Milpa Melipona Memory: Mayan Revival on the Yucatán Peninsula.
In 2011, European Union authorities rejected a shipment of honey from Mayan beekeepers in the Yucatan Peninsula. The culprit? Elevated levels of transgenic substances in the bee pollen. Suddenly out of an income, many Mayan beekeepers rose up against the plantations of genetically modified crops in the region that had been contaminating their honey. The beekeepers blamed genetically engineered transgenic (GM) soy for the die offs of their Apis bees - but also for the accompanying deforestation and toxic pollution of local ground water. They came to realize that unless they mobilized their cultural knowledge to react to these newfound threats, not only their economy but also essential parts of their memory and culture would become collateral damage. Mayan beekeepers soon appealed to Mexican state authorities that GM soy be banned.
Due to the long-standing relationship of Mayans with bees - the Mayan god Ah Musen Kaab himself is a Melipona bee - Mayan communities, and especially beekeepers’ collectives from the rainforest town of Hopelchén, alleged that by killing their bees, GM soy infringed on the indigenous people’s “right to culture,” a guarantee in the Mexican constitution. After many years of struggle, thanks to the support of activists, lawyers and international organizations, Mayan beekeepers succeeded in rendering GM soy cultivation illegal in the Yucatan peninsula after December 2017. GM soy growers appealed this decision to higher courts, and pesticide and GM-seed corporations lobbied the government until this prohibition was ultimately reverted in August 2019. The struggle continues to this day.
This project analyzes the complex dynamics of this conflict, including Mayan cultural debates including allied scientists, lawyers, and international activists and the GE soy-growing population of Mennonite refugees that migrated to the Yucatan peninsula in the beginning of 21st century.
Articles about the Project
“Milpa-Melipona-Maya: Mayan Interspecies Alliances Facing Agribiotechnology in Yucatan” Sainath Suryanarayanan and Kata Beilin. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies. Vol 19 No 2, September 2020.
“Water Toxicity and Activism in Yucatan, Mexico” Angel Polanco and Kata Beilin. Nelson Issues Briefs. May 2019, 1.1: 4.
“Toxic Bodies: Water and Women in Yucatán” Angel Polanco and Katarzyna Beilin. Environmental Cultural Studies Through Time. Ed. Kata Beilin, Kathleen Connolly and Micah McKay. Hispanic Issues Online. 2019.
Documentary Film "Maya Land: Listening to the Bees"
with filmmaker Avi Paul Weinstein
The documentary film Maya Land: The World According to Maya Bees is based on research led by Kata Beilin and Sainath Suryanarayanan, published in ACME in 2020 under the title Milpa Melipona Maya; Mayan Interspecies Alliances Facing Agribiotechnology in Yucatan. It tells the story of the environmental conflict between GM soy growers on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and the Maya beekeepers and reflects on how the environment and economy would look if bee health were considered a criterion of sustainable development. Not long after the arrival of GM soy to Yucatan, the bees began to die. Soon after, local honey meant for export to Europe was rejected by authorities due to contamination with transgenic pollen. Maya beekeepers quickly realized that not only their bees, but also their water and their bodies were poisoned by the new agricultural methods that involved intense use of pesticides. The Maya demanded from the state authorities an agriculture that respects bee health, based on agroecology and incorporating ancient Maya practices of beekeeping and milpa-growing. The conflict soon involved a nearby Mennonite population that settled in Yucatan at the beginning of the 21st century and has since led monocrop agriculture and distributed pesticides to Maya growers. In conversations with Maya beekeepers, scientists and policy makers, a vision of an alternative future emerges, where bees are healthy, water is clean, and agriculture incorporates a mixture of ancient techniques and cutting-edge technologies that assist humans in rethinking their relationships to the land.