Leydy Araceli Pech Martín, a Mayan apiculturist, is a recipient of the 2020Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the most important environmental award in the world. Leydy received the award for her continuous struggle in the protection of indigenous rights and lands. Leydy formed a coalition and organized thousands of people through outreach, assemblies, and petitions. She carried out a “lucha de la vida” (a struggle for life.
Thanks to her persistence and the coalition she led the fight against the permit granted to Monsanto to plant genetically modified soybeans in several southern Mexico states. Her fight was successful. The Mexican Supreme Court revoked Monsanto’s permit to grow genetically modified (GM) soy. Leydy says she found strength in the unity of the Mayan people. Leydy was born and raised in Hopelchén, where the practice of beekeeping goes back centuries for the Mayans.
The village of Hopelchén, in the Yucatan Peninsula, is in a region that is highly damaged by deforestation and toxic pollution from industrial agriculture, that especially harm ecosystems on which bees depend. Her family grows honey on a plot of land of two hectares. Along with other women in the area, Leydy makes her living as a beekeeper in a collective of Mayan women.
Leydy Pech with community members (Photo credit Goldman Environmental Prize)
The collective is dedicated to the breeding and preservation of the Melipona beecheii bee.
The Melipona beecheii bee is a rare native wild bee species without a stinger, that has been domesticated by the Mayan peoples of Mexico hundreds of years ago. It is a stingless and docile species, known as Xunan-Kab in the Yucatec Maya language.
Photo credit: Richard Arghiris for Mongabay.
Leydy is also a promoter of sustainable development for rural Mayan communities. She is a member of Koolel-Kab/Muuchkambal. It is a an organic farming and agroforestry cooperative made up of solely women. She is also known by some as “guardiana delas abejas” or “guardian of bees”.
Leydy was awarded the 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize. 2020 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is made up an ancient mesh of forests, beekeeping, local rural agriculture, and Mayan culture. 40% of the Mexico’s honey production originates from the Yucatán Peninsula. Furthermore, Mexico is the world’s sixth largest producer of honey. Thousands of families, especially within Mayan communities, depend on honey production for their livelihoods.
Beekeeping is integral to Mayan culture and a key factor in forest protection. The highest rate of deforestation in Mexico occurs in the Yucatan Peninsula.
In 2000, Monsanto began growing experimental plots of genetically modified (GM) soybeans in Mexico. The GM soybean used by Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) is known as “Roundup Ready”. The soy plant has a genetic tolerance to high doses of the herbicide Roundup (also a Monsanto product). The main ingredient in Roundup herbicide is glyphosate, a probable carcinogen.
In 2010 and 2011, these GM projects became “pilot projects” by the Mexican government. In 2012, the Mexican government granted permits to Monsanto to plant transgenic soybeans in seven Mexican states, including Campeche and the Yucatán. These permits were granted without the consultation of local communities.
The Mayan communities in the Yucatan Peninsula were not aware of the impact that the permit would have. In the face of many challenges, they came to understand the harm the Monsanto permit would cause and its complexities. It became apparent that the GM crops were contaminating local honey, threatening the food supply, environment, and livelihoods of the Mayan communities.
Leydy reached out to the university. The Universidad Autonoma carried out a study of GM soybean production in the state of Campeche, where Monsanto had conducted a pilot project. It confirmed that GM soy pollen was present in local honey. In addition, the Universidad Autonoma and the UN Development Programme mapped the impacts of herbicides. They found traces of herbicides in the water supply and in the urine of the residents of Hopelchén. Once they came to understand what genetically manipulated (GM) soy is and the effects it brought on their livelihoods, especially in beekeeping, they organized.
Leydy, together with her community, acknowledged the interaction Mayans have with the environment and nature. They realized they were under threat and lived at risk. That moved them to start a defense. Leydy brought together beekeepers, NGOs and environmentalists and organized a coalition, known as Sin Transgenicos (Without GMOs). In June 2012, the coalition filed a lawsuit against the Mexican government to stop the planting of GM soybeans. They filed an injunction and began a legal process. They filed two amparos (one as indigenous communities and the other as beekeepers’ organizations). An amparo serves to defend constitutional rights and guarantees protection when they are violated or disturbed, to the detriment of citizens.
In November 2015, Mexico’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government must consult indigenous communities before planting GM soybeans. Indigenous communities had not been consulted before approval of the Monsanto permits. This was in violation of the Mexican Constitution and International Labor Organization’s Convention. The ruling effectively cancelled Monsanto’s permits and prohibited the planting of GM soybeans in Campeche and Yucatán. Yet, the complex legal process continued.
In September 2017,Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Service revoked Monsanto’s permit to grow genetically modified soybeans in seven Mexican states. Historically, this is the first case where the Mexican government has taken official action to protect communities and the environment from GM crops. Later, revocation of all Monsanto permits took place at the national level. The case is a model for other indigenous movements struggling to preserve indigenous rights and land management.
Afterwards, procedures arose with which the Mayan community did not identify. A new audience was rejected as developments in violation of indigenous rights emerged.
Currently, the audience is stalled. Leydy expresses that the struggles of indigenous peoples continue to take place at a national level, and projects contrary to indigenous ways of life are being imposed. Consequently, the Mexican Supreme Court sentence granted two suspensions of permits in 2017 and 2020. Leydy conveys that this is not enough. The indigenous consultation does not go beyond the phase of previous agreements, and the right to autonomy and self-determination of indigenous peoples is not recognized. Consultations are not binding.
During this process, Monsanto continues to introduce transgenic seeds into Mayan territory. Transgenic soy is still planted and marketed in an environment of impunity and violation of rights.
Leydy states that the bees are Mayan heritage and are at risk. There is fumigation, deforestation, air and water pollution that continue to kill bees on a daily basis. She emphasizes that “her community is on the front line and at a higher risk. Everything they are defending serves the rest of the planet. They need help. Biodiversity is life. Bees are life.”
Leydy expresses it must become a struggle for all of us because it is for the common good.
Support local honey production and bee-friendly products, free of pesticides and GM contamination.
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“We are not reflected in that capitalist model that violates our rights. For us, the jungle, the water, the forests, the biodiversity are important, which we have been caring for and conserving ancestrally, but which the government only sees as resources that are not being exploited. One of the things we continue to defend is to protect ourselves against the environmental damage associated with the increase in industrial agriculture. There is talk of producing food in a way that is not intended for indigenous peoples, but for companies. Our territories have been dispossessed to carry out projects that affect us directly, that make us lose our livelihood and marginalize us even more. What development model is being promoted? Who benefits? It is the discussion that we indigenous peoples have today.”
– Leydy Pech
Melipona beecheii bee honey products
Goldman Environmental Prize