February 14 2009
Ismael Bekhayat Reports on his Trip to Mexico
Thanks to the generous grant I received from the ILR international department, I was able to pursue a two-week field seminar in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. My January 2009 excursion, accompanied by a team comprised of professors and fellow students, was the hands-on, ‘living laboratory’ component of the interdisciplinary course IARD/LAT 4010/6010: Experience Latin America: Bridging Worlds: Rural and Urban Realities.
The trip was personally enlightening with regards to my field of study and beyond. I will be candid and confess to being slightly apprehensive before our departure. I had heard horror stories from many people, including Latin Americans, recounting the dangers of tourist travel in this particular region of Mexico- the stage for the Zapatista uprising 15 years ago, and an area bordering Guatemala. Even a Colombian cab driver, who safely delivered me to JFK, was wondering if I was working with National Geographic when I told him that I was bound for Chiapas, Mexico. On the contrary, my post-trip analysis is that Chiapas is a state endowed with majestic natural beauty, and is a region that every dignified traveler should visit at least once in his or her lifetime. The common preconceptions about Chiapas as an inhospitable and precarious place are also misconceptions, and should be discarded: the Chiapanecos, Zapatistas included, are a very welcoming people.
As a person raised in Morocco and later educated in various parts of Europe before arriving in the United States, the lens through which I viewed Mexico, and Chiapas more specifically, was colored by my own background and experiences. First, as someone brought up in a developing country, then as someone who spent years immersed in the European superiority complex, and finally as someone who has lived among Gringos . All things considered, this trip allowed me to utilize all of the experiential ‘lenses’ I have acquired over the years, resulting in a simultaneously fun, intellectually stimulating, and eye-opening experience.
Before I start, I would like to underline that Mexico is a federation comprised of thirty-one states and one federal district. Intriguingly, the country’s official title is actually los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, or the Mexican United States. It may be natural for an American to realize that a country could be so geographically expansive and heterogeneous. However, for someone from Africa and Europe, it took some time to comprehend that Chiapas was only one state among many, and that it has its own unique and particular culture, traditions and way of living, independent and different from other states. I really became aware of this reality when I noticed that among our group of 26 members of the Cornell Community, the “Greatest Tourist” was Hugo, a Cornell visiting fellow from La Universidad Autonoma de Nuevo Leon in Monterrey, Mexico. He was probably as much, if not more, amazed by the discovery of the beauty and the particularities of the wonderful state of Chiapas, the cities and towns (Tuxtla Gutierrez, Tapachula, Barra de Zacapulco, Comitan, San Cristobal, Huitepec, San Juan Chamula, Zinacatan, and Palenque), and the communities (Vicente Guerrero, Acapetahua, Cuenca Mejapa, El Pinar, Oventic) we visited during our travels.
Our trip was so rich in activities and adventures that I don’t know from where to begin. Since I feel frustrated by my inability to cover everything in the desired level of detail, I will do my best to highlight the eclectic nature of the field seminar through 10 adventures:
Adventure number 1: the discovery of the local agriculture.
The class I went with to Mexico belongs to the Cornell department of International Agriculture and Rural Development. Naturally, we made an effort to explore the nature and state of agriculture whilst in Chiapas. One way in which we attempted to achieve this aim was via visits with local farmers. We stopped at maize, mango and coffee plantations. This activity was very relevant for my studies since I saw with my own eyes workers toiling in the sun all day in the field, at times while lugging more than 40Kg of pesticide on their back.
Concerning maize, we went to visit an ejido where we had the opportunity to meet with Don René, the leader of the community, who meticulously outlined and documented the challenges of being a small maize producer in modern Mexico. For instance, in addition to highlighting the complications produced by the corruption that plagues the Mexican government, Don René explained to us that the price at which he sells his maize is fixed daily in the Chicago Board of Trade accordingly to the fluctuation of supply and demand. When commodity prices are low, Mexican farmers may be faced with production costs that exceed the market price they will receive for their product. At the same time, small maiceros are compelled to compete with large scale, mechanized producers in the north of Mexico and in the United States, the latter in particular benefitting from generous government subsidies that cushion the blow of rising inputs. Don Rene blamed NAFTA for contributing to a precipitous reduction in income and falling standard of living. Due to the removal of tariffs and quotas on agricultural products associated with the agreement, small producers like Don Rene have been unable to compete with the ensuing inundation of heavily subsidized, genetically modified, and mechanically harvested corn imported from the United States. With respect to mango production, we noticed that only big producers are competitive and able to export their production to the United States. As a matter of fact, mango production is highly concentrated and a very small number of players dominate the sector, leaving no room for small independent farmers.
Finally, we went to visit both a traditional (another ejido to be precise- called Mexiquito) and an organic coffee plantation. We learnt how to differentiate the Arabica from Robusta Coffee, witnessed a fabulous display of ingenuity in Mexiquito’s terrace farming, and discovered that while the price of the traditional coffee depends on the market, the price of the organic coffee is set in advance.