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A sprig of amaranth in the shit of the world

On myth and resistance

  • Essay
  • Dec 15 2023
  • Elisa Fuenzalida
    is a researcher and cultural worker. She has directed research projects such as El futuro era tu cuerpo, Ensamblajes del Cuidado and Afectos en Re-existencia. She is coordinator and co-curator of the Cátedra Decolonial Anibal Quijano at the Museo Reina Sofía, co-editor of the journal Arts of the Working Class and mediator in the citizen laboratory platform Redes por el Clima.

From time to time, the story of Palmer amaranth, the sacred plant of the Incas that challenges Monsanto, goes viral. According to this tale, Palmer amaranth is an ancestral Andean cereal of the Quinua family that  contains exceptional nutritional properties, and whose power lies in its ability to thrive in soybean and transgenic wheat monocultures without being affected by glyphosate, an herbicide developed by the agrochemical corporation to control weeds considered to be invasive. As for Monsanto, it is well known as a dirty business. In addition to being one of the first companies to produce dioxin (a defoliant known as Agent Orange and used as a chemical weapon during the Vietnam War), it has also repeatedly been responsible for toxic waste spills and other environmental disasters, as well as for introducing the proprietary use of transgenic seeds in the agriculture market. 

The mystical drift of this story emerges as the result of a collective construction, which gathers elements presented in regional agricultural publications as well as from scientific papers and activist pamphlets. It ends being absorbed and regurgitated by the decolonial discourse in the form of a postmodern myth. The myth’s origins can be traced back to The Guardian, in 2005, when Paul Brown, an environmental correspondent, introduced his scoop under the headline: “GM [1] Crops Created Superweed, Say Scientists [2].” In the article, Brown explained that one of the goals of genetic modifications by Monsanto is to achieve higher crop yields by creating herbicide-resistant seeds to eliminate other plants competing for nutrients in monoculture soil. The article was intended to raise awareness about the potential abuse of herbicides that could lead to the appearance of what the author called “superweeds, as well as to warn about the risk of other genetic alterations derived from these uses, but what transcended the context was the peculiar terminology he used. “Superweed” turned into so much more than just a noun. 

 Militant publications picked up on the aura of exceptionality that the term superweed evoked, and rushed into drawing a connection between Palmer amaranth and another species of the same family and similar name, the ancestral Kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus). They overlooked the fact that while Palmer amaranth and Kiwicha belong to the same family, they do not share the same characteristics and history. While Palmer amaranth has a high resistance to glyphosate, Kiwicha is vulnerable to it. On the other hand, Kiwicha has a significantly higher nutritional value than Palmer amaranth. Kiwicha is an Andean cereal that played an important ritualistic role in Inca society, while Palmer amaranth is native to North America, and, although it was occasionally consumed by the Navajo, Pima, Yuma, and Mohave, it has no known spiritual attributions. 

The headlines that were developed from this false equivalence were along the lines of “The Inca Sacred Plant Stands up to Monsanto [3],” or the euphoric “The Inca Empire against Monsanto [4]”. These texts assigned to this imaginary plant the resistance of the Palmer amaranth combined with the ancestrality of the Kiwicha, as well as a critical spirit, agentive capacity, and a sense of historical justice, among other projections attributed to indigenous and peasant struggles. Soon enough, the Catalan magazine Kaosenlared published an article encouraging the readers to sabotage Monsanto by preparing seed balls of this plant and humus and throwing them into their monocultures as if they were living bombs [5]. Prominent food activists, such as Vandana Shiva, also fell into the romantic confusion between the plants [6]. And that’s how Palmer amaranth was transfigured into Kiwicha and underwent a new phase of meaning, becoming a symbol of self-defense, an ancestral secret of the displaced against land-grabbing, complete with the ability not only to end world hunger, but also to make colonial temporality itself collapse into a great comeback of the dispossessed. 




The invincible plant issue was also raised in technical magazines by transgenic soy and corn farmers around 2018, in the USA, where glyphosate represents more than 50% of the herbicide used in extensive industrial agriculture. They also leaned into an interesting wording by referring to the Palmer amaranth through a set of metaphors with religious connotations such as: “dark prince,” “silent lurker,” and “weed demon [7].” Meanwhile, indexed academic publications incorporated the vocabulary of war in the discussion [8]. The repeated use of words like “battle,” “war,” and “attack” to address the relationship between plants and herbicides revealed a strong bias influenced by a view of nature as a territory of conquest and technology as a tool of domination. 

At this point, Palmer amaranth came to embody two symbols: the “superweed” as a ferocious enemy and incarnation of evil, or the “superweed” as a transmutation of the freedom fighter, the disobedient indigenous, the bearer of the good news of the resurgence of subjugated worlds and dignity trampled by the colonial-capitalist order. Interesting in this apparent opposition is the fact that although both positions appear to contradict each other, they start from a tacit agreement that they are dealing with an essentially exceptional entity. The problem with this transposition of meanings is that they feed off and reinforce each other, creating a parallelism between aggressiveness and resilience. From the perspective of the conquest logic that underlies the laws of the market, this serves beautifully as justification for the intensification of extermination methods. As for the resistance’s value system, the idealization of the guarantee of invincibility and return implies a loss of the sense of fragility and irreparability.

What brought my attention to these facts is the notion of resurgence; be it that of the “indigenous warrior seeds”, hidden underground in the face of the expansion of transgenic monocultures, or as a metaphor of the pre-capitalist-colonial order, which could not be defeated and was only sleeping, waiting for the right moment to return. What possible values and meanings derive from the conviction that restitution, as the act of returning something to its former or original state, is not merely possible, but a promise to which history must adjust? What does it imply to organize resistance from that principle?

There is a Greek word, “apocatastasis,” which refers to the restoration of a precedential order. It’s not a concept that strays too far from the idea of linear progress, just that it conceives it backward. Its genealogy can be identified in social movements from before the time decolonial theory intersected with speculative literature, and the concept of ancestral futures flooded cultural institutions. To mention the two examples that seem most relevant in this case: Inkarri myth and the relationship between indigenism and socialism in Latin America, and the use of the Hebrew expression “tikún olam,” which means “repair the world” evoked by the French-Italian radical publication Tiqqun. In the first case, the Inkarri myth essentially consists of the belief in the return of the dead Inca, whose head grows underground until the parts of his dismembered body are reunited and, with them, the order that colonial temporality destroyed. The second, according to Kabbalist thought, refers to the myth of the restoration of broken vessels as an allegory of the world. In both cases, the overriding theme is the idea of cosmic correction, a literal return to a pristine state of harmony before chaos.

Currently, one of the slogans that has gained popularity in anticolonial activist circles is, “They tried to bury us, but they didn't know we were seeds”. The phrase is based on the epitaph written by the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal for his friend Adolfo Baez. The original text reads: “They killed you and didn't tell us where they buried your body, but since then, the entire national territory is your tomb; or rather, in every inch of national territory where your body isn’t, you have been resurrected. They thought they were killing you with a ‘fire’ command! They thought they were burying you, but what they were doing was burying a seed.” 




As we create the symbols that shed temporary light in times of darkness, we often forget that they aren’t a literal depiction of who we are. Myth, poetry, and political slogans are not translations, and, even less, prescriptions. They are complex exercises in repair that never manage to bring back what has been lost, namely, the actual people, and their bodies. Slogans, songs, and words are by definition insufficient consolation and a collective search for hope that starts from a wound. Especially the words written over a grave. The ideas that unite individuals are not magical shields against the brutality of history, which erases, rewrites, and changes the heroic into the unworthy, and the exemplary into the cowardly. Today, in Nicaragua, the seeds are no longer the Sandinista guerrilleros, but those who rise against their transformation into tyrants. Herein lies the problem with the temporality of restitution, which operates within the same framework of principles as colonial temporality. By trying to unravel it, in the hands of the same figures it proposes, the untamed warrior, the martyr who will come back multiplied by a thousand, the hero built differently, the sacred seed, the chosen one, the magical ancestral plant, it confirms it. That's why it’s important to make the uncomfortable effort to remind ourselves, and each other, that as long as we keep building traps for “the traitor” and “the enemy,” we will keep falling into them. 

When we are moved by resistances that persist after decades and centuries despite clear imbalances of strength, we are tempted to interpret the resilience that coexists with collective trauma and irreparable loss as a quality of subjects built differently, but let us remember that this idea is also part of the internal discourse of those who already see communities involved in anti-colonial resistance as plagues of weeds whose exceptional endurance to unthinkable violence can only be faced down by extermination. While the fable of the Inca plant that brings Monsanto to its knees functions as a metaphor for the right to self-defense of the weakest, the reality that we can access from our bodies tells us that we are not super-seeds, but vulnerable individuals, and when one of us is exterminated, incorporating their memory in epic narratives can serve many purposes and historical projects, but not that of consolation for the need of the impossible embrace. 

Seed bombs are still a great idea, though. 



Cover: Andrea Acosta. The Importance of Possibilities, (2020). Courtesy of the artist. 

Fig.1 Andrea Acosta. Restless Objects, (2022). Courtesy of the artist. 

Fig.2 Andrea acosta. Becoming Forest, (2023). Courtesy of the artist. 



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