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Micro-Reserves Renew Life in Oaxacan Agriculture

Peasants in Mexico's jungle state of Oaxaca show that conservation need not take a back seat to development.

In 2010, Mexico suffered "one of the most intense rain and hurricane seasons in its history, after having experienced, in 2009, the second-worst drought in 60 years," noted President Felipe Calderon during his opening remarks at the recent Cancun conference on climate change. How does this actually play in people's lives?

Far away from Cancun, I visited a small community on the Oaxacan coast to find out. Although the municipality of San Pedro Tututepec looks like one of the many anonymous communities along the highway, it is unique in offering people hope. It is near Lagunas de Chacahua National Park, a wetland-lagoon system adjacent to one of Oaxaca's largest rivers, the Rio Verde. The catalyst for change was Heladio Reyes, a peasant's son who received a university scholarship to study agronomy.

Armed with new knowledge of soil science, the ecological role of forests and how watersheds are vital to farming, Reyes returned home and taught his friends. As a result, in 1993, a group of 17 land owners created the first micro-reserve: small areas in private lands that owners choose to preserve. From this initiative sprouted the organization Ecosta Yutu Cuii (which means "green tree" in the regional language Mixteco) and, eventually, the Rio Verde Waterkeeper.

More than 800 landowners participate in the micro-reserve program today, managing reserves that range from a half-hectare to 300 hectares (a bit over 740 acres). I considered this phenomenon: hundreds of self-interested farmers voluntarily preserving forest land and bypassing the economic gains of transforming those forests into cornfields. Ecosta accomplished this small miracle with just one full-time staff member (until recently), assisted by part-time staff and volunteers.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

Click here for more posts from the Voyage of Kiri.

How can poor people be expected to preserve nature when they're struggling to survive? We take for granted that environmental conservation and economic development are trade-offs, the former being a "luxury." This is expressed in economics as the Kuznets Curve: only when people are wealthy enough will they begin to care about the environment. But Ecosta's work reveals an opposite possibility. Conservation and development can co-exist; it's just a matter of scale and proper support.

Ecosta used three keys to open the way to this new relationship: education, food-sufficiency and micro-loans. They first taught the campesinos why clear-cutting for agriculture is a mistaken approach. Typically, corn plantations become unproductive after two to three years due to excessive fertilizer use and the loss of nitrogen-fixing by plants and micro-organisms that would otherwise re-energize the soil with nutrients. Cattle are often introduced to graze on the fallow land, but this causes soil-compaction and erosion. So additional forests have to be cut down for corn plantations, and the vicious cycle continues.

To avert this, Ecosta reintroduced organic-farming techniques and crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing plants. They explained the many benefits of keeping a reserve: less soil-erosion and heat-damage from the dry season, and healthier watersheds to disperse nutrients and diffuse toxins. On a personal level, the campesinos realized they could continue to harvest wood sustainably for fuel and construction, and have access to traditional medicinal and edible plants.

To ensure that farmers keep their reserves through years of bad production (when the temptation to clear new cropland is greatest), Ecosta began a food-sufficiency program. This is essentially a tutorial on how to create food gardens and keep small livestock. Ecosta works with 15 villages, which are growing vegetables and fruits and raising chickens. The organization also connects the families in a loose network for selling and trading surplus food.

As Ecosta grew, it was able to offer micro-loans as financial incentives to those participating in their projects. It now manages two micro-loan funds: one for agricultural assistance (tools, machinery, pest-management) and another for sustainable business (ecotourism, fair-trade products).

The owner of the iguana center, Emiliano, holds an iguana. Ecosta helps to finance the center with micro-loans. (Kristian Beadle)

The owner of the iguana center, Emiliano, holds an iguana. Ecosta helps to finance the center with micro-loans. (Kristian Beadle)

Ecosta then brought together their micro-loan recipients and created an ecotourism corridor called Ocho Venado (Eight Deer). Tourists can visit an iguana nursery, purchase locally made pineapple-and-mango jam, stay at a lodge that raises deer and jabalí (boar), or spend the night in a cabaña in Chacahua (whose owner is spearheading a recycling program). Under the banner of Ocho Venado, the area may end up losing some of its anonymity — in a positive way.

Reyes and Ecosta have taken on a new challenge: With local communities, they are fighting the construction of an 825-megawatt hydroelectric dam on the Rio Verde that would inundate villages and displace thousands of residents. (The federal electricity commission explained how it has reached out to explain the project's benefits.) Even if hydroelectric dams were completely a carbon-free energy source (not true at the start, because flooding of plant matter can release huge amounts of methane — some Brazilian scientists even want to capture it), dams irreversibly alter hydrological cycles.

If the Rio Verde dam isn't built, and 17 years of Ecosta's work creating micro-reserves and conserving the watershed doesn't, as Mr. Reyes put it, "go down the drain," they face a growing challenge in helping their communities adapt to climatic change. In Oaxaca, as on the rest of Mexico's Pacific coast, the dry and wet seasons used to be very predictable. But as Calderon mentioned during his opening speech in Cancun, the weather has been extreme.

Hilario, coordinator of Ecosta\'s programs, looking at the Rio Verde. Upstream is Paso de la Reina, one of the many communities to be flooded if the dam is built. (Kristian Beadle)

Hilario, coordinator of Ecosta\'s programs, looking at the Rio Verde. Upstream is Paso de la Reina, one of the many communities to be flooded if the dam is built. (Kristian Beadle)

Reyes explained how this unpredictability affects villagers:

"Before, the farmers knew the 15th of April was the day to start preparing their lands. That way, between the 2nd and 6th of June, they could plant the corn and know it would survive a sensitive initial period. Now, they no longer know. There are extremely dry years followed by extremely wet years, rains occurring in April or November that are outside the usual range. The grandfathers say that in the past, if the calandria bird was nesting in very tall trees, they knew it was likely a year with little wind; or conversely, if the calandria was nesting in low trees, they'd plant the corn only in areas protected from wind. Symbolic or practical, these signals are now changing so quickly the communities are struggling to re-orient themselves."

These climate disruptions, Reyes notes, make it even more critical to create micro-reserves and protect watersheds, which helps maintain some semblance of predictability in the area's hydrology for farmers. After the scares from this rainy season's massive landslides and floods, people are more committed than ever to re-learn the basics. They know they can't rely on the government; they need to manage the land themselves for the long haul, to better respond to extreme events and secure their future well-being.

With the micro-reserves as the platform, Mr. Reyes and his colleagues are de-constructing the last few decades of misguided information about agriculture and development. Using fertilizers and clear-cutting forests is no longer taken for granted; other options must be found. With an eye to what is helpful in the long term, the people of San Pedro Tututepec are hopeful that despite crises in climate or economy, they can remain resilient.