An Interview with The Maya Seed Ark Project founder Camila Martinez, who is establishing seed banks in Central America and educating Maya people about the risks of genetically engineered seeds
Interview by Arty Mangan
ARTY: Why is biodiversity important, and why specifically is the Maya region important?
CAMILA: The Mezzo-American biological corridor, which the Maya inhabit, is one of three top places in the world with the greatest biodiversity on the planet. It contains the largest jungle north of the Amazon, the Peten Jungle, which is great source of oxygen for people in the US, as well as for all the inhabitants of that region, where there are 13 million Maya people. It includes Southern Mexico, Belize and Guatemala and part of Honduras.
ARTY: Tell me about the Maya Seed Ark Project
CAMILA: The Maya Seed Ark project is really a first line of defense against the food crisis, which has really already hit the Maya considerably, because of climatic conditions changing and crop failure, as well as the incredible dumping on the Maya peoples of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Hundreds of thousands of tons of corn are being annually exported from the United States into Central America into Maya land, which is greatly affecting their food supply and their way of agriculture. So the Maya Seed Ark Project is working to get out the word about genetically modified organisms into communities where they haven’t gotten any information. We are providing information translated into the various Mayan languages because many of those people do not speak Spanish.
There are a number of seed banks that are now being established to forestall the food crisis. The movement is growing in the Maya communities. The governments of those countries have no back up for food security in those regions. The Mexican government might have a few locations with some seed materials, but certainly it’s not covering the entire country. Really, Maya land is another planet from central Mexico. It’s very, very far away from the capital, Mexico City. Literally, it’s like the natives are on their own, as they always have been. So it’s definitely a community effort.
ARTY: Are there any attempts at creating GMO-free zones?
CAMILA: Not that I know of. There’s been tremendous pressure on the governments by Monsanto and its subsidiaries for these countries to import all of these different facets of genetically modified organisms.
I have gone into extremely remote areas and have seen GMOs in all them. You have to make a pretty big effort to get to some of these areas, which illustrates the amount of distribution of GMOs that’s going on.
There has been, in certain areas, a huge resistance, but not everywhere. In some places people just don’t know about it and there’s been such a phenomenal disinformation campaign that has been put on in Central America by the seed companies. GMOs come in from many other countries in packages that are not labeled or labels not translated.
ARTY: Can you describe some of the seed banks?
CAMILA: There are several places in Belize and Guatemala that are growing heirloom seeds out. One of the initial seed banks that is really up and functioning is a beautiful one in the Lake Atitlan region. This was not established by the Maya Seed Ark Project, but they are supporting the Seed Ark Project. There’s another really wonderful one that has been established in Belize that is now growing out some of the seeds at risk- native Maya heirloom seeds that are on the verge of extinction.
Maya are agriculturalists. They understand about seed, not just the Maya but all native peoples, because many have had to subsist this way for many, many generations. There’s a proper understanding of what’s going on.
The seed banks are run by exchange. People make deposits and withdrawals. People that are given the seed to grow out, they repay in kind. It’s a way to keep it flowing. And, of course, who better then themselves to identify what’s disappearing.
The Seed Ark Project has gone to the village elders that worked with a lot of very knowledgeable Maya who have been in agriculture for a long time and know what they’re looking at. We’re getting counsel from them and also from the Councils of the Spiritual Guides, of whom many are farmers in those countries. It’s been exceedingly helpful in guiding the way that the project is evolving.
In certain mountainous areas, they have better conditions for seed saving because they’re still growing fabulous corn. They haven’t had to deal with that much drought as in other areas. The drought-stricken areas, they are really having a hard time. Many of those regions have lost their seed completely.
When there’s drought situation, the farmers haven’t been able to harvest, and so haven’t been able to save seed. Then they have to buy seed and the seed that’s in all the seed stores is all genetically modified.
It’s the same thing in Belize and in Southern Mexico. Except for some areas of resistance like parts of Chiapas where the Zapatistas have really done a great job of running seed banks and holding their original seeds.
ARTY: So, these seed banks are basically a commercial alternative to the GMO seed sale?
CAMILA: Absolutely. These are the treasures of the community. In 2007 I went on an investigative journey to see where the optimal places to do this would be.
Some of these communities are very remote, so they don’t really communicate with even the capital of their state. We’re talking big distances, rough terrain, and very little money to travel out.
Outlying villagers come into where the market centers are. If farmers couldn’t get the seed where they live, they go to in to the market centers to buy seed. That’s where the seed stores are that have these genetically modified seeds, which they’re calling the improved seeds.
Some areas have absolutely no information whatsoever on GMOs, though, the word is starting to get out. I made a film on genetically modified organisms in Spanish and two Mayan dialects, specifically for Maya farmers and farmers of other indigenous nations who are in need of this information. That film is now traveling, giving the information about what GMOs are and how other communities are solving the problem by taking positive, sustainable measures into their own hands. This is happening, and they really need help in order to make it happen faster because of the difficulties they’re undergoing climatically. We’re really at a very crucial time for the Maya.
ARTY: If these subsistence farmers are pulled into the global economic system rather than their own community system of seed exchange, then they’re completely subjected to all the fluctuations of global grain prices.
CAMILA: As well as increases in GMO seed prices and the fertilizers and pesticides that go with them. This is a food sovereignty issue, but you have to just take one step back and realize that the Maya have been around for a really long time, and for example, in their greatest ceremonial site, Tikal in Guatemala, at its peak there were 60,000 residents there and with 10,000 visitors a day there. That’s 70,000 people a day and they were feeding them on corn. They pulled it off. I do believe that the Maya know how to handle the situation; they just need help (www.themayaseedarkproject.com). If you are so moved, please give us your support.
ARTY: I came across the Mayan phrase “I am another yourself”. What does that mean to you?
CAMILA: This is basic Maya philosophy. Maya look at people in this way. It comes from the way that they understand the universe. “I am another yourself” means what I do to you, I’m doing to myself. You understand that there’s tremendous need if you are in a village and people are starving, like they are in some places in the Yucatan and in some areas in Guatemala and Belize right now. There is an understanding that they are very close to us, they are our brothers and sisters, they are our family. The Maya look at everyone as their family- another of themselves. It’s slightly allied to the Buddhist thought of everyone at one time was your mother or father. It goes through time spans. It’s not limited by linear time. It’s vast.
This is a culture of very elevated philosophy. It’s very different from white man’s philosophy, very different than the way that we are educated in Western ways, and we have so much to learn from them. They are really right now in need of help, so I’m just responding to a mandado or mandate that my teacher from Oaxaca gave me in 1973 to return to do this particular work.