By Betsy Herbert
Santa Cruz Sentinel, Earth Matters column
Posted: 07/17/13, 12:00 AM PDT
It was the afternoon of July 5. From the backseat of the Mexican police vehicle, we could see that long-overdue rains were about to start here in the remote high mountains of Jalisco, Mexico. As rain clouds formed, we wondered how the rocky dirt road would hold up. In the front seat sat two navy-blue clad policia with closely shorn heads, bullet proof vests and AK-47s. Yet, Dr. Ann Lopez, my traveling companion, was smiling in anticipation of her reunion with old friends in the farming village of Rancho Nuevo ... now just minutes away.
And why not smile? We were getting ready for a party, and the policia were officially there to help. Victoria Mercado Sanchez, the recently elected president of the municipality of Cuquio, 70 miles northeast of Guadalajara, had just reauthorized the policia to escort Lopez to the local villages, as they had done for many years.
Since 1998, Lopez, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families, has been visiting Rancho Nuevo and other poor farming villages surrounding Cuquio. Her first visits were part of her UC Santa Cruz doctoral research, which explored some of the issues concerning migrant farmworkers and their families in the Watsonville area.
"Some of the farmworkers in Watsonville had families in the Cuquio area, so I first traveled here to interview them," she said.
During her visits to these traditional Mexican farming communities, Lopez met farmers, or campesinos, who still use the milpa system to sustainably grow their own food. Milpa is a method of crop-growing based on ancient agricultural methods of the Maya and Zapotec peoples of Mesoamerica. These campesinos continue the tradition of planting corn, squash and beans together in their milpas. This combination of plants provides a nutritionally complete diet, as well as a high yield, without the use of pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Lopez describes the milpa system as the "original organic farming method."
In a good year, milpas can produce enough food to support a village's residents. But poverty is the status quo for most of these farming communities. Mexico's corn is increasingly imported from the U.S., lowering the market value of locally grown corn. According to Lopez's book, "The Farmworkers' Journey," many Mexican farmers have switched from the traditional milpa system, which is based on native varieties of maize, to a system based on genetically modified or transgenic corn, which is dependent on the use of specialized herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers. If they can afford to buy transgenic corn seed and its required agrochemicals, campesinos can make significantly more money than they can under the milpa system. But this transition comes at a huge cost -- the loss of sustainably grown crops and a nutritionally complete diet.
As we pulled into Rancho Nuevo, some 30 villagers appeared, greeting us and helping unload the truck. There was a fully stocked piñata, traditional cakes, and cartons of fresh pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, which Lopez had purchased at the Cuquio market that morning. After the kids took turns bashing the piñata, Lopez distributed sought-after gifts of shoes, school supplies and clothing.
But Lopez envisions bigger, long-term solutions to help these struggling communities.
"If we can get the crops grown by these traditional farmers certified as organic, they can start supplying the increasing demand for organic corn and other vegetables in nearby Guadalajara and beyond," Lopez says. "Perhaps a bilingual apprentice from UCSC would be interested in living in Cuquio for a year to get the program off the ground."
Learn more about the projects of the Center for Farmworker Families at www.farmworkerfamily.com.