“It is not just a fight against Monsanto, but against the whole model of agribusiness development that is imposed in Mexico and that is hurting us.”
That is how Leydy Araceli Pech Martín, a 55-year-old Mayan beekeeper, sums up the legal battle against pesticides that she has been fighting for almost 10 years and that has led her to face one of the largest manufacturers of pesticides in the world: Monsanto.
Also known as “guardian of the bees” or “lady of the honey”, Pech lives in a village of Hopelchén, on the Yucatán peninsula, in Medico.
The territory is strongly affected by deforestation and toxic residues from pesticides used in industrial agriculture, which particularly damage the ecosystems on which bees depend.
Pech supports his family through beekeeping. Together with other women in the area, she is dedicated to the creation and preservation of melipona beecheii, a stingless wild species domesticated by the Mayan people of Mexico for hundreds of years.
His greatest achievement was to lead a coalition to prevent the planting of genetically modified soy by the Monsanto company in southern Mexico.
The country’s Supreme Court ruled that the government violated the rights of the Maya and suspended its planting. Thanks to his efforts, the government’s permission to plant was revoked.
Genetically modified plants are often designed to be resistant to herbicides and there is usually a greater use of pesticides in this type of plantation.
On Monday (11/30) Pech received Goldman, one of the most important environmental awards in the world, for his “historic struggle”.
“Their battle is a model for other indigenous struggle movements for the protection of their rights and their lands,” said the Goldman Foundation, which awards the prize to six people annually.
Pech hopes that the achievement will serve to make visible the problems that her people face and continue with a battle that is not over and which, she says, never gave up.
“Since the beginning of this struggle, companies and governments have wanted to show that I was nobody and that I was not going to be of any use. However, this did not paralyze me; on the contrary, it made me seek more allies. I found strength in the unity of the Mayan people”, says Pech in a telephone interview with BBC News Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish service.
Next, read excerpts from the interview.
BBC – Monsanto (acquired in 2016 by the pharmaceutical company Bayer) controls 90% of the international seed market and is a world leader in the production of herbicides. You have only two hectares of land to grow honey, where your family lives. How was it to face a large multinational with such a “small” position?
Leydy Pech – It was not easy. The most difficult thing was, first, to understand the complexity and damage that would be caused by the government’s permission to Monsanto to plant transgenic soy in the territories of the Mayan communities of Hopelchén. We did not know the impact that this authorization would have.
The first thing we wanted to do was understand what transgenic means. We didn’t even know what genetically modified soy was or the damage associated with that crop. Once we were able to understand the effects that this planting of GM soy would have on our livelihoods, especially in beekeeping, we decided to organize ourselves, to unite the Mayan people of Hopelchén. So, we filed two appeals in court (one as indigenous communities and the other as beekeeping organizations).
It was historic because we never had a process like this on the Yucatan Peninsula. This struggle that we started also helped us to understand the interaction of Mayan communities with the environment and nature. We realize that we live under threat, that we live at risk. This led us to organize our defense.
From 2011 to 2012 – when we found out about the government’s permission for Monsanto – we started our legal process and arrived at the Supreme Court in 2015. But there were many complexities.
BBC – Why? What has happened since then?
Pech – The process has given us the opportunity to make visible the problems we are facing with the planting of GM soy. Since then, there has been an agreement that obliges the Mexican government to consult indigenous peoples on these plantations. It was a very important achievement, no doubt.
The government states that consultation must be prior, free and informed, culturally appropriate and in good faith. But none of these principles are respected. For example, a very technical language is used that makes our understanding difficult. We saw that a violation of our rights was emerging, so we rejected this consultation.
From 2016 to 2018 we started a new process, but we never got past the first phase of the previous agreements because they wanted to impose on us a protocol that we never accepted, neither with the government that left or with that entered [Andés Manuel López Obrador, presidente desde dezembro de 2018].
Today, the process remains stalled because the government still does not want to respect the protocols of indigenous peoples. And that doesn’t just happen in Hopelchén or Yucatán; there are other struggles of indigenous peoples that are taking place at the national level and that are not respected. Projects contrary to our ways of life are being imposed.
Returning to Monsanto, there is a battle that some say we won: the revocation of the company’s permission to grow genetically modified soy in seven states in the country in 2017. In fact, it happened. And later there was another revocation of all authorizations that Monsanto has at the national level.
However, while we were in the process, the company continued to introduce GM seeds into our territory. And today, in our municipality, transgenic soy is still planted and marketed in an environment of impunity and violation of rights.
I believe that it is necessary for the competent authorities to implement this revocation of Monsanto’s license. It does not help that licenses are being revoked if they continue to spray (pesticides), if they continue to deforest, if they continue to pollute the air and water and kill my bees. Everything that is being done remains a mere formality.
BBC – And why does this happen?
Pech – For the economic interests of the Mexican government and authorities, who do not care for indigenous peoples. We are not represented in this capitalist model that violates our rights. For us, the jungle, water, forests, biodiversity are important. We take care and preserve this, but that the government only sees as resources that are not being used. One of the things we continue to defend is that I need to protect myself from the environmental damage associated with the increase in industrial agriculture.
There is talk of producing food in a way that is not that of indigenous peoples, but of companies. We were removed from our territories to carry out projects that directly affect us, that make us lose our livelihood and marginalize us even more. What development model is being promoted? Who benefits? It is the discussion that indigenous peoples have today.
BBC – The Mayan people of PYucatán’s insula traditionally live from beekeeping. How does agribusiness affect them?
Pech – Bees are our heritage, but they are at risk because more and more deforestation begins every day and monocultures start that kill them. Conservation is important to me because I depend on my territory to live.
Bees are my livelihood and are also essential for life. I also think it’s important to talk about the damage that is causing the misuse of pesticides like glyphosate [o herbicida mais usado no mundo]. They are very dangerous products that pollute the air, water and food. This is something that does not only affect indigenous peoples. It affects all of us and it must be a struggle for all because it is for the common good.
BBC – Defending this common good often means risking your life, especially for indigenous activists. In 2019 in Mexico alone, there were 18 records of murdered environmentalists, more than half of indigenous peoples (according to a recent report by Global Witness). How do you view this risk?
Pech – Yes, I know that there is a risk, mainly because of the interests that are discouraged in this fight. The issue of environmental defense is a delicate one and I am even more vulnerable because I am a woman. It is difficult to enter spaces where there are roles established by non-indigenous men who often underestimate me.
But I believe that women can open these spaces for other women. I also see it as a responsibility. We are on the front line and are at greater risk. They spray me daily and kill my bees. But it has to become a social responsibility, everyone’s responsibility. Everything we are defending serves the rest of the planet. We need help. Biodiversity is life. Bees are life.