Women Climate Leaders: Leydy Pech

2020 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Leydy Pech surrounded by "flor de tajonal," a source of nectar for bees in the region. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Prize

Women Climate Leaders: Leydy Pech

In the Mexican state of Campeche, the practice of beekeeping goes back 3,000 years, is an essential part of Mayan culture, and what pollinates and protects the local forest. Born and raised here in the city of Hopelchén, Leydy Pech began her ancestral legacy at a young age, and when industrialization threatened her home, she led the fight against it.

A license to kill

In 2000, Monsanto, owned by Bayer, started growing experimental plots of genetically modified (GM) soybeans in Mexico. Ten years later, those small plots rose to “pilot projects” where GM soybeans were programmed to tolerate high doses of Roundup herbicide. The main ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, a chemical that has been linked to congenital disabilities and miscarriages.

In 2012, the Mexican government granted Monsanto permits to plant GM soybeans in seven Mexican states, including Campeche. It became apparent rather quickly that the GM crops were contaminating the local honey and killing the bees.

This threatened the livelihoods of the Mayan communities by poisoning their food supply and the surrounding environment. Additionally, approximately 94,000 acres of forest were lost to industrial agriculture, the highest rate of deforestation in Mexico.

Leading the resistance

As a member of an agroforestry cooperative run exclusively by Mayan women, Pech began to witness the harm done to the environment and that the companies were illegally expanding and cutting down more trees than permitted. She created a coalition of environmentalists, beekeepers, and community organizers called Sin Transgenicos (Without GMOs).

The coalition filed a lawsuit against the Mexican government to stop the planting of GM soybeans. Their case rested on an international treaty that agrees to consult Indigenous communities for any projects that put the community at risk, which would render the permits granted to Monsanto illegal.

Through the trial, the government was found to be in violation of the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 and the Mexican Constitution. In a landmark decision, Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Indigenous community.  However, the planting of GM soybeans did not stop.

Ultimate victory

Pech pushed the matter forward by reaching out to Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México for assistance in documenting the impacts of GM soy cultivation on honey, the environment, and the Indigenous people. Their study confirmed that GM soy pollen was in the local honey supply. They also found traces of the herbicide in the water supply of Hopelchén and even in the urine of the town’s residents.

With this evidence, the collective started an outreach campaign where they organized workshops to educate communities and government officials about the negative impacts of GM soybean production. They launched petitions and protested with approximately 2,000 participants.

In November 2015, the Supreme Court canceled Monsanto’s permits by unanimously ruling that the government must consult Indigenous communities before planting GM soybeans. Two years later, in an unprecedented move, Mexico’s Food and Agricultural Service revoked Monsanto’s permit to grow genetically modified soybeans, making this the first time the Mexican government officially took action to protect Indigenous rights and land.

Indigenous stewardship

As a promoter of sustainable development for Mayan communities, Pech set the model for other Indigenous movements that also wanted to exercise their rights. In 2020, Pech won the Goldman Prize for grassroots environmental activists and took this opportunity to tell the world about the struggles faced by Indigenous communities.

This Daughter asks all governments and world leaders to develop financial models that recognize human rights for Indigenous peoples and their ancestral heritage. She continues to stand up for the bees and protect the homeland that she loves.

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