Costa Rican Government Decrees Corn as Cultural Heritage

*Declaration includes traditions, agriculture, customs, ideas, flavors and


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.
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

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.

Devon G. Peña | Seattle, WA | July 28, 2014