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By John Patrick

(Featured Photo by Emily Kelley)

History indicates a majority of the cotton found in USA today came from Acala in Chiapas, southern Mexico  

Cotton has an extremely well documented role in history. However, in the 20th century, its significance has been underplayed or misunderstood. Nonetheless, cotton is once more at the centre of attention: in an attempt to promote transparency and sustainability, members at all levels of the global textile chain are posing questions and scrutinising the answers.

The cultivation history of this fibre has been highly significant to the present goals. The seed now known as the ‘Mexican Burr’ originated in the Mexican Highlands. In 1806, the first documented instance of transport from Mexico to the USA was recorded by Walter Burling of Natchez, Mississippi. According to contemporary accounts, he addressed the Viceroy of Mexico in an attempt to gain permission to import the seeds. His request was declined, but he was allowed to export a doll filled with the seeds. Its arrival in the USA coincided with the development and adoption of cotton gin. Larger scale production and demand led to the growth and ultimate dominance of the cotton industry in the USA.

Later, an interesting cotton seed variety from Algeria called the Wyche was introduced by way of Mexico, and this new import raised a number of questions about the undocumented appropriation of Mexican seed varieties since the time of their ‘discovery’.

As agriculture became more sophisticated in the 20th century, a stock of seed from Acala in Chiapas came into use. One account of the trip to Chiapas and the discovery of the seed is fascinating and quite blunt about the entitled appropriation of the strain.

In the outskirts of the town of Acala, at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, a small patch of cotton was soon located. A sample of the local seed was obtained from the owner of a primitive cotton gin. This lot was labelled ‘Acala’ in the subsequent experiments in Texas, and it was from this stock that the Acala variety was derived.

A US Department of Agriculture circular from November 1927 states: “Most of the cotton now being grown in California and in valleys of Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas is of the Acala variety. About 400,000 acres of Acala cotton were planted in these districts in 1925”

“Open bolls of cotton of strikingly large size were found in the native market at Tuxtla Gutierrez. A basket of cotton was purchased, and the large size of the bolls was verified, 38 bolls producing a pound of seed cotton. The fibre was abundant, 3 inches in length, and apparently of high quality. The cotton was said to have come from the village of Acala, about 25 miles southeast of Tuxtla Gutierrez; therefore, a visit to that district was next undertaken.”

This was no small task, since the journey to Acala from Tuxtla Gutierrez took several hours on horseback through arid country. The interior of Chiapas is an elevated plateau region with occasional open forests of pine and oak similar to the terrain in northern and eastern Texas. However, in other areas, the terrain was similar to the more rugged regions of southern and western Texas. Hence, adaptation of this variety to the drier regions of Texas and Oklahoma seemed likely to succeed.

A US Department of Agriculture circular from November 1927 states: “Most of the cotton now being grown in California and in the irrigated valleys of Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas is of the Acala variety. About 400,000 acres of Acala cotton were planted in these districts in 1925. A much larger acreage of Acala might be estimated by including northern Texas, Oklahoma, and adjacent States, but definite figures are not obtainable, and much of the seed is so badly mixed that it should not be considered as representing this variety.”

Appropriation was nothing new in many areas of business and culture. For example, the rare cochineal colorant from the state of Oaxaca was used to dye 18th century textiles in Europe. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, the situation is radically different in the 21st century, in which we suffer the outright theft and control of seeds by multinational corporations. These behemoths are the only parties who are enriched by this form of larceny.

In the 1960s, the renowned Berkeley geographer, Carl Sauer, acknowledged the significance of the adoption of the Acala: “Yet these primitive forms hold by far the greater range of plant breeding possibilities for future, as yet unrecognised, needs. Some years ago we secured from southern Mexico seeds of a type of cotton called Acala, that made possible the current development of cotton growing in the San Joaquin Valley.”

An obvious question would be whether or not there would have been a cotton industry in the San Joaquin Valley without the Acala. If not, would there have been any cotton industry at all in the USA? These are important areas for further exploration and research. Is it fair to say that the cotton industry owes a huge unacknowledged debt to the Mexican state of Chiapas and its indigenous peoples, who are rightly the inheritors of the seed.

That this injustice is still being perpetrated is proven by the case from 1990 in which Sally Fox attempted to introduce Guatemalan seed. Amazingly, the authorities refused her request to grow more than 200 acres of naturally coloured cotton (bred to have colours other than the yellowish off white typical of modern commercial cotton fibres) on the basis of a 1925 law created by the Acala Cotton Board. Paradoxically, she was repeating the importation approach that had been commonly practised for the past 200 years. Moving and growing seeds from Mexico and Latin America had been a tried and tested method, in other hands, of generating huge profits from cotton farming.

The more we examine the history of cotton, the more we discover past mistakes in its cultivation, growing, harvesting and processing. We can learn from these mistakes and begin a dialogue that is inclusive and fair so that we do not perpetrate these injustices again.

The description ‘native cotton’ has many connotations, of which the most obvious is that the term ‘indigenous’ because ‘native’ was the word used to describe locals in the 18th, 19th and even the 20th centuries. Hunting for cotton seeds was no different an endeavour from the act of searching for gold. Spoils were taken without compunction. In none of the remaining accounts is there any mention of payment for the seeds of the primitive cotton gin.

There are many other stories similar to these that go undocumented for many reasons. Setting the groundwork for research into the history and consequences of cotton seed cultivation cannot fail to reveal more about the roles and actions of colonisers throughout Latin America. Mapping the areas where colour grown indigenous cottons have been found and continue to grow would reap numerous rewards for researchers in many different fields. I know for a fact that, in the state of Oaxaca, some of this cotton is currently being grown as a small scale initiative for the sole purpose of education; such projects are in less danger of being co-opted by commerce.

Indigenous people should be given the right to work with their own patrimony and heritage. This is an integral part of a society at all levels of its culture. Enabling their re-appropriation of this important resource is a small but significant step in mitigating the effects of colonialism.

john patrick The author is Founder of ‘Organic By John Patrick’, an ethical and organic apparel brand based in New York, USA.

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Pure & Eco India

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