By: Devon G. Pena
Declaration Includes Traditions, Agriculture, Customs, Ideas, Flavors and Colors: Transgenic Plantings Are Unresolved Threat


We are all familiar with the idea that many ethnic and indigenous communities self-identify as “corn cultures” in the Americas. The most familiar case is that of Mexico since ancient civilizations proclaimed themselves to have arisen from maize. Indeed, the Mayan creation stories include the poetic account of how first woman and man are molded from white and yellow corn plants. One eloquent proponent of the concept of Mexico as a corn culture is Roberto Rodriguez whose doctoral studies focused on Centeotzintli, the traditional environmental knowledge and ritual practices associated with maize as a sacred plant. Lauren Baker – in a fabulous new book, Corn Meets Maize – is another scholar who observes that in indigenous communities, the cultivated fields of maize constitute a space where nature and culture, policy and practice intersect.

Now we have the first case where a nation has officially declared itself to be a corn-based civilization and culture. On July 25, the Government of Costa Rica decreed that corn is the heart of the nation’s cultural heritage. This includes its gastronomic heritage and cultural expressions that have grown along with the planting, harvesting and consumption of this vital grain.

“To avoid any doubt, we are declaring that this extraordinary grain – which gave rise to most luminous civilizations of Mesoamerica – is also recognized as the central and matrix force of Costa Rican nationality,” the president of Costa Rica, Luis Guillermo Solis, asserted during a speech marking the announcement of the declaration.
The heart of “corn country” in Costa Rica is the bioregion of Guanacaste and the president was touring the area as part of activities for the celebration of the 190th anniversary of the Annexation of Nicoya. [Moderator’s Note: Nicoya, est. in 1554, marked the existence of the distinct territory of Costa Rica as separate from Nicaragua.]
The official announcement emphasizes the recognition of the many traditions, agricultural practices, customs, knowledge, tastes, and colors associated with the cultivation, preparation, and consumption of the multitude of locally adapted land race varieties of corn. The entire Central American bioregion is considered an essential part of the Mesoamerican center of origin for Zea mays.
The government explains the significance of the declaration:
In Costa Rica, especially in Guanacaste, there is a rich and varied cuisine based on the use of corn, and in addition there are many traditions, social practices, knowledge and cultural expressions that deserve to be preserved for the benefit of farming communities and the collective norms and cultural identity of the country.
Elizabeth Fonseca, Minister of Culture and Youth, emphasized the importance of the declaration as a mandate to direct support and “more resources to projects in pursuit of the development and conservation of the traditions that are based on corn.”
The Costa Rican government’s declaration that the nation is essentially a corn culture is a significant triumph of the indigenous worldview against the imperatives [and crops] of former and aspiring colonial empires. However, much of the actual work of conservation and protection remains to be done and a major remaining challenge will be addressing the continued presence of small but troubling plantings of GM (genetically modified) corn inside Costa Rica.
According to a largely overlooked report from January 23, 2013, environmentalists in Costa Rica rigorously protested the planting of GMO corn a day after the National Biosafety Commission approved two hectares for Monsanto. According to the Commission’s records, D & PL Seeds Ltd, a Monsanto subsidiary, was the recipient of the permit approving company plantings on two hectares in Abangares, a northwestern province of Guanacaste.
The Commission continues to insist that these permits involve cultivation for research; the results will not produce corn for human consumption or marketing. However, this clarification still violates the spirit of the more recent “Corn Culture Declaration” since Costa Rica is an established center of origin for maize. Thus, the planting of any GMO corn is a certain threat through the existence of inadvertent gene flows, potentially resulting in the contamination of land race varieties with serious cultural, ecological, and economic consequences.
It will be interesting to see if the environmental groups including the “Green Block” will be able to apply pressure on the biosafety commissioners based on this new national declaration, given that they are believed to have exhausted legal avenues to prevent the planting of genetically modified corn.
Given the success of the Green Block movement – an initiative of universities, environmentalists, and farmers – the question now is if the declaration of the Ministry of Culture that corn is Costa Rica’s cultural heritage, will survive legal challenges by Monsanto and their neoliberal allies who will continue to push for the approval of GM corn plantings. The Green Block movement is active at the local and municipal levels and many farming communities have already declared themselves to be GMO-free, accounting for approximately 20 percent of the territory of Costa Rica, most in the province of Guanacaste.
Originally Published: Environmental and Food Justice