of soil, the practice maximizes the health of each yield. The concept of the milpa is as much of a social conception as an ecological one. Anthropologists have noted that “the making of milpa is the central, most sacred act, one which binds together the family, the community, the universe. [It] forms the core institution of Indian society in Mesoamerica and its religious and social importance often appear to exceed its nutritional and economic importance” (Nigh, 1976, as cited in “Milpa,” n.d.).

The land reforms ahead of NAFTA did not necessitate the forfeiture of land on the part of the indigenous populations. It did, however, offer a nearly compulsory one-way ticket out of the poverty being experienced by the inhabitants of Chiapas. For an already impoverished area and group, having the option to sell land would certainly create a monetary benefit, but only temporarily. After selling, in addition to suffering the loss of a cultural identity and agriculture, these former farmers were launched into a market economy where agricultural jobs were being eliminated at a stunning rate. The motivation to open up Mexico to foreign investment in this way neglected the stunning social cost that would be accrued by the relocation of Mexico’s workforce. Prior to NAFTA, an estimated 26% of the population was employed in agriculture, as opposed to 2% in the US (Janetsky, 2017).  It is estimated that in Mexico, over 900 thousand farming jobs were lost in the first decade of NAFTA (United States Department of Agriculture, n.d.).

How exactly culture, identity, and livelihood are connected is certainly unclear, however the interconnectedness of these concepts on some level is undeniable. This change in Mexican society reveals one tragic side effect of globalization. In the birthplace of corn, traditional methods of its cultivation are being outpaced and replaced, and as a result the crop is being separated, or alienated, from itself and its essence. The economic systems at play have made importation of corn from farther away a cheaper option for consumers than the corn they could grow themselves. This problem is by no means a new one, and the food sovereignty movement has articulated these concerns and made known the connections between food systems, economics, and in many cases, colonial legacy: 

Our Creation Story teaches us that the first Grandparents of our people were made from white and yellow corn. Maize is sacred to us because it connects us with our ancestors. It feeds our spirit as well as our bodies.

(Puac & Maya, as quoted in “Creation Story of the Maya,” n.d.)

Genetically modified American corn, the estranged cousin of its Mayan ancestor maize, flooded supermarkets after the signing of the agreement. Unable to compete with the prices of the imported corn, many milpa farmers could no longer make a living (Janetsky, 2017). This result of deep integration had a tangible effect on culture and heritage, a notable development in the fields of economics, political science, and anthropology. It is a peculiar and yet completely foreseeable scenario in which a cultural identity itself becomes a potential trade barrier or, in the case of NAFTA, simply the collateral damage in a multinational trade deal.

Accomplishments of EZLN

NAFTA was signed into law on January 1, 1994. That same day, the EZLN launched their infamous guerilla attack on the Mexican state. By the end of the battle, over 100 people had been killed. The 3,000 armed Zapatista insurgents experienced brief success, seizing towns and cities in Chiapas and freeing prisoners in the jail of San Cristóbal de las Casas, leaving several police buildings in smoldering ruins. Heavy casualties were taken by the insurgents and they retreated, prompting them to seek refuge in the surrounding jungle. Armed conflict in Chiapas officially stopped only after January 12, 1994 with a ceasefire that was organized by the local Catholic diocese in San Cristóbal de las Casas. On February 16, 1996, almost two years after the violent rebellion, the EZLN and the Mexican government convened and signed the first substantive set of agreements. Following five more months of talks, an agreement was reached in the form of the San Andrés Accords. 

The San Andrés Accords reflected the reality of internal affairs in Mexico: the old agreements between the state and Indigenous peoples had disintegrated and new agreements needed to be established based on new premises and economic realities. The Accords are made up of four different documents, but among the series of agreements, a portion of them established a package of special reforms specifically for Chiapas (Hernandez, 1999). The points negotiated with the government certainly did not resolve all Indigenous demands and were especially lax compared to the full desires of the Zapatistas, but they did commit to resolve some of the more relevant aspects of unrest. Among those were:

1) Recognition of Indian peoples in the Constitution, including their right to self-determination within the constitutional framework of autonomy. 

2) Broader political representation and participation. The recognition of their economic, political, social and cultural rights, as collective rights. 

3) A guarantee of full access to justice. Access to the legal system and recognition of indigenous normative systems. Respect for difference. 

4) Promotion of the cultural manifestations of Indian peoples. 

5) Promotion of their education and mining, respecting and building on traditional knowledge. 

6) Increased production and employment opportunities. Protection of indigenous migrants. (Hernandez, 1999)  

The behavior of the Zapatistas and seeming disinterest in seizing traditional power raises the point that, on all accounts, the motivations as articulated by the Committee and Marcos himself were not a veil for a duplicitous power grab. Had their interests been purely to drum up enough unrest in order to seize positions of power in the government and enrich themselves with money or resources, there likely would have already been an indication of those plans. Instead, after the short streak of violence, the group turned exclusively to civil resistance and a focus on diplomatic relations that could establish a foundation for productive negotiation. Many people in Chiapas hold that the group’s most significant accomplishment was simply pushing the Mexican government to put forth vast anti-discrimination measures in the constitution in 2001 (Garcia, 2016). “The final piece of legislation watered down the sections expanding indigenous autonomy and control over land and natural resources. Infuriated, the Zapatistas withdrew from public view to run their own schools and health clinics without reliance on the government” (Garcia, 2016).  Despite this, their cause and relationship to the Mexican government and accomplishments are extremely valuable to study for scholars of indigenous culture and, more broadly, sociology and political science.

Indigenous identity has forged new political spaces, strategies, and alliances that insert new political actors into the public discourse. Indigenous identity pluralizes and transforms this discourse, and is self-consciously intended as a challenge to existing hierarchies, exclusions, and patterns of state-society.

(Jung, 2003, p. 436)

A New Face: The EZLN Today

Today, they remain disinterested in major publicity and have essentially given up any negotiations with the Mexican state, focusing on building establishments of infrastructure within indigenous communities. Though the group officially endorsed a presidential candidate, they held that they were still largely disinterested in taking part in electoral politics on a continued basis. “We choose life, not death,” Subcomandate Marcos said in his speech in 2017. “Instead of building barracks and improving our arsenal of weapons, we built schools, hospitals, and we improved our living conditions” (Villegas, 2017). The Zapatistas seem to be intent on changing their image. The same would go for Subcommander Marcos, who announced the death of this revolutionary persona. He stated that Subcommander Marcos was simply a character, who, in his own words “was a suit made for the media’” (Villegas, 2017).

 In the following years, the Zapatista-controlled territories exercised de facto autonomy, delivering access to education and health services. Small farmers continue to experience major troubles with their milpas, and many are still forced to purchase American corn between harvests. Though poverty and violence increased in many of these areas in Mexico since 2001, the New York Times reported in 2017 that organized crime has been relatively inactive in these rural areas.

In 2020, NAFTA was officially replaced with the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, USMCA, whose main differences are seen only in the automotive and steel markets, as well as in data and intellectual property (“United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement,” n.d.). In this story, the marker of identity for the indigenous peoples in Chiapas is, of course, corn. Reflective of the broader state of indigenous affairs in Mexico, traditional forms of agriculture—though threatened—have not completely disappeared, and corn as a symbol of identity persists precariously in the communities dedicated to preserving its dignity. The San Andrés Accords remain a major point of reference for scholars and historians on Indigenous affairs. “San Andrés—both the document and the process—is modern testimony to the fact that Indians are not merely ‘living relics’ but political actors with a project for the future, cultures under attack but alive with an enormous vitality” (Hernandez, 1999).


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