Campeche beekeeper honored for efforts to curb transgenic crops

What changes to bees’ natural habitat have you witnessed?

My grandfather taught me the importance of bees. In his time bees lived in the forest, their natural habitat, and we would go collect honey. In Mayan culture we value our bees and honey. They are part of daily life, and we have always been careful to produce sustainably. We use honey to heal, and as an offering to give thanks for the fruits of the Earth. It also offers an important income for Mayan families. Twenty years ago I realized the bees were disappearing because of deforestation, so I got together with women in my village to save our dear bees. We started to transfer their nests to our back gardens so they would survive deforestation. Honey production has decreased as the agricultural frontier advances. The flowers, nectar, pollen and resin our little bees need are scarcer by the day, so they have to fly farther over pesticide-infected crops to find their food, putting them at greater risk. Some pesticides disorient them so they cannot find their way back to their nest, while stronger pesticides kill them. Sometimes crop-fumigation planes spray them. Deforestation, use of agrochemicals and pollution of water sources are the main threats to our precious bees nowadays.

How did you address these problems?

Well, 2011 was a turning point because the Mexican government gave Monsanto permission to plant genetically modified soybeans in seven states. We learned the European [Union] was not going to import honey with trace amounts of pollen from genetically modified crops. As most of our honey is exported to Europe, this would have a huge economic and social impact. We also realized genetically modified soybeans were already being planted. We questioned how the permit had been granted, when there had been no pilot program or trials, and the commercial permits were in use. In Mayan the words for genetically modified do not exist, so it was difficult for us to understand. We finally understood the concept through the problems associated with that model of agriculture: deforestation, use of agrochemicals, decreases in honey production, death of bees and water pollution. We researched and found evidence that pollen from genetically modified soy was present in local honey, and that glyphosate from Roundup [herbicide used in conjunction with Monsanto seeds that are genetically altered to tolerate it] was present in the water supply and urine of our people. It was a long and exhausting process. We had to navigate from local to federal courts, overcoming defeats and resistance from the government and corporations. Finally, in 2015, the Supreme Court determined our rights had been violated because there had been no prior consultation with Mayan communities before genetically modified crops were introduced in our territory. The judge ruled there must be a public consultation and, meantime, planting of genetically modified soy would be suspended. It was a historic moment. In 2016 a public consultation was organized but it did not comply with international standards. It was not culturally sensitive or done in good faith. To date there has been no consultation because we refuse to accept one that is not binding. The ruling was a victory, but we need to continue to fight to ensure it becomes reality on the ground because planting continues illegally.

Has the government helped you?

The government has done very little, and at times it has promoted genetically modified crops. It’s not enough to feed people; you need to consider the consequences of how you do it and what rights are being violated along the way. We were hopeful about President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government, but there have been no advances, as the institutions are not well coordinated. The glyphosate restrictions [recent measures announced by the López Obrador administration; See "Mexico publishes rules for glyphosate phaseout" —EcoAméricas, December 2020] are a good start but we need to see how this will translate beyond research into reality. Hopelchén is the municipality with the greatest deforestation in the country, so there are already plenty of studies. What we need is for the information to bring real change for the communities and the environment.

What is next?

The greatest victory has been the unity of all the Mayan communities. This is the start of a long process. We have planted the seeds for future generations to continue to resist the capitalist model of development being imposed. We consider it unsustainable, as it only considers economic interests at the expense of our social and cultural needs and our basic rights. It leaves fragile environments and vulnerable communities. How can you call that development? Who is that development for? Food prices will rise if we don’t protect pollinators, leaving some unable to afford food. Consumers should be informed and demand responsible production. The pandemic is another example of our vulnerability in this fragile environment. The medicinal cures we need lie in the biodiversity we are killing. We are fighting to defend basic values. It should be a basic human right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. When we defend these rights, we benefit the whole world, not just ourselves. But it’s not just the indigenous communities’ responsibility; it’s time everyone on this planet took co-responsibility.