Published on October 8th, 2019 | by The Beam0
Saving Mexico’s Native Corn With Sustainable Furniture
October 8th, 2019 by The Beam
“As creators of desire, we are in a privileged position to change what people want and what they ask from the market.” — Fernando Laposse
Fernando Laposse is a Mexican designer who is drawing most of his inspiration from Mexico, its people, its craft, and their relationship to the natural world. Fernando strives to transform cheap and often waste materials to create gorgeous furniture. His projects aim to raise questions regarding whole system thinking, ephemerality, patterns of consumption and the politics of food production. We talked with Fernando about the role of design in raising awareness towards sustainable issues and he introduced us to one of its latest project: Totomoxtle, which showcases the range of species of native corn that exist in Mexico.
What would you say is the role of art and design in raising awareness towards sustainability?
I think design has a particular role in doing so because contrary to art, design also bears a great responsibility in the issues that are currently causing the ecological crisis we are living. Traditionally, designers are creators of desire, a desire to consume. We are responsible for fueling the cycles of planned obsolescence and for many decades now, we have been complicit and instrumental in the development of the ongoing culture of overconsumption. To put it bluntly, designers and marketers are effectively the lubricant that enables the smooth passage of products from industry to the consumers.
That being said, I do believe there is a new generation of designers that are finding ways of making a living without necessarily producing new objects all the time, and that have a true preoccupation for communicating the environmental issues we are facing and trying to resolve them in creative ways.
As creators of desire, we are in a privileged position to change what people want and what they ask from the market.
Has it always been important for you to raise awareness on sustainable issues with your design?
Yes, I would say so. My first successful project was using loofah, a sustainable sponge that comes from a fruit. This was back in 2009 when I was still studying, and this project marked my methodology for the years to come.
What is your personal connection with Tonahuixtla, Mexico, and could you explain what happened there with the introduction of hybrid corn production?
Tonahuixtla is a small town of indigenous Mixteco farmers and herders in the south-west of Mexico. I came there for the first time when I was six years old because my parents were invited by Delfino Martinez who at the time was working in my dad’s bakery. My sister and I fell in love with it and it became a place where we spend all of our summers through to our teenage years. It was a beautiful place lost in the mountains where people maintained their traditions and lived from their harvests.
In 2015, I returned to Tonahuixtla after years of not being there and I was in total shock to see what had happened. All the parcels had been abandoned, most of the men had migrated, the soil was completely eroded and their native corn had disappeared. Tonahuixtla was a ghost town.
Unfortunately, the story of this village is the classic example of what is happening in a lot of rural communities all over the country. After the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, my country opened its market to American imports of hybrid and genetically modified corn. This brought the price of corn in Mexico down by two-thirds which meant that farmers had to produce much bigger yields to break even.
The only way to do so was to stop using the native seeds that had been planted for thousands of years and instead turn to industrial hybrids which are grown with herbicides and pesticides.
This was something that proved disastrous because the soil there is very fragile and easy to erode if not taken care of.
The newly introduced herbicides ended with the traditional milpa system of planting corn in tandem with beans and pumpkins as only the hybrid corns could sustain all those toxins. The switch to monoculture made the soil infertile and farmers dependent on fertilizers. The margins were so low and the expenses so high that after a few years no one could grow anything here anymore. That’s why most men left, ironically to work illegally in commercial fruit plantations in the U.S.
Although it was extremely sad to see this, I also saw something that inspired me immensely. Delfino had become a community leader and together with a group of older men they were starting a reforestation effort to try and repair the damages to the soil so that one day they could plant again. Delfino is now in his 70s and it was clear to me that he wasn’t doing this for himself, but rather for my generation. His enthusiasm was infectious and this why I felt the responsibility to join his efforts and offer my skills to his project.
And this is where Totomoxtle was born, right? How did you intend to help?
Correct, although the soil could be healed there was still the issue of getting farmers to plant native corn again. The market is completely rigged nowadays, there is no distinction in grain quality, corn prices are established according to global demand and by weight and volume.
Hybrid corns have been designed to be heavier and when used with nitrate-based fertilizers you can pack more corn per acre which makes them more productive than native corn under this new framework. Native corn is also not attractive to supermarkets, they are never the same size or color and ironically it is their diversity that has made them unfit for a market that demands standardized products.
But I saw potential in the diversity of native corn, what is amazing about these varieties is that not only the grains are colorful but this extends to the husks. After looking at the husks for some days I noticed a lot of similarities with wood veneers and this was the eureka moment. What if we could produce a veneering material from the husks and make more money for the farmers this way?
How did you convince farmers to go back to growing native seeds in Tonahuixtla?
Well, it wasn’t that easy, the soil had to be regenerated and Delfino and his colleagues were taking care of this but reintroducing corn wasn’t as easy as just sourcing seeds. Corn is extremely sensitive to altitude and soil composition.
Tonahuixtla is in a very arid area and at almost 2,000 meters above sea level. The first couple of years we tried planting native seeds we sourced from nearby towns with no good results; we either got corns that produced to cobs or plants that never fully matured. But in 2017 things changed when I applied for funding in the Netherlands and the video I used to apply got a lot of traction in Mexico.
This got me the attention of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a non-profit research and training institution dedicated to the development of improved varieties of wheat and maize with the aim of contributing to food security. CIMMYT also have the largest collection of maize seeds in the world.
They offered to help us and based on altitude readings and soil samples they selected 16 species from their vaults. Some species worked, and some didn’t but I am proud to say that after all these years we have managed to successfully reintroduce six different species that have adapted very well and they are producing beautifully colored husks.
What has been the impact of going back to this natural form of agriculture for the people and the environment?
It is hard to quantify the impact just yet as these things usually take decades to gather hard data, but the town now has a communal composting centre to produce solid compost and soil, liquid fertilizers from earthworms and we are in the process of building a local seed bank. In terms of the people, well this new craft is creating a new source of employment in the town. It’s a slow process and we still have lots to do but the hardest part is behind us.
What exactly is the process to produce each piece of design?
The husks are harvested at the end of the corn cycle and carefully cut off the cob once they are fully dried. They are then soaked in water and ironed flat by hand. Then they are glued to a recycled paper card using a natural latex-based adhesive. Once the material is nice and flat it can be cut using a die-cutting stamp tool in a hand-operated press or it can be laser cut depending on the intricacy of the design. We are limited by the size of the husks every season so we are constantly redesigning and retooling in order to adapt to what nature gives us. Once we have all the individual pieces needed for a particular project (sometimes it can be in the thousands) they get reassembled and re-glued by hand using techniques similar to those of traditional wood marquetry.
Why did you decide to train local women to process the leaves and turn them into Totomoxtle?
Women are the largest demographic in Tonahuixtla because most of the men migrated. At the same time, they are the most vulnerable group because they are relegated to take care of children and do house chores. They are often ignored in the town’s decisions because they don’t bring any money to the household. I believe in changing this dynamic because women are the educators, they are the ones that are shaping the way the next generation will think therefore it is paramount for them to be involved in the project as they are really the key for taking our vision forward.
Can you already talk to us about the impacts of your project on the population and the environment?
We are currently employing 30 people and have reintroduced six species of native corn, two of which are in danger of extinction. We have also restored six hectares of planting fields that were previously abandoned and Delfino and his team have planted 40,000 agaves and guaje desert trees to fight erosion. It has only been four years so we are very excited to see how the project evolves in the next decade.
What is your wish for the future?
I wish people become more aware of how interconnected our ecosystems are and how every decision we make when we consume products has a consequence. I am glad that sustainability is becoming a trend but I hope that it’s something that is here to stay. I wish that people on the production side — which includes designers — are very careful when making decisions on how products are made and what materials are used.
At the moment my fears are that labels such as biodegradable or recycled are becoming excuses for producing very unsustainable products.
As an example, most of the bioplastics that are being produced at the moment are called PLA plastics and their main component is corn starch. But dig a little deeper and you will find that corn is harvested industrially in places like Mexico and Brazil where in order to produce it there are huge environmental consequences.
Not to mention we are using enormous amounts of energy and water to produce food and instead of eating it we are turning it into disposable ‘bioplastics’. Some of the new solutions are in creating bilateral problems and it is only by truly understanding the interconnectivity of resources that we can avoid making these mistakes.
So I guess what we can wish for the future is that people have a more ‘whole system’ vision of how things are made.
“Indigenous knowledge and especially their native seeds may hold the answers to a lot of the environmental challenges that lie ahead.” — Fernando Laposse
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I guess as a final thought I think we need to really take a look at the indigenous communities that were responsible for creating so much of the agricultural wealth we have nowadays. I find it deplorable that we have abused and ignored them the way we have. It is hard to undo the damages of colonization but I think the topic of sustainability is a renewed opportunity to make mends.
Indigenous knowledge and especially their native seeds may hold the answers to a lot of the environmental challenges that lie ahead. For example in the case of Tonahuixtla, they know how to make things grow in the desert and the world will get hotter in the upcoming years. The genetic information of their seeds which is the result of thousands of years of selective breeding allows them to have successful harvests even in years of extreme drought. Therefore it is extremely important to maintain this knowledge alive as it will have an enormous value in the years to come.
It is time we make indigenous groups part of the decision making in terms of environmental policies but we can’t do so until we treat them with respect and guarantee them a decent standard of living and basic human rights.
Fernando Laposse is a London-based Mexican designer, specializing in transforming natural materials that are often considered waste into refined design pieces, allowing their historical and cultural connotations to take center stage. His work addresses topics such as sustainability, the loss of biodiversity, community disenfranchisement, and the politics of food.