In the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, Mexico, Jesús León Santos leads an unprecedented land renewal and economic development program that employs ancient indigenous agricultural practices to transform this barren, highly eroded area into rich, arable land. With his organization, the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM), a democratic, farmer-led local environmental organization, León has united the area’s small farmers. Together, they have planted more than one million native-variety trees, built hundreds of miles of ditches to retain water and prevent soil from eroding, and adapted traditional Mixteca indigenous practices to restore the regional ecosystem. Efforts are paying off as barren hillsides turn green again, aquifers are recharged, and the high rate of migration slows as indigenous farming families find they are able to make a living at home.
Climate Change, Industrial Farming, and Migration
After adopting chemical-intensive varieties of corn seed in the 1980s, many small farmers in the Mixteca region found that yields were dropping and the soil was becoming depleted. As a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and US corn subsidies, maize prices dropped and many farmers could no longer afford the price of fertilizers and pesticides that the new varieties required. As the soil declined in productivity, small-scale agriculture became increasingly difficult. Erosion, coupled with declining prices for the staple corn crop, forced thousands of Mixtecans to leave the region.
León is working with communities to retrieve pre-Hispanic traditions of using barriers to prevent hillside erosion. He has helped identify ancient terraced agricultural systems in the region, many in ruins, and helped communities rebuild the barriers using stones from the fields. The resulting flattened areas impede erosion and enhance agricultural production. León has pioneered the construction of contour ditches, retention walls and terraces to capture rainfall and prevent erosion on hillsides. Five kilometers of contour ditches have been shown to capture 1,800,000 liters of water after each heavy rain, recharging the aquifers below. An estimated 80 percent of rainfall previously flowed off the land without filtering, thus causing erosion and preventing the refilling of aquifers. León and CEDICAM have worked with farmers throughout the region to build hundreds of kilometers of contour ditches.
León and CEDICAM are now working with more than 1,500 small farmers in 12 communities. They have planted more than one million trees and reforested more than 1,000 hectares. Their sustainable agriculture programs have led to the conservation of some 2,000 hectares. Further, they have protected 5,000 hectares with stone terraces and walls, leading to a 50 percent increase in agricultural production and increased topsoil and water retention, resulting in ecological, social and economic benefits. Where recently only 25 to 30 percent of the land was arable, communities now farm upwards of 80 percent of the land. The contour ditches that prevent run-off of rain water have led to a 50 to 100 percent increase in spring levels. Farmers throughout the area have converted from industrial fertilizers and pesticides to natural compost fertilizers and native seed varieties, and are returning to local foods and a traditional indigenous diet. For a semi-arid zone like the Mixteca, all of these changes have immensely improved lives throughout the region’s communities, leading to less out-migration.
León’s success has led to interest from other regions and countries. He has shared his experience in water conservation, anti-erosion techniques and sustainable agriculture at forums throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, and at various universities and events in the US.
Watch in high resolution on YouTube.
Watch in high resolution on YouTube.