Environmental Hero: 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

Environmental Hero: Leydy Pech

Each week One Earth is proud to feature an environmental activist and hero from around the globe who is working to create a world where humanity and nature can coexist in harmony.

Born and raised in Hopelchén, a city in the Mexican state of Campeche where beekeeping is an essential part of the Mayan culture, Leydy Pech learned about her ancestral legacy when she was young and started taking care of the land. The practice of beekeeping for rare native bee species goes back 3,000 years and is what protects the Campeche forests. She is a member of an agroforestry cooperative run exclusively by Mayan women.

Leydy Pech. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Prize

Starting in 2000, Monsanto (now 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 an herbicide called Roundup. The main ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate, a chemical that has been linked to birth defects 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. Approximately 94,000 acres of forest were lost to industrial agriculture—the highest rate of deforestation in Mexico.

Deforestation in Hopelchén, México. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Prize

When Leydy realized they were illegally cutting down the forest, she created a coalition of environmentalists, beekeepers and community organizers called Sin Transgenicos (Without GMOs). Together they 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 project that puts the community at risk, which would render the permits granted to Monsanto illegal. The government was 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.

Pech pushed forward on the matter 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 a series of 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 ever the Mexican government officially took action to protect the Indigenous. 

Aerial view of deforestion. Image credit: Courtesy of Goldman Prize

As a promoter of sustainable development for Mayan communities, Leydy 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. 

Leydy is asking all governments and world leaders to develop financial models that recognize human rights for Indigenous peoples and their ancestral heritage.

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