As a member of the “Voices of Maíz” collective, AES Professor Devon Peña helped to host an international gathering in Ek Balam, Yucatan, Mexico in December 2016. The meeting was held prior to the 13th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Cancun. Peña helped to secure funding from the Swift Foundation that enabled him and others to convene a gathering concerning indigenous corn. The invitation for the gathering explained the meeting in this way: “The primary objectives of this meeting are to enable communities to learn from one another, inspire both the continuation and revitalization of biocultural maize heritage, and foster new forms of networking, cooperation and alliance-building."
The meeting brought together 54 representatives, including corn growers from Central and South America, the United States, Canada and China. Peña participated as a representative of the Acequia Institute in Colorado. The gathering included an accompanying photographic exhibit and short stories about maize submitted by convention attendees. The exhibit was also presented at the Feria de la Diversidad Biocultural in Mexico City at the end of December 2016. Peña describes the gathering as accomplishing three key goals: “We issued the Declaration of Ek Balam, we got to present our exhibit to United Nations delegates, and we established a network that will continue to meet as we pursue legal, political and multilateral solutions to the threats against corn.”
In the Declaration of Ek Balam, named for the Maya village that hosted the gathering, the corn growers established an intersectional foundation for the protection of corn growers and corn production. Throughout their presentations, speakers stood in the midst of a spiral of corn varieties that were brought together by growers from their diverse regions. The first part of the declaration sets the key goals of the gathering: “That indigenous and peasant communities are the legitimate possessors, conservators and improvers of corn and all of its associated biodiversity, that we have created and protected in our territories over centuries the biological and cultural wealth of the world, which serves to remind us that we are a diversity of colors, forms, smells, tastes, and different ways of knowing.”
Although they did present their declaration to representatives of the UN, they still have several big goals moving forward. In Peña’s view, they must also share the declaration widely online and across the communities of growers at the gathering. In the U.S. context, Peña sees the U.S. government as a key battleground for support against Monsanto and GMOs.
After the conference, Peña shared the key takeaways from his experience. “What I found interesting about our meeting in the Mayan village of Ek Balam,” Peña reported, “is that when members of the group took turns discussing the threat, almost everyone, pretty much everyone, agreed that GMOs are a threat, Monsanto is a threat, all the chemicals that are used are a threat. Perhaps the biggest threat against us is getting the next generation committed to growing, protecting and breeding corn.” In his role as a corn grower, educator, and activist, Peña is particularly invested in finding ways to keep young indigenous people involved in the practice and tradition of corn growing. As he sees it, “An increasing number of people are cultural farmers. We farm to keep the culture alive. Not just corn, beans and squash, but culture. This involves a great deal of skill and knowledge that take years to acquire. We’ve had success in transmitting that knowledge to a younger generation, but we also want as many of them to come back.” Finally, he explained, “If we’re going to survive, not only do we need to restore culture in the next generation, we also need to restore the ecology for the next generation.”