Monica Campbell | SF Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, April 13, 2008
San Isidro Tilantongo, Mexico --
On a recent morning, Jesus Leon maneuvered his pickup along a rugged dirt road toward a small pine forest in one of the most barren regions of southern Mexico.
From a distance, the patch of bright green pines and seedlings seemed like an oasis in contrast to the vast stretches of eroded terrain stained with red soil. But for 25 years, Leon and his environmental nonprofit have worked to make such oases possible, promoting soil conservation, sustainable agriculture and irrigation to improve the livelihoods of the Mixtec Highlands' 350,000 inhabitants.
On Monday, Leon will be honored as one of this year's seven winners of San Francisco's Goldman Environmental Prize, a $150,000 award for pioneering environmental activists.
"I never imagined that we would win a prize like this," he said during an interview at his bare-bones office in the small town of Nochixtlan. "Now, we hope our work will be recognized and hopefully grow even stronger."
To Leon, the prize reflects the ability of a small group of self-taught ecologists to organize more than 1,500 small farmers in 12 communities to reverse hundreds of years of environmental damage.
"There's nothing like seeing an entire community coming together to improve the land," said Leon, a 42-year-old farmer who grew up in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca state, one of the nation's poorest agricultural areas, where farmers earn about $4.50 a day.
Capturing rain, growing trees
Although Leon and his colleagues at the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development of the Mixtec, or CEDICAM, have little formal education, they are experts in building rainwater storage structures and organic composting systems. They have also revived pre-Hispanic contour ditches designed to catch rainfall and replenish aquifers, which have doubled spring levels. The tree nurseries have yielded more than 2 million new trees and have reforested more than 2,471 acres.
"What's impressive is that they did this all from scratch," said Miguel Altieri, a professor of entomology at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. "Money is not the crucial factor here. It's their ability to work bottom-up, creating farmer-to-farmer networks and promoting low-tech solutions that tap local knowledge."
International support for CEDICAM comes from such U.S. charities as Bread for the World, Maryknoll Lay Missionaries and Mexico's National Forestry Commission in Oaxaca.
Up the road from the pine nursery, farmer Canuto Cruz, 60, stood over a new contour ditch that is helping his small bean and corn crop to flourish. Cruz also tapped CEDICAM's seed bank for a native variety of corn seed that is intended to keep the Mixtec Highlands free from genetically modified crops.
"We have to turn things around here," said Cruz. "If the land goes, so do we." His four children have abandoned the family farm to work in Mexico City.
Area losing people, soil
Leon knows his group cannot stop migration to large cities or the United States - California is a popular destination for Oaxacans. The Mixtec Highlands has one of Mexico's highest migration rates with 4 out of 10 residents living outside the state, according to government statistics.
But CEDICAM'S work is an important step, he says, particularly in a region where mostly Mixtec Indians suffer from periodic droughts, razor-thin incomes, poor roads that isolate communities and competitive demands by the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mixtec farmers are competing with cheaper corn from the United States, where farmers still receive state subsidies. U.S. imports have also driven down the prices of local fruits and grains.
The United Nations Development Program says the Mixtec Highlands has one of the highest rates of soil erosion in the world, affecting 83 percent of its land. Severe soil erosion dates back to colonial times, when Spain introduced small livestock, deforested wide areas and disregarded pre-Hispanic terracing systems. In all, CEDICAM says, more than 15 feet of topsoil has been lost.
Without adequate soil, rainwater runs off and groundwater aquifers disappear. The erosion lowers crop yields, sending farmers to work elsewhere or feed the nutrient-poor earth with chemical fertilizers that further erode soil.
Hooked on conservation
The idea for CEDICAM came to Leon as a teenager after he met a small group of visiting Guatemalan environmentalists, who told him about efforts to conserve their endangered rain forests.
"I was hooked," Leon said in an interview at his home in San Isidro Tilantongo, a 15-family farming community. "It was all new information to us, but we knew we could use it immediately to improve our own land."
The need for change became even more apparent after his eight siblings left to work in Mexican cities. Leon was determined to remain on the family farm.
Soon, he had organized other like-minded farmers and co-founded CEDICAM in 1983. Planting trees was an obvious first step toward tackling the region's three major deficiencies: soil, water and wood. More trees stop rainwater runoff and eventually provide firewood, which has become harder to find across the region. Leon was also troubled to see many farmers shifting in the 1980s to chemical-intensive agriculture and nonnative seeds that require expensive fertilizers.
"Part of our work is to convince people that traditional ways can be smarter," said Leon. "It's not always easy, but once farmers see their neighbors able to change, they are willing to do the same."
Leon says it's totally "backward" for farmers to abandon Mexico's traditional milpa system, which mixes a diversity of crops that provide a balanced diet and work well with inexpensive, organic fertilizers.
"We can't save the whole region," Leon said. "This is only our small example of what's possible."
Online: The Goldman organization profiles Jesus Leon in a video. Go to www.goldmanprize.org/2008/northamerica.
E-mail Monica Campbell at email@example.com