Building a Future in the Mixteca

The Mixteca region of Mexico’s Southern Oaxaca state has a tragic, but well-deserved reputation: it has the highest rate of immigration from Mexico to the United States. According to statistics from the Mixteca Center for Integral Peasant Development, a quarter of all young men have emigrated in search of survival for themselves and their families. The region confronts the double challenge of fighting the negative impact of erosion on their lands and the effects of free trade. Faced with this challenge, CEDICAM offers innovative solutions to forge a sustainable, ecological future based on the ancient culture of the Mixtec people.

“Here we see areas that had no future, and now they have the potential for a very good future,” says Jesús León of the Center, known as CEDICAM for its Spanish initials. “There always was a future-the problem was that we didn’t know how to find it.”

‘Finding a future’ has been a long road of learning that combines a reaffirmation of traditional knowledge with new technologies, adapted to the region. Since 1983, CEDICAM has worked in 12 Mixtec communities near their headquarters in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca.

The goal is sustainable agriculture. CEDICAM organizes workshops led by community promoters from the same region, explains Eleazar García, a promoter. The idea is to create sustainable agricultural systems that ensure decent living conditions for its members. Its work is oriented around three areas that integrate ecological, economic, social, and cultural objectives: reforestation, water collection, and agriculture.
The Nature of the Problem

The first problem is the natural environment of the region. The Mixteca is a semi-desert. On top of a natural scarcity of water, since colonial times it has experienced levels of erosion that have led a United Nations study to describe the Mixteca as having “one of the highest erosion rates in the world,” and mention that it has lost an average of five meters of topsoil since the conquest.

To recover the affected land, CEDICAM started a reforestation program 20 years ago. “We have to explain to the people why reforestation serves the needs of the community,” León points out, saying that the process has been slow, but is growing. “Now we are planting 200,000 trees a year.” He mentions that in addition to slowing erosion, reforestation serves to recover green spaces and firewood for cooking.

Another fundamental CEDICAM program is the conservation of water through the construction of trenches on the hills. “The rainwater runs and disappears-80% doesn’t filter into the ground,” he explains. This situation causes a scarcity of water during the dry season, when the underground water sources are drying up and little water is available.

In 1983 CEDICAM began constructing the trenches. At first, it was difficult to convince the peasants that they would be useful in the future. León explains, “We told them, if we do nothing, it will be worse. At first only two communities signed up. Now we have seen that their water tables have improved water levels. Now there is a lot of interest in continuing to do it, providing water for future generations.”

The environmental topics have been some of the most difficult for the organization. “It seemed like reforestation and trenches were not a part of the culture,” says León. Today the work is much easier because the communities have seen the results of the efforts of other communities and want to get started in the program.
Rethinking Agriculture

The Mixteca region is a corn producing area with a long agricultural history. Their practices and customs have changed over time. Jesús León talks about their history:

“Twenty years ago the idea was to produce more. We faced a food shortage, mostly corn and beans, and sought ways to improve production.” This was the era of the Green Revolution in Mexico, which emphasized high-yield varieties and extensive use of chemicals. “The massive use of fertilizers to increase production was the main focus. In the ’80s we received modified seeds as part of the government “high-yield” packages.” The new program showed results in the region. Output was increased and they overcame the serious food shortage. However, they began to have another series of problems.

“When production levels were already assured, we began to see other things. We realized that the fertilizers weren’t the best. Environmental and health concerns made us think about making changes, heading towards a type of agriculture that could take advantage of local resources, and produce a higher quality product.” León tells how the corn produced from modified seeds wasn’t adequate to make tortillas. “It produces brittle, flavorless tortillas.”

The problem was that the people were already accustomed to producing with chemicals and having higher yields. As time went by the effects of the technological packages-hybrid seeds and chemical inputs-led the communities to rethink their production methods. “The fertilizers no longer had the same effects. Production wasn’t increasing and the soil was wearing out. We thought-at this rate, we’re going to be back to where we were at the beginning of the ’80s, with a food shortage,” narrates León.

It was then that the organization opened a forum among the communities. They began to think of a type of agriculture that uses their own sustainable resources. “We began to use animal waste and worm compost. At first people thought “They’re crazy!” but when they saw the results that many people got from the natural fertilizers, without depending on outside inputs, which are expensive, they began to think that it is worth it,” says León.

And so was born, bit by bit, a movement to return to the use of native Mexican seeds (semilla criolla, in Spanish).

First, seed selection. “We do the selection. We had to break the custom of selecting from among the crops, [the practice was to select seeds after the harvest, based on the quality of the ear of corn] to looking at the characteristics of the plant. If it has two or three ears or only one, which were more resistant to insects, if the plant is short or tall, the number of rows”

Second, the value of local seeds. Corn is an open-pollination plant; this means that outside varieties mix with the native Mexican seeds and can affect the characteristics that people are trying to preserve. “It’s common for people to see a nice looking plant, bring it and add it in. Now we don’t allow foreign seeds.” León says that CEDICAM has a policy of not allowing outside seeds in. “People have now understood that local varieties are much better.”

He mentions that looking towards the future, “with our corn, we are going to win. The modified varieties are good, but the native seeds last longer.” With the use of native seeds the peasant communities recover their tradition of planting each year with their own seeds. “I thought about doing the same thing [with the modified seeds] but in the following years, they got worse and worse. And they are expensive. With their own corn and selection process, the farmers can relax because they won’t have to buy,” explains León.

Before, in order to plant they had to wait for credit to be able to buy seeds. “People were always waiting to plant their lands. If we hadn’t believed in this process, we too would still be waiting.” In the Mixteca, as in all Mexican farming regions dominated by small producers, access to private or government-sponsored loans is extremely limited.

Despite the benefits that have become evident, the change to the new-old agricultural system has been slow. “The peasants think that using the native seeds and natural fertilizer means we are ignorant compared with using chemical fertilizers and the latest tractors,” says León. That is why it has been necessary to create a renewed value in being a peasant. “A peasant has to have some prestige. It seems that to be a peasant is very low, it is not prestigious. People don’t want to be peasants. We measure the value of the land in another way. We know that we have a set of knowledge that is really great quality knowledge. We have to reevaluate the role of the peasant and indigenous person.”
Leaving the Countryside

According to the Oaxacan state government, 30% of Mixtecos have left their native communities. The region constitutes 50% of the overall state’s emigration. A 2002 survey showed that of the migrants, more than 85% have gone to the United States. Mixtecos today work in California, Arizona, Florida, Oregon, and Illinois.

Because of the shortage of natural resources in their region and the low corn prices, they are environmental and economic refugees.

Today León says, “the corn growers from here are in the United States, they had gotten used to the strong economy of the ’80s and they thought ‘we cannot stay here.’ This is the only way that many families can live, their children attending school are supported by parents in the United States. They can only survive due to remittances.”

Remittances are an important source of income for the region. However, emigration has its price for those who stay behind. First comes the disintegration of the family and community, which is evident in the region. Also, as León points out, “immigration and poverty are threatening to the culture. The television, propaganda, commercials-we are in the midst of a process without a path … many emigrate, there are so many people abroad. We know U.S. customs better than our own Mixtec customs. Its maddening.”

Culture is an area that the organization has undertaken relatively recently. “In the beginning we didn’t take the culture of the communities into account. We learned to incorporate it. The Mixtecos are descendents of a people with a very rich history. We need to honor the culture in the way we organize, in the way we see the world.”

Among the Mixtecos, culture has been a valuable tool for organizing because the traditional culture centers on a unified community. “We are not individualist people. We have a community culture, not thinking about ‘my part’ but about ‘us.’ CEDICAM publishes and talks about cultural components as an integral part of its work, in an effort to rescue the culture. “We are in the process of returning value to the culture. We have a library of Mixtec history and culture. We are not just any people.”
A Blow from Above: NAFTA

Nature has been a permanent challenge for the peasants of the region, but the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) fell upon them suddenly and without warning. It took them awhile to understand why such a rapid deterioration was occurring in their household economies. “In the ’80s many people improved their economic situation-they built houses, sent their kids to school, bought land. Suddenly we began to see a strange phenomenon-prices, instead of going up as they had been, were frozen. This type of corn is sought by people from other states and we had a good market, but in the ’90s the price began to fall.”

“People sought to invest and produce more, but they were losing out,” continues León. Prices have been below the cost of production due to competition with the United States. “Many people don’t know how corn enters the country so cheap despite it being brought from farther away. I have always told people-the government put its farmers into competition with the north without even letting us know.”

In this context, the first challenge for the organization was to find new channels of commercialization. They formed a producer cooperative to find direct mechanisms to sell to consumers.

There are many challenges in the future. In 2008 corn will be totally liberalized, according to the terms of NAFTA. The Mixtec farmers, organized in CEDICAM, are studying the possible negative impacts of this measure, and how to defend themselves. Among their activities are studies, a binational meeting with small producers from Mexico and the United States and development of regional markets for high quality corn. They have participated in dialogue with their U.S. counterparts to analyze the Farm Bill and the impact of U.S. subsidies on both sides of the border.

Jesús León is proud of the achievements of the organization and conscious of the challenges that lie ahead. Most important is that the communities decimated by immigration begin to see a future, to feel rooted in their own land. “Those that stay behind have demonstrated that you can live here,” says León. It seems small, but this achievement in itself represents advances in production, commercialization, culture, and environmental conservation that few people thought possible. It represents a small triumph of “what is ours” over “foreign” that marks the beginning of a new future.

Translated by Katherine Kohlstedt.

LAURA CARLSEN is Director of the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for more than two decades.





Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .