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Leydy Pech: Protecting an Indigenous Way of Life

Leydy Pech: Protecting an Indigenous Way of Life

For the past decade, indigenous beekeeper Leydy Pech has been at the forefront of a battle protecting her homeland’s environment and way of life. She has been recognized in her efforts to protect the livelihoods, territories, and traditions of her community and standing up against the use of glyphosate and GMOs in the Mexican state of Campeche, located in the Yucatán peninsula. 

Xunan Kaab bees (Photo via: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Pech hails from the Maya community of Hopelchén, where the practice of traditional indigenous beekeeping has been preserved in its ancestral form, using the Melipona Beecheii species, a type of stingless bee native to the peninsula. The traditional practice, which Pech learned from her grandfather, consists of using hollow logs to keep hives and then harvesting honey, beeswax, and ‘royal jelly’ from them. 

Maya beekeeping is a tradition more than two thousand years old and is the only type of apiculture that originated in a tropical climate. Bees hold a sacred and privileged position in the cosmology and mythology of the regions’ Maya people who call the bees xuna’an kab or colel-kab (“royal lady”) and recognize their vital role in nature’s equilibrium. 

In addition to the honey’s use as a sweetener, the products harvested from the hives are used in many indigenous natural remedies as well as religious rituals and ceremonies. The products are also used to make balché, a mildly intoxicating drink used in ceremonies reverencing the bee’s role in the greater cycle of life. Such is the link between Maya culture and bees that the Maya language of that region has more than 150 terms related to the cultivating and keeping of hives.

Safeguarding the Commons

In 2012, genetically modified (GM) soybeans began to be planted in Campeche after the Mexican government allowed agrochemical giant Monsanto to move forward with large-scale operations in seven Mexican states. The practice of using GM crops for agricultural production resulted in damage to the region’s environmental health and spurred Pech and the Maya women’s collective she’s a part of. Concerned by the impact that these practices were having in her region, she led a coalition of beekeepers, NGO’s, and environmentalists in challenging Monsanto and the Mexican government, by placing a lawsuit to stop the planting of GMOs. The suit affirmed that since neither Monsanto nor the government had consulted the region’s indigenous communities, they had violated their rights protected by the Mexican constitution. 

Pech knew that local bee populations along with the region’s environment more broadly were affected due to the pesticides and herbicides such as glyphosate which are used to grow the crops. Glyphosate is the primary agent in Monsanto’s product Round-Up, which is sold as a complement to certain GMO seeds that are designed to resist glyphosate. To support their case, Pech requested the help of academic institutions who could assist in documenting the impact that the presence of GM crops and associated practices had in the ecological well-being of the region. Researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) found genetically modified crops’ pollen in the local honey supply as well as traces of glyphosate in Hopelchén’s water and in urine samples taken from local inhabitants.

Three years after the suit was filed, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the broad coalition and declared that that indigenous communities must be consulted before the planting of GM crops. The victory marked a significant upset for the transnational agroindustrial corporations and represented a twist in the Green Revolution’s story which has continued to unfold in Mexico and around the world.

Consequences of the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution is the name given to a series of techniques developed in the field of agriculture which, by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides along with high yield seed varieties, changed the way much of the food in our world is produced. In the 1950’s Mexico served as a guinea pig for the techniques being developed since it’s where Norman Borlaug (the “Father of the Green Revolution”), worked as a part of a joint venture between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture. Ever since, Mexico has been on the front lines of its implementation as well as the resistance against its consequences.

Although the techniques developed in The Green Revolution serve to increase agricultural production, they are problematic in that their side effects are often devastating to the environment and to countless peoples’ way of life around the globe. Perhaps most importantly, the techniques of the Green Revolution require enormous amounts of water, calculated by some to be ten times the amount needed for traditional methods. Synthesized chemicals used as fertilizers are known to contribute to a host of environmental issues, including acidification of soil, contamination of surface and groundwater, and increasing the levels of nitrous oxide in our atmosphere, the third most prevalent greenhouse gas in our planet. Due to their high cost, the techniques are mainly used by large-scale operations that have the means to invest capital. Consequently, the immense majority of farmers around the world that work on a small scale are excluded from this model. When smaller farmers are able to purchase the equipment and the fertilizers/pesticides necessary for this kind of farming it is only by taking out enormous loans which saddle them with long-term debt. 

In Defense of Health, Habitat, and Culture

The problematic nature of these techniques is difficult to curb in part because they are highly lucrative for the extractivist companies that wish to implement them. The ruling in favor of Leydy Pech’s coalition has not stopped her from continuing to raise awareness for these issues and organizing her community to protect their territory and their traditional way of life. “Frankly, right now, all the programs destined for the countryside are not designed for the farmer or the indigenous Mayan, they are designed for the modernization of the fields, but this is for businessmen and their industrial agriculture.”

As 2020 came to a close Mexico’s government reaffirmed its stance against the use of glyphosate and made the decision to ban GMO corn in the country. These advances have been welcomed by environmentalist communities but advocates have also pointed out that the battle is far from over, with many agroindustrial farms continuing to use the GM soybeans and glyphosate in the region. Pech’s work serves as an inspiration for people around the world whose environment and way of life are in peril due to the destructive impact of unfettered, neoliberal agroindustry. For Pech, “Caring for our lands is caring for ourselves, and if we do not do so we will disappear.”

Photo of Leydy Pech via the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Striving for Wholeness: The Courage of Buckminster Fuller

Striving for Wholeness: The Courage of Buckminster Fuller

Few thinkers have stood so valiantly outside of the prevalent system of thought as R. Buckminster Fuller. His phrase, “Dare to be naïve” placed at the beginning of one of his most enduring texts, startles the mind of those who suppose that once we have become functional component parts in the fabric of society we should renounce all instances of innocence, inexperience, and naïvety.  In our current age, when ruptures are tearing through the institutional framework of our society, his incisive criticism, as well as insightful perspective, proves abundantly relevant for us in our search for a better world. His insistence on understanding systems in terms of their wholeness reveals a courage that befits someone who through their convictions is willing to function with true freedom and who in turn may affect the entirety of the system they belong to; a ‘Trim Tab’, as he was frequently referred to.

Reappraising our Current Paradigm Through the Lens of Synergetics 

We are often caught in a state with a perspective whose limitations we do not know of. In the introduction to his work Synergetics, Fuller writes of how the vagueness of boundaries between the animate and inanimate leads to implications about our Universe that are not readily recognized by either scientists or the general public. Despite the increase of our examinational abilities, we are no longer as certain as we once were about what exactly divides life from matter; cells and DNA from atoms and molecules. In Fuller’s view science’s failure to find a physical property of life that is distinct not based on the same building blocksfrom the rest of the inanimate Universe shows that in essence, life goes beyond our materialistic outlook. He goes as far as to say, “We are now synergetically forced to conclude that all phenomena are metaphysical; wherefore, as many have long suspected -like it or not- life is but a dream.” 

Fuller’s description of our need to reappraise the paradigm under which we live is at the same time reminiscent of Claudio Naranjo’s call for a “revolution of awareness”; Fuller and Naranjo both believed the course we are collectively on to be one which leads to more destruction if not outright extinction. An imperative on the path toward a different world as well as a tenable future lies for him in the reorientation of our minds away from the over-specialized tendencies of our current era and toward an awareness of a synergetic whole. 

For Fuller, “humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding” because our society assumes the narrowing trend of specialization to be “logical, natural, and desirable”. “Specialization’s preoccupation with parts deliberately forfeits the opportunity to apprehend and comprehend what is provided exclusively by synergy.” We have come to believe that the only way to advance in our world is to continue specializing so that we may fit in with the hegemonic model that permeates our socio-cultural contexts. Because a highly specialized and divided society does not think comprehensively about our ills and challenges, individuals tend to leave “responsibility for thinking and social action to others.” 

Buckminster Fuller Synergetics

From the Black Mountain College Research Project Papers, Visual Materials, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, NC via Wikicommons.

The Boldness of Integrity

Understanding humanity as one part of a greater whole is a central tenet in the modern environmental movement, which has been significantly inspired by Fuller’s ideas. The conception of humanity as separate from the world around us is reflected in the unchecked industrialization that has devastated life systems world-over, vividly articulated in Vandana Shiva’s recent title Reclaiming the Commons: In Defense of Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge, and the Rights of Mother Earth.

Missing from the models held up by our so-called leaders are critical questions such as: How do we understand wholeness? What is our role as individuals comprising a greater system? How do we resolve the conflict between the individual will and the expression of our collective whole? What are the boundaries of the system we belong to? 

As we increase our capacity to conceive of life as an integrated whole, we find we are reaching toward our own wholeness. There is a need for a holographization of ourselves, in other words, to reimagine ourselves as individual parts that represent and correspond to the entirety of our Universe at multiple scales. Part of our task, which relates to the metaphysical transformation that Fuller speaks of, is to engage our minds in an integrative action toward a holographically representative version of the Universe.

Metaphysical Implications of Synergetic Perspectives

Fuller often spoke of his life and achievements as reflective of what an average healthy human being can attain by focusing their energy toward the improvement of humanity. But as we look toward his spectacular output, what can we understand as the origin of his ‘health’? If his manifestations of curiosity, inquisitiveness, creativity, and comprehensive understanding were a result of his ‘health’, then what can we ascribe it to? What does it mean for a human being to be healthy, and how can a human who is ensnared in ‘unhealthy’ living, rehabilitate themselves? 

These wide-ranging questions remain for individuals to ponder on their own, for there are no pre-formulated answers which we can use without losing the inherent value of having arrived there ourselves. Fuller stated that his remarkable trajectory was the result of an individual making up his mind and letting it go along with the truth they glimpse; not trying to “solve things in the terms of what the going game of money and politics may be.” We must realize that, “It is essential to release humanity from the false fixations of yesterday, which seem now to bind it to a rationale of action leading only to extinction.”

Visionary Art: The Intersection Between Psychedelic and Buddhist Art

Visionary Art: The Intersection Between Psychedelic and Buddhist Art

There is a thread that runs through the backbone of both spiritual and aesthetic insight. Individuals who undergo such moments seem to have experiences with certain characteristics in common, some of which include: a deep sense of understanding, a revelation of authentic essences, and an awareness of wholeness both in our world and in ourselves. Throughout our history, human beings have explored these visionary experiences and the links between them through artistic, spiritual, and religious expressions, but modernity has ushered in new opportunities to look at the vast range of works and reacquaint ourselves with their forms, perhaps even allowing us to uncover new aspects and interpretations of them. 

From this vast range of expressions, the artistic oeuvre of Buddhist traditions and the works they have inspired is of particular interest because of the emphasis they place on the inner world and their associated practices for introspection. These relate intimately and extensively to the type of experiences that produce psychedelic visionary art. Such a topic is of course a significant undertaking but even in the space of a brief article, we can explore some of the interesting examples available, as well as the intersections between them.

 

Aesthetic and Mystical Experience as Transductive Device

The artist as well as the mystic converts inner, concealed experiences so that they become accessible for the listener, audience, viewer, and so forth. They transform their perceptions of something necessarily residing within their subjective, phenomenological field and express them so that the meaning and perhaps the truth of their experience can be shared and communicated.

In the new edition of Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, artist Alex Grey describes how “Visionary mystical experiences are humanity’s most direct contact with spiritual reality and are the creative source of all sacred art and wisdom traditions.”  He also notes the similarity between the meditative state arrived at by dedicated Buddhists and the kind of vision that many artists have experienced by utilizing entheogenic or psychedelic substances. Grey observes that those familiar with the psychedelic experience might recognize the representations of the physical world and the subtle visionary beings exemplified in the geometrically dense mandalas characteristic of Buddhist artistic traditions. 

 

The Buddhist Experience of Transcendence as Depicted through Visionary Artworks

A core tenet of Buddhist practice is to utilize meditation, mindfulness, and one’s own conduct so as to gain freedom from the pain and confusion that we invariably experience in our lives. In the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha we find phrases such as “Dwelling in the cave (of the heart), the mind, without form, wanders far and alone. Those who subdue this mind are liberated from the bonds of Mara.” Mara here refers to the bondage of passions, ill will, and ignorance that we experience in life. This liberation attained by those who “subdue” or “control” their mind often produces an experience of transcendence from mundane existence and has been the focus of many Buddhist artistic traditions. 

Tibetan and Nepalese Thangka paintings are works that represent Buddhist iconography and which are notably used as tools for meditative practice. In another essay from the same collection entitled “Buddhism, Shamanism, and Thangka Paintings”, anthropologists Claudia Müller-Ebeling and Christian Rätsch describe how “both the production and contemplation of a thangka help one to visualize the universal principles of life, represented in Buddhist (and Hindu) deities, bodhisattvas, and other beings.” These richly composed artworks are in some sense used as portals for practitioners to enter the numinous world lying beyond our quotidian perceptions.

Thangka Depicting Vajrabhairava, ca. 1740, Sotheby’s via Wikicommons

In the book, Secret Drugs of Buddhism: Psychedelic Sacraments and the Origins of the Vajrayana, author Mike Crowley takes an in-depth examination of Buddhist history, traditions, and iconographies to find evidence for the historical use of psychoactive substances during rites, ceremonies, and meditative practices. His compelling claims center on the mysterious substance amrita, a term first found in the Rigveda, and which became important to the traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. Amrita is described as conferring immortality to those who drink it. His work indicates that orthodox interpretations of these terms have failed to understand the real possibility that these substances were more than merely symbolic devices, and perhaps corresponded to several psychoactive plants found throughout the Indian subcontinent and surrounding regions. It becomes clear from his exposition how the substances referred to in these ancient texts could have played an important role in the liberation that these traditions sought through their practices.

 

Psychedelic and Buddhist Visionary Art as a Paradigm Breaking Aesthetic

The revelatory nature of Buddhist artworks relates closely to the function of psychedelic visionary art. Grey writes of how “the best currently existing technology for sharing the mystical imaginal realms is a well crafted artistic rendering by an eyewitness.” From our contemporary vantage point, we stand as the beneficiaries of millennia of practices of this kind, and we have the opportunity to survey expressions that reveal the subtle forms lying behind countless artistic and/or mystical iterations. 

The expressions produced by such experiences reveal how we utilize symbols and gestures to allude to fundamental realities that we encounter, but they also point toward that which cannot be grasped by our limited capacity for lucidity and communication.

 

Featured Image: “Zig Zag Zen” by Miguel Eduardo (Seeking Soma Art)

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