Kindle Grantee Feature: A.I.R.E’s Miguel Santistevan and the Issues of Food and Seed Sovereignty in New Mexico

Nov 19, 2010
We are pleased to feature The Struggle for Food and Seed Sovereignty in New Mexico by Miguel Santistevan. Santistevan is Found and Director of Agriculture, Implementation, Research and Education (A.I.R.E). For more information about A.I.R.E and the work of Santistevan, please click here and here.

Miguel Santistevan at Sol Feliz Farm

Crops at Sol Feliz Farm

The Struggle for Food and Seed Sovereignty in New Mexico

by Miguel Santistevan

A story of the struggle for food and seed sovereignty in New Mexico must be told.  In an unprecedented Alliance, Tribal and Acequia farmers made a Declaration that contextualizes the expropriation and genetic engineering (GE) of crops as a malicious act in the continuation of genocide. As concerns for food security in the context of climate change rise, the resilience of indigenous agricultural systems provide a model for food security in the face of uncertainty. If our potential is to be reached, traditional agriculture and the freedom to farm must survive against the onslaught of private property regimes, uncontainable cross-pollination, misinformation, and global influence of the biotechnology industry.

Many people do not realize that New Mexico is the place of agricultural introduction from Mexico into North America.  I have a friend from Tesuque Pueblo who jokingly told me that his people brought corn from down south and were the first Mexicans to cross the border before there was such a thing as Mexico or a border.  Another Hopi farmer gave me an account of the historical migration of their peoples from Central Mexico to where they reside now in Arizona.  Over hundreds and hundreds of years, gardens were brought northward with their nomadic settlements, continually adapting their crops to new environments in more northern latitudes.  The crops that thrive there today such as maize, beans, amaranth, squash, sunflower, and tobacco, are monuments of adaptability and survival from their longer season, longer day length homelands.

Later, the pueblos of Taos and Pecos were known as trade centers from Central America to North America and have the most diverse maize varieties when compared to other sites along the trade route.  The diversity in maize varieties found in Taos Pueblo in the 1940’s indicate a historical trade relationship with Mexico to the south and as far north and east with tribes in Canada and the State of New York.  The Spanish followed the central leg of this trade route, renamed it ‘El Camino Real,’ and arrived in northern New Mexico in the late 16th Century.  Though unfamiliar with the territory and unprepared for their first winter, the Spanish brought a template of survival for desert and extreme climate conditions.  Complete with the Acequia irrigation system that is based on equitable water sharing agreements, or repartos, as well as crop types from the Old World such as wheat, peas, favas, lentils, and garbanzos, the Spanish agricultural toolbox was well equipped for agricultural success in this unpredictable environment riddled with frost and drought.  Domesticated animals and fruit trees also increased food security while altering the Native’s original relationship with the land.  The last agricultural census by New Spain in the early 1800’s found an abundance of lentil and garbanzo production, crops that are a rare find nowadays.

Self Sufficiency vs. the Railroad and Globalization
The coming of the United States and the railroad altered the agricultural economy of the region with effects that lasted until the present.  The coming of the railroad offered economic opportunities and consumer goods to the local population where many men left to work on the railroad or in the mines, sent money home, and their families could then use the money to buy consumer goods at the local stores.  Prior to the introduction of goods from the United States, people were self sufficient except for the luxuries of kerosene, matches, salt, and sugar.  But even sugar could be locally produced from cane that was processed into ‘miel,’ something similar to molasses.  There is a ‘trovo,’ or epic song/poem, called ‘El Café y el Atole’ which chronicles the issues around the introduction of coffee as it began to replace atole, a traditional, locally produced, breakfast drink of blue corn gruel.

Given the deep relationship with the land and food of this region, starting with the indigenous people, following through with the Spanish introductions, and finally with the modern-day conveniences of the global economy, it is somewhat ironic that of all the places in the United States that we would have to consider issues of Food Security and Seed Sovereignty. New Mexico ranks one of the worst for hungry people in the U.S. while the population has access to goods of global origins from Wal-Marts, Dollar Stores, etc.  With the onset of Genetic Engineering (GE) in the rest of the world, New Mexico’s agricultural economy is now in the cross-hairs of biotechnology companies who wish to control our most important crops: alfalfa and chile.

Awareness, Action, and the Alliance
In 2006 I was working for the New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) coordinating a youth-in-agriculture mentorship program called Sembrando Semillas.  The NMAA deemed the time right for Acequia and Tribal farmers to get together and share our struggles while envisioning solutions.  We approached Clayton Brascoupe of the Traditional Native American Farmers’ Association (TNAFA) to gauge his interest in co-sponsoring an agriculture conference between our two organizations for the purpose of engaging our respective communities and having a seed exchange.  In the course of our conversation, the topic of Genetic Engineering came up.  We had both heard of genetic engineering and were sharing accounts each of us had about this technology and its impact to our traditional agricultural systems.  We talked about contamination of maize in Mexico, the development of corns that contained spermicide and adhesive, and contemplated the possibility of contamination against our native varieties of corn.  Given the spiritual significance of corn to our respective communities, we decided to organize the conference and sign a “Seed Sovereignty Declaration” that would articulate the issue and our concern about it as traditional farmers.  The first draft of the Declaration came to be on February 14, 2006 (Valentine’s Day) and after nine more revisions to the draft; the final Declaration was signed by hundreds of participants at the 1st Annual Tierra, Agua, y Cultura traditional agriculture conference on March 10 & 11, 2006.  (See for more information on the Alliance and to read the Declaration.)

After the signing of the Declaration, we began referring to the collaboration between Acequia (NMAA) and Tribal farmers (TNAFA) as ‘the Alliance,’ short for The New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance.  The organizations Honor Our Pueblo Existence (HOPE) and Tewa Women United (TWU) joined the Alliance and we found ourselves in a whirlwind of activity.  Winona LaDuke of the White Earth Land Recovery Project invited us to a meeting of Anishinabee and Native Hawaiians who were addressing Genetic Engineering contamination of their wild rice and taro, respectively.  We shared our efforts and the Declaration and a larger Alliance was forged between our Alliance and these other groups.

The Declaration Inspires Policy
The Declaration quickly became Resolutions for Tesuque Pueblo, the All Indian Pueblo Council, and The Eight Northern Pueblos.  The National Congress of American Indians adopted a resolution based on the language of the Declaration.  The Counties of Santa Fe and Rio Arriba also passed Resolutions.  Finally, the Alliance found itself in the 2007 New Mexico State Legislature to pass a version of the Declaration as a Memorial: House Memorial 84 was sponsored by Speaker of the House Ben Lujan, and Senate Joint Memorial 38 was sponsored by Senator Carlos Sisneros.  The Memorial was passing through the Legislature with flying colors given all of our endorsements.  At the 11th hour we were informed that the biotech industry was pressuring our Secretary of Agriculture, Miley Gonzales, to kill the Memorial.  The controversy was around the factual language in the Memorial that implicated the biotechnology industry for suing farmers in cases of unknown and unintended GE contamination, restricting research and labeling around GE products, and contamination events in Mexico and its associated cultural and environmental effects.  We were told that we could pass the Memorial if we took out that language, otherwise the process around the Memorial would be stalled and it would be ‘killed’ by running out of time.

In deliberating whether to concede to the amendments or fight, we decided that victory was already on our side, we had educated the legislators about the issue and the opposition had revealed themselves to us.  We conceded to the amendments and the Memorials passed unanimously.

A Setback for New Mexico
In 2008, the following year, it was a slap in the face to learn that Senator Bernadette Sanchez of the Westside of Albuquerque sponsored and passed Senate Bill 60 which gave New Mexico State University (NMSU) $1 million to the chile industry, which included the development of genetically engineered chile.  Unfortunately, this Bill was not discovered until it was too late and made it through the process without opposition.  If the opposition would have been organized at the time, it could have learned that NMSU had presumably been developing GE chile since 2003, using Tobacco Settlement monies.

The Alliance drafted a letter to the researchers, Dean of Research, Regents, and President of NMSU, and requested a meeting where our concerns could be addressed.  The closing paragraph of the letter reads:

“This is a matter of great urgency to our Alliance of traditional farmers from Pueblo, tribal and acequia communities.  We consider genetic modification and the potential contamination of our native seeds by GE technology a culturally insensitive and a direct attack towards our ancestry, culture, and posterity.  We would like to meet with you to discuss these concerns personally.”

This letter was sent twice by certified mail and we received no response both times.  We later learned that Election Bond D of that year had a rider to build the biotechnology company Syngenta offices on the NMSU campus.

Continued Action and Political Engagement
In response to GE chile and the 2008 legislature, a group called ‘Save NM Seeds’ emerged and drafted the “Farmer Protection Act” for the 2009 Legislative Session.  The Act was drafted in consultation with the Center for Food Safety, who has a track record of monitoring and resisting the negative effects of genetic engineering.  The Act was very comprehensive.  For example, it established culpability against the entities that would contaminate native crops, if the farmer incurred damages of more than $500 due to GE contamination.  Presumably because of its comprehensive nature and behind-the-veil relationships between government and industry, the Act was tabled at the first Committee hearing.  The Conservation Committee, which is chaired by Senator B. Sanchez, is the same Senator that sponsored the GE chile Bill the year prior.  This should not be a surprise, however, I hear that the Conservation Committee has little to do with conservation and is referred to as the “Kill” committee for conservation-minded Bills.

The Farmer Protection Act
The group that drafted the Farmer Protection Act and Save NM Seeds, then pared down the Farmer Protection Act to its basic elements for the 2010 Legislative Session.  The new version of the Farmer Protection Act attempted to accomplish four simple things:

1.     Puts in place some common-sense protections for small and independent farmers in New Mexico if encountered with suspected liability when they accidentally come into possession of patented, generically engineered seeds.

2.     Establishes a process for biotech companies to enter a farmer’s property to check for the presence of their patented seeds, while protecting the property rights of the farmer.

3.     States that no farmer in New Mexico has the duty to create buffer zones to protect his/her crops and land from genetic engineering encroachment.

4.     Says that the proper venue for any legal dispute between a New Mexico farmer who accidentally comes into possession of patented, genetically engineered seeds or crops, and the biotech corporation, is the district court in the New Mexico county where the dispute occurred – not in Missouri or some other state where the biotech company resides.

The ‘Dummy’ Bill
Since this legislative session was a 30-day session dedicated to budgetary issues, this kind of legislation would have to have a Governor’s ‘Call’ or ‘Message’ to be considered for the Session.  Before the session started, it was my understanding that the Act had a Governor’s Call but when the session actually was underway, it was sitting on the table with a ‘Message’ but no sponsor.  The Act was then introduced as a ‘Dummy’ Bill, a designation presumably reserved as a placeholder for legislation that a Senator can introduce without notice while the Session is underway.

Fighting for the FPA
Before you know it, I found myself testifying in front of the Cultural and Indian Affairs Committee in support of the Farmer Protection Act (FPA) against a lobbyist for the biotechnology industry.  The FPA passed the first committee and made its way to Judiciary Committee, where it was tabled on procedural grounds.  The Majority Whip of the Senate, Michael Sanchez, is supposed to refer Bills to the next committee, and he had never heard of nor seen the FPA.  Luckily the momentum was great enough that the FPA was revived the next morning and referred to Conservation Committee, still chaired by Senator B. Sanchez.

The next few days were a waiting game.  We finally heard on Saturday, February 13, that the FPA was scheduled for the next day, Valentines’ Day.  Presumably to throw off the support that was planning to pack the room, the schedule was changed a couple of times before the committee hearing on Sunday.  Nevertheless, we were able to pack the room with supporters and small farmers in time for the hearing.

I found myself an expert witness again, sharing the role and table with Michael Reed of Save NM Seeds and Senator Eric Griego as the sponsor.  I listened to the biotech industry lobbyist present arguments that he tried to use on the Cultural and Indian Affairs Committee.  I couldn’t believe he was still towing that line, Senator McSorely had schooled him on the ridiculousness of his arguments less than a week before.  I had my counterpoints ready.  I then listened arguments from a lobbyist from the Dairy Growers Association.  As I listened to these arguments, it dawned on me that the FPA was probably more relevant in protecting farmers who engage in GE agriculture over smaller-scale farmers.  It became clear in my mind how GE contamination could occur with farms who practice GE agriculture and how the FPA would likely be deployed to protect those farmers before any others and so I awaited my turn to respond to the Committee.  Next I heard from a lobbyist of the chile industry who indicated that we need to have a ‘scientific’ discussion about the issue.  This was an interesting argument in that he was expressing opinions that science could easily refute.  His claim was basically that the accounts of contamination of non-GE crops by neighboring GE crops in other regions would not likely occur in New Mexico given its geography.  As a migration route for birds along the Rio Grande corridor and as home to five floristic zones (more than any other State in the Union), contamination would likely be more probable than in other regions.   As one of the only people with academic credentials in the room, a Master of Science in Ecology from the University of California, Davis as well as a Ph.D. Candidate in Biology from the University of New Mexico, I awaited my turn to rebut.

But alas there never came my turn to rebut, to speak, nor to participate.  It seemed like the Chair was trying to blame us for their inability to balance the budget, like we were wasting their time.  Surprisingly, Senator Ulibarri questioned the validity of Tribal Resolutions and the Declarations given that they are over 3 years old.  I wanted to respond that the Declaration of Independence is over 200 years old but we don’t question it’s validity on the basis of time passed.  And so the FPA was tabled, killed, in the Conservation Committee on Valentines’ Day, exactly 4 years to the date that the first Seed Sovereignty Declaration was drafted.

Preparing for 2011
In the month of September 2010, Save NM Seeds hosted a strategy meeting to prepare for a presentation to the Rural and Economic Affairs Interim Committee held at NMSU on September 21, 2010.  Of the four presenters listed to present to the Committee, two were clearly supporters of industry, one was a patent lawyer, and the fourth a representative of Save NM Seeds.  I was not able to attend the meeting, however, it is comforting to know that this conversation is happening months in advance of the Legislative Session.  Hopefully capacity can be built to pass the FPA in 2011.  Of course this is an election year, which could change the Governor’s office to be a place of infertile ground for farmer protection and for many other issues.  Nevertheless, the momentum is building in NM.  The issues of GE in our food supply will not go away and will only grow more intense.  Every time I look, I find accounts of more people becoming aware of the potential impacts of GE on their health and environment.  In the wake of E. coli outbreaks and food recalls, the public is investing in the food system alternatives such as local food movements that can be seen in the growth of farmers’ markets across the country.

As the issues of food insecurity and seed sovereignty become more common place it will be more and more difficult for the GE industry to hide the truth of their business: maximize yields and convenience at the expense of nutritional quality and the environment, contaminate farmers and run them out of business, continue to depend on fossil fuels and exacerbate problems associated with climate change, contaminate the land and water with agriculture chemicals, and deter independent research into potential health and environmental effects while preventing the labeling of products that contain GE ingredients to be indicated as such.

A person could easily become overwhelmed with this ‘David vs. Goliath’ scenario when it comes to changing the food system.  But I am reminded of what an elder once taught me when I said that I needed to be careful not to go crazy trying to solve the problems of the world.  It is better for your spiritual health to live the solution, he said, which is easy: gather the people and plant the fields.  In these days of runaway technology, we can easily forget that the instructions for survival are encoded in resilient seeds, the seeds and ways of ALL of our ancestors.  By reconnecting with the land, seeds, and our community, we can live an alternative solution while we prepare for the potential and likely collapse of the food system.  We can measure our ability to sustain by what we, as community, have in our agricultural toolboxes in terms of different crop types and our collective knowledge base of what is available as wild and natural foods in our watersheds while we get politically involved so our voice can be heard.

Looking Forward

Looking to the future, I reflect on the past:  The process of moving crops from the central latitudes to northern areas resulted in crops that are arguably the most adaptable in the world.  Not only that, but the context with which these crops are maintained today is representative of what is likely to be seen in the coming age of Climate Change: unpredictable weather.  If one looks at tree ring data from this region over the last 2000 years, there is nothing predictable about the climate.  Precipitation is all over the graph, from droughts to abundance.  Interestingly, even the “drought” of the 1950’s was relatively mild compared to what has been experienced in the more distant past.  It is laughable that people complain of “drought” or water shortage in our contemporary times, looking at tree ring data, we have more average precipitation in the last 50 or so years than we have had in the last 2000.  As problems of Climate Change mount for the greater populations around the globe, it will be beneficial to examine how Native Americans, Spanish, and Mexican settlers created a comprehensive agricultural system that addresses uncertainty and creates resilience, a system that relies on the cultural conservation of locally adapted seed.  Hopefully our efforts for food and seed sovereignty are successful and we will be able to share our knowledge and seed with others who will be hard pressed to figure it out.  This can only be true if we work together to honor the human right to save seed in the public domain and limit (eliminate) the corporate right to claim ownership of it while corrupting its genetic foundation.

Crops at Soliz Feliz Farm in Taos