Melding Indigenous land renewal practices with modern know-how to rejuvenate community and environment

Land Renewal Oaxaca

Jesús León Santos

The Story:

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Mexican government introduced new, high-yield maize seeds. Like many across the country, Indigenous Mixtecan farmers abandoned traditional varieties in favor of these promising seeds. In the short term, the seeds paid off: high yields selling at high prices meant increased income for farmers. Yet these successes didn’t last long. High prices for seeds and the accompanying fertilizers made yearly cultivation a financial strain. Then, NAFTA and corn subsidies in the U.S. led to a decrease in the price of corn. Now, decades of unsustainable farming practices have had devastating effects on the Mixtec region of Oaxaca, Mexico; it is considered one of the most highly eroded areas in the world.

Through it all, farmers have taken the hardest hit. Destitute, many left the region to find better lives elsewhere. Jesús León Santos, however, did not. Initially reluctant to adopt the industrial practices imposed by the government, Santos had continued to employ traditional practices; he soon found this was a wise decision. Aware of his neighbors’ struggles, he helped set up the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM) to assist surrounding communities in finding low-costs solutions to improve their crops. Throughout the process, it became apparent that poor soil quality was a key problem faced by all. Santos had the perfect solution: land renewal and reforestation.

The Innovation:

Santos’ innovation melds ancient Zapotec knowledge with modern expertise to create a viable solution for today’s ecological and social environment. To start the revitalization process, Santos built trenches, stone walls, and terraces, the first step to stop soil erosion and improve groundwater retention. Then, he began planting small nurseries and organizing community members to plant trees. Trees hold soil in place, preventing losses from wind, rain, and other natural causes. They also help soils hold onto water. Dead leaves that fall to the base add essential organic matter to soils. Later, practices such as tilling in cover crops, erosion-control barriers, and intercropping—techniques Santos learned from his grandfather—were introduced.

Read more about this farmer innovation here.  

The Impact:

The land renewal process in Mixtec rejuvenated the region. Healthier soils have—quite literally—laid the groundwork for a booming farming sector. Due to Sanots’ efforts, the environment is healing: Soils are rich enough to support farming a multitude of crops and robust enough to store groundwater. In addition, water flow to nearby streams has significantly improved as well. As a result, farmers experienced exceptionally high productivity, with many seeing yields four times higher than before. Additionally, trees can be selectively chopped down for firewood, a welcome supplemental income for community members.

Santos has been widely recognized for his amazing work revitalizing the environment and his community. In 2008, he won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

“What’s impressive is that they did all this from scratch. 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.” – Miguel Altieri