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
Studies indicate that climate change trends such as erosion, flooding, desertification and changing weather patterns will gravely affect small farmers and consequently food supply worldwide. In the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states, this is grimly apparent. According to a UN study, the region has one of the highest rates of soil erosion in the world, affecting 83 percent of the land, with 500,000 hectares considered severely eroded.
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.
In the early 1980s, León, a Mixtec indigenous small farmer and cofounder of CEDICAM, began helping people organize to reforest the area to quell erosion. As more and more farmers requested trees to plant on their properties, CEDICAM’s first nursery expanded into a system of several community-run nurseries. More than twenty years of grassroots work has led to significant benefits for the region. With help from León and CEDICAM, people are now planting up to 200,000 native trees a year. The trees prevent erosion, aid water filtration into the ground, provide carbon capture and green areas, contribute organic material to the soil and provide more sustainable, cleaner burning wood to residents who cook on open fires. CEDICAM is teaching communities sustainable use of firewood and the use of wood-saving stoves. This alleviates the workload of women who, in the past, had to travel farther to collect wood.
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.
In order to promote sustainable agricultural practices, León began a program helping farmers convert to natural compost fertilizers and to use native seed varieties. Today most farmers in the region use native seed. As a result of the public education and seed-saving efforts, the region is becoming a GMO-free zone. León also started a program to promote local foods and traditional indigenous diet, in opposition to the influx of processed foods accelerated by free trade and changes in the culture due to immigration. Many small farmers believed that using chemicals was the modern way and by returning to traditional practices they would be seen as ignorant. León taught people to appreciate the role of the small farmer, building prestige and pride into the recuperation of traditional indigenous and small farming methods. He began applying sustainable methods among a small group of farmers and as neighbors saw concrete results, they too converted to sustainable farming.
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.