Nic Paget-Clarke/ www.inmotionmagazine.com
Gustavo Esteva learned many of the “beyond modern” ideas he espouses in self-exile in Oaxaca.
Gustavo Esteva gave it all up to live the simple life of a peasant.
On three acres of land in the village of San Pablo Etla in Oaxaca, his perch on the world that he calls “Mexico profundo,” Esteva became one of the leading prophets of the Zapatista movement, sometimes understood as the first post-modern food-based revolution.
“They are really just revolutions of the new commons, like this,” Esteva tells me, waving his hand over the busy patio of La Palette overlooking Kensington Market.
Esteva is on a stop during a recent week-long lecture tour of the city sponsored by York U’s environment studies and political science departments.
Disillusioned with the Mexico government program he ran in the 70s – it was designed to overcome hunger but undermined the agriculture practices of more than 30 million peasants of Mayan ancestry instead – Esteva exiled himself to a village a few miles from where his grandmother was born, 20 kilometres from where ancient Mayans nurtured and invented corn many thousands of years ago.
Here he found the heartland of Mexico profundo. He and his wife grow about 60 per cent of their own food, mostly corn, fruit, veggies and chicken, on their parcel of land in the village commons. At the centre of their and other villagers’ production is “milpa,” known in English as the “three sisters” of corn, squash and beans – beans drawing nitrogen from the air; squash leaves protecting the soil from erosion; and corn providing stalks for beans to climb, a model of sustainability in which the whole creates more wealth than the parts.
Corn defined one aspect of village life, women the other, says Esteva, since men are increasingly away for long periods working as migrant labourers.
“Power has been feminized,” says Esteva. “This was the foundation for the revolution of the commons, in which we do not dream of a future but implement it in the present.”
This version of living in the now was imperilled in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force, threatening to swamp Mexico with highly subsidized U.S. corn, forcing peasants off the land and into low-wage factories. The Zapatistas of Chiapas led the infamous now-or-never armed revolt, then quickly declared themselves pacifists.
Massive public support, including demonstrations of millions, allowed Esteva, who served as the Zapatistas’ negotiator with the Mexican government, to broker talks on Mexico’s recognition of Chiapas’s autonomy, eventually won in 2003.
The Zapatistas refused to take power, ceding it to self-governing municipalities and declaring that the issue was not who held power but the negative impacts of state power itself. The task is to create new worlds, not change old ones, they say.
Over a third of the world’s population and two-thirds of its food producers live lives akin to those in Chiapas and Oaxaca, far from the world of nation states and globalization, close to the world of food.
Esteva says today’s challenge is for individuals to claim their own agency, and for people to declare their own initiative, to become local agents of their own destiny and govern themselves accordingly.
Many of the “beyond modern” ideas Esteva is talking about are also expressed by famous Zapatista leader Sub-Commandante Marcos (note the “sub-,” a play on the power language they renounce).
Esteva says Marcos learned them from peasants during 20 years living as a guerrilla in the Chiapas mountains. Esteva himself was taught them during his years growing food.
Mexican activist and “deprofessionalized intellectual”
Founder Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca; several Mexican, Latin American and international NGOs
President Fifth World Congress for Rural Sociology
Chair United Nations Research Institute for Social Development
Former IBM exec (youngest in company); high-ranking official in the government of Mexican president Luis Echeverría Álvarez (who was arrested and later released in 2004 on charges that he ordered the murders of student demonstrators in 1971)
Adviser Zapatista Army for National Liberation in Chiapas
Educator Centre for Intercultural Dialogues and Exchanges (CEDI) in Oaxaca
Quotable “To be developed, to come out of underdevelopment, meant always, first, to get an education.”
Watch for Wayne Roberts’s new book, The No-Nonsense Guide To World Food, coming this fall.