Using local ecological knowledge to rebuild ecological infrastructure

milpa terraces: http://www.goldmanprize.org/slideshow/user/289/767Jesús León Santos won a 2008 Goldman environmental prize for his work on land renewal by reinventing milpa agriculture. The prize website has a video on his work, and his speech on accepting the award is on youtube with English subtitles).

The improvements in crop yield and other ecosystem services from local investment in soil and ecological infrastructure sound similar to what Pretty et al found in their 2005 paper in in Environmental Science and Technology Resource Conserving Agricultural increases yields in developing countries.

In the May 13, 2008 International Herald Tribune Elisabeth Malkin writes about his work with the NGO he helped found in Using ancient ways to reclaim Mexico’s barren lands:

León and the farmers’ group he helped found, the Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca, or Cedicam, have reached into the past to revive pre-Hispanic practices. To arrest erosion, Cedicam has planted trees, mostly native ocote pines, a million in the past five years, raised in the group’s own nurseries.Working communally, the villagers built stone walls to terrace the hillsides and they dug long ditches along the slopes to halt the wash of rainwater that dragged the soil from the mountains. Trapped in canals, the water seeps down to recharge the water table and restore dried-up springs.

As the land has begun to produce again, León has reintroduced the traditional milpa, a plot where corn, climbing beans and squash grow together. The pre-Hispanic farming practice fixes nutrients in the soil and creates natural barriers to pests and disease.

Along the way, the farmers have modernized the ancient techniques.

León has encouraged farmers to use natural compost as fertilizer, introduced crop rotation and improved on traditional seed selection.

León plows with oxen by choice. A tractor would pack down the soil too firmly.

In the eight villages in the region where Cedicam has worked, yields have risen about three or fourfold, to about 1 to 1.5 metric tons per hectare, León said. Unlike the monocultures of mechanized farming, these practices help preserve genetic diversity.

León’s work is a local response to the dislocation created by open markets in the countryside.

“The people here are saying that we have to find a way to produce our food and meet our basic needs and that we can do it in a way that is sustainable,” said Phil Dahl-Bredine, a Catholic lay missionary and onetime farmer who has worked with Cedicam for seven years and written a book about the region.

The key to determining the project’s success, and that of similar projects in these highlands, will be if it can produce enough to sustain families during the bad years, said James Reynolds, a specialist in desertification at Duke University who visited Cedicam in April. The land of the Mixteca region is so degraded that “the overall potential is not that high,” he said.

Over the past two decades, the Mexican government has steadily dismantled most support for poor farmers, arguing that they are inefficient. About two-thirds of all Mexican corn farmers, some two million people, are small-scale producers, farming less than 5 hectares, or 12 acres, but they harvest less than a quarter of the country’s production.

After winning the award Jesús León Santos was interviewed by TierraAmérica:

TIERRAMÉRICA: — What does it mean to you and your organization to win the Goldman Prize?

JESÚS LEÓN SANTOS: — It has been the most important thing that has happened to me in a long time. This unites us with people who are conserving the environment and makes us stronger. The 150,000 dollars will go to a fund in my organization to continue developing our work. Imagine that! It represents the budget of an entire year. We manage some 100,000 dollars that come from European organizations.

TA: — To come up with and develop projects like yours in a poor area, with degraded land and high rates of emigration is an uphill battle. How did you begin?

JLS: — I became involved in this because when I was a boy I saw that we faced many difficulties. My parents sent me to look for firewood and I had to walk hours and hours because it was very scarce. The trees had disappeared. We thought that the Mixteca had to be green again, like it was in the past, and those were really only words because we didn’t know what to do. Then there came clarity, and 25 years later we see that we have achieved what we never imagined possible.

TA: — What are the most evident changes?

JLS: — Many people who come to the parcels say that it’s a paradise, and then I say that it is a paradise that has been created little by little. Today we enjoy the wood and the birds that for years we didn’t hear singing because there were no trees. The soil is beginning to change. When one walks through the trees, the sound made by our feet on the leaves was something we had never heard before.

TA: — What role did the pre-Hispanic techniques for cultivation and land conservation play in these achievements?

JLS: — In addition to planting trees and creating ditches to retain rainwater, we pushed the recovery of traditional farming systems, the “milpa”, which consists of planting maize, gourds, beans and others on the same parcel, using our seeds from our own harvests, without buying anything. This means the soils don’t deteriorate and it improves fertility.

Unlike monoculture, these systems not only provide a balanced diet, they conserve soil fertility. In the 1970s and 1980s, when they began using fertilizers and improved seeds here, this knowledge of our peoples was pushed out. But we have recovered it.

TA: — The genetically modified seed companies are asking Mexico to allow its maize varieties to be planted here because they say they are much more productive. What do you think?

JLS: — The GM seeds can be monsters in comparison to what nature has done. We can’t be playing with what is natural, and those companies are truly creating monsters that attack life, not just the native seeds but also ourselves. What I’d tell the seed companies is that they carry out campaigns that are not ethical, because they lie and they bribe governments.

TA: — But each year there are more and more GM crops in the world and their promoters argue that this technology has come to stay.

JLS: — To everyone who thinks that our ancient systems are a matter of romantic ideals we say that we are on the right path. What they are proposing is a disaster. When those modified seeds can’t be controlled, they can cause a global catastrophe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>