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Gustavo Esteva, the man who invented 'No Corn, No Country'

Gustava Esteva, one of Mexico's most distinguished economists and senior civil servants during the 1970s, gave it all up to live the simple life of a traditional peasant on three acres of land in the village of San Pablo Etla in Oaxaca, a province of mostly Indigenous peoples in southern Mexico. From this perch on the world, which he calls "Mexico profundo," Esteva became one of the leading prophets of the developing Zapatista movement, later serving as their advisor in negotiations with the Mexican government, which conceded self-government in Chiapas in 2003 following the Zapatista rebellion in 1994.

Gustavo EstevaNow in his 70s, Esteva is recognized internationally as the leading historian and philosopher of the Zapatista "attitude," the force behind successful rebellions in Chiapas and Oaxaca, often called the "first post-modern revolutions," and sometimes understood as the first food-based revolutions.

"They are really just revolutions of the new commons, like this," Esteva told me, waving his hand at the busy patio of La Pallette restaurant overlooking the bustling street scene of Kensington, during one of the few stops provided during a week-long lecture tour of Toronto sponsored by York University's Environment Studies and Political Science departments. Radical attitude counts in the Zapatista view of the "pluriverse" -- one of the many phrases Esteva has coined to describe the diverse "One No, Many Yeses" rebellions taking place around the world. Don't waste time figuring out their formal ideology; they are today's Rebels Without One Cause.

In 1976, disillusioned with the government program he ran, which was designed to overcome hunger with low food prices that undermined the agriculture practiced by over 30 million peasants of Mayan ancestry, Esteva found himself by returning to the land and rediscovering his own Mayan ancestry.

Estava is a "mestizo," of mixed Spanish and Mayan blood. His father, a senior government official sent to Oaxaca from Mexico City, was of Spanish descent, while his mother was Mayan. His mother, hoping her son could pass as Spanish and thereby avoid punishing levels of discrimination, made her own traditionally-dressed mother visit their home by entering through the back door, so people would regard her as a servant, not a family member or friend.

Until 1976, Esteva lived the life of a privileged and gifted Hispanic Mexican. Then he exiled himself to a village a few miles from where his grandmother was born, ten miles from where ancient Mayans invented corn many thousands of years before, making it the foundation of a major civilization. Here Esteva found the heartland of "Mexico profundo," and gave it a food-based project for a positive identity.

Esteva and his wife have since raised about 60 per cent of their own food -- mostly corn, fruit, veggies and chicken -- on their parcel of land on 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 that Mayans gave the world -- beans drawing nitrogen down from the air, squash leaves protecting the soil from erosion, and corn providing a stalk for beans to grow up, a model of sustainability where the whole creates more wealth than the parts. Corn, in thousands of varieties, is the centrepiece of this "comida" -- a cuisine linked to a way of life based on diversity, self-reliance and sustainability. Esteva brought corn to the centre stage of a resurgent Mayan identity when he coined the phrase “no corn, no country” (no corn, no people) in 2003, the year of a major corn exhibit in Mexico City. It quickly became a rallying cry of those resisting flooding of Mexican markets with heavily-subsidized and genetically-engineered U.S. corn.

Corn defined one aspect of village life, women the other, since men increasingly were away for long periods working as migrant laborers. "Power was 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," he told me.

This version of Living in the Now was threatened in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into force, threatening to invade Mexico with highly subsidized US corn, forcing peasants off the land and into low-wage factories. The Zapatistas of Chiapas led a now-or-never armed revolt to head this off, then quickly declared themselves pacifists. Massive public support -- including demonstrations of four million in 1996 and 40 million in 2001 -- forced Mexican recognition of the reality of Chiapas autonomy in 2003. The Zapatistas refused to take power directly, instead offering it to self-governing municipalities; for the Zapatista, the issue was not who held power, but the centralizing and disempowering impacts of state power itself. The task is to create new worlds, not change old ones, they insisted. The Zapatista unarmed army serves to keep the Mexican army and police at bay, not to support a Zapatista government.

The decision to refuse power makes the Zapatista revolution post- or "beyond modern," 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, he says.

This is a perspective he gained from years of friendship with the well-known critic of all established institutions, Ivan Illich, while he lived in Mexico after the 1980s.

Many of these "beyond modern" ideas are associated with the famous Zapatista leader, sub-commandante Marcos (note the sub-, a play on the power language they renounce). Esteva says the ideas come from the peasants; Marcos learned them during 20 years living as a guerrilla in the Chiapas mountains, while Esteva learned them during his years growing food. Over a third of the world's population and two-thirds of the world's food producers live a life akin to that in Chiapas and Oaxaca. Far from the world of nation states and globalized markets, close to the world of food, they may find their many yeses and one no from thinkers such as Gustavo Esteva.

Adapted from NOW Magazine, July 17-23, 2008.

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