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Organic Consumers Association

Ancient Farming Techniques to Save the Campo

Mexico is losing its campesinos to climatic changes and industrialized agriculture. They are poor and without money to invest in machinery, seeds or fertilizers and pesticides for their crops. Many desert their land, ruined by chemicals, erosion or desertification, to seek a better life in the big cities of Mexico or the United States. 

This sad reality is played out daily in the Mixteca, an area in the impoverished state of Oaxaca north of the capital city inhabited by indigenous descendents of the ancient Mixteca culture. According to the United Nations, this region has one of the highest rates of erosion in the world, and 83 percent of its land is no longer arable. 

“When a campesino leaves his plot to work at some other job, it is a dramatic and terrible change,” said Jesús León Santos, a campesino leader and environmentalist from Tilantongo, Oaxaca, who is working to improve the land in the Mixteca using ancient indigenous techniques and implementing a sustainable agriculture program with the families in the area. “We are really worried because the whole tradition and knowledge of the Mexican campo is being lost. Only old people are staying in the campo, and there will be no heirs to this knowledge that has been passed down through generations within the indigenous communities.”

León visited San Miguel de Allende to participate in the first workshop on organic farming held August 8 at Rancho Vía Orgánica. Besides giving a lecture at the workshop, León visited some rural communities in the area to listen to farmers’ problems and share his experiences with them. He was recently awarded the Goldman Environmental Award for his efforts to protect the environment. 

Pre-Hispanic ways to save the land

During the 1980s Guatemalan refugees fled to Oaxaca when social and political conditions in their own country became unstable. A decade earlier, Guatemalans had developed an agricultural production system based on organic principles and local knowledge. “People who had participated in these agricultural programs left Guatemala during the crisis, and some of them came to our region and started training people in their techniques. I was one of the people who received this training,” said León. “We later created a whole movement founded by farmers interested in protecting the environment and in sustainable agriculture, and we started the Centro de Desarrollo Integral Campesino de la Mixteca, CEDICAM (Campesino Integrated Development Center of the Mixteca).” 

According to León, CEDICAM’s main purpose is to rescue eroded land and turn it into fertile and productive soil. “The area is very eroded, but we are developing techniques based on channels that we call acequias de laderas (slope channels) to retain water and avoid erosion of the slopes,” said León. This is a very old system that was used for irrigating crops during pre-Hispanic times. Knowledge of the system was nearly lost, but now, said León, it is widely accepted in the area and government institutions such as SEMARNAT (Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales) are now promoting it. In the Mixteca area, almost 80 percent of the rainwater drained off without filtering into the ground. It has been shown that five kilometers of slope channels can capture 800,000 liters of water during a torrential rain. León and CEDICAM have been working with local campesinos to build hundreds of slope channels in the area. 

Native seeds and old techniques

For León, it is of great importance that families in the campo have enough to eat. To achieve this, they must work their own land and produce their own food. “Beginning in the 1950s, a trend toward developing modern agricultural production systems was adopted,” said León. “Since traditional systems were not producing what they should, the knowledge of the indigenous people and campesinos was replaced by technology. This has caused a high dependency on fertilizers and outside knowledge, which makes the rural communities more vulnerable.”

During the 1980s, in an attempt to improve their harvests Mixteca campesinos began planting corn that required intensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. After NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) went into effect, the price of corn fell, and the campesinos could no longer afford agricultural chemicals. Faced with low yields and degraded soil, thousands abandoned their lands. 

León and CEDICAM are focusing on developing an integrated agricultural system called the “milpa system.” “This is also an ancient system used by our ancestors,” said León. “Today, it is almost forgotten since it has been replaced by monoculture systems—only one crop in the field.” León explained that the milpa system combines different crops, such as corn, beans, squash and herbs, in the same field. “This system may not produce the eight tons of corn that a monoculture field in Sinaloa produces, with a large investment in machinery and chemicals, but it will give the campesino 1,800 kilos of corn for his family and his animals. It will also provide them with beans, squash or anything else they plant on their land without a big investment, using only green fertilizers and native seeds, and probably they will have a surplus to sell.”

León said that “there is a trend against planting native seeds, even though for centuries they have provided food and adapted themselves to the local climate. Suddenly, we want to replace them with “improved,” genetically modified seeds that we do not know enough about. This is a concern not only for farmers and producers but also for consumers. Consumers must demand the production and use of these native seeds. Besides offering better flavor they help keep culture, tradition and the ancient indigenous and campesino knowledge alive.”

It was not easy for León to convince people to use this system. “It is complicated to change from a system based on chemicals to a natural system. We cannot simply stop using fertilizers all at once. It has to be done little by little, reducing chemical fertilizers and increasing green fertilizers. This does not affect production drastically. People live from their plots; if we force them to change drastically from one system to another, they might have a severe decrease in production and become discouraged. So the change has to be gradual.”

Currently, León works regularly with 12 rural communities in Oaxaca and sporadically with another 30, helping about 700 families.

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