2008 Goldman Prize Winner Jesus Leon Santos on Bringing Desert Lands Back to Life

Photo: Jesus Leon Santos at the Mixteca region in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Photo credit: Will Parrinello and Jim Iacona.

In a time when "modern" agriculture is depleting many areas of Latin America as farmers seek higher yields, Jesus Leon Santos is taking the opposite route. He is using ancient agriculture systems and collaboration with peasant communities to turn drought lands into fertile ground for food production.

His home in the region of the Mixtec, in Oaxaca, Mexico, used to have one of the highest rates of soil erosion in the world, affecting 83 percent of the land, according to a UN study. On top of that, in the 1980's, many local farmers adopted chemical-intensive techniques and saw their yields drop dramatically and deplete the soil. Raised with a vision of a bleak future in a family with few resources, Santos came to the realization only long term work could improve the region's expectations.

Over 25 years later, the effort paid off: Today's Mixtec reality is so different that it seems hard to believe. The region's agricultural production has increased 50 percent, which means that where only 25 to 30 percent of land was arable, communities now farm 80 percent of the land. Santos and the Mixtec community have planted more than one million trees and reforested one thousand hectares. All of these improvements have directly benefited the families of the region and decreased migration.How did it happen? "Mixtec is proving that it is possible to improve the environmental conditions of communities," says Santos. "The same way natural resources are destroyed, when you have the will, skills and knowledge, it is possible to restore what has been damaged."

In this interview with TreeHugger, this inspirational farmer reveals how much a man and a community can contribute to the environment and shows us there's nothing more valuable than fertile ground.

TreeHugger (TH): What motivated your struggle to revive the lands of Mixteca?

Jesus Leon Santos (JLS): Resources such as firewood, timber, and water have always been something that farmers in many Mixtec communities have lacked. The place where I grew up was no different -- I experienced all the difficulties my family and the families of my community were facing.

In addition to the scarcity of resources, another aspect that seriously affected the life in rural Mixtec was the poverty of the soil, caused by strong erosion that lifted the fertile layer. This led to low crop yields and a poor economy.

In 1983, we received a visit from a group of Guatemalan peasants, invited by a Mexican organization. The peasants, who had developed a program in their country to improve production yields with soil conservation systems, taught us about our problems. I came to understood what could be done, and I was one of the first farmers who took their recommendations, including making ditches and slopes to reduce the heavy soil erosion and plating trees. I started using these methods in my parents' plot in 1984.

I'm not the only person who has struggled to improve the environmental conditions of communities. Many people have participated in this. Today we can show ourselves and the world that the same way natural resources are destroyed, they can be restored, with the will, skills, and knowledge.

Photo of a tree whose roots have been exposed due to erosion in the Mixtec region, Mexico.

Photo of a tree whose roots have been exposed due to erosion in the Mixtec region, Mexico. Credit: Will Parrinello and Jim Iacona.
TH: How did you persuade the community to get involved in this long-term work?

JLS: At first people used to say, "Trees take many years to grow, why plant something that we won't be able to immediately exploit?" And my colleagues and I explained that many of the resources we had taken advantage of for years had taken years to grow, so it is important to plant for future generations.

However, what really helped convince the peasant families to grow and to improve the conditions of their plots was setting the example. Several families -- in addition to mine -- started making small changes to their land. When other families saw how our plots improved, they began copying what we had done. That's how the experience started to spread.

Today we use a phrase: "An example persuades more than a thousand words," because many people in this region now use methods to enhance their plots without knowing where they came from. Of course, the most important thing for me is that they are doing it, and that this is gradually changing from what was a semi-desert region to a place with the highest life expectancy for residents and future generations.

TH: What ancient techniques did you rescue?

JLS: One of the systems we rescued was the "milpa", which relies on the polyculture of maize, beans and squash (1) -- when all three crops are planted at the same time in the same field. This is the system that led Mesoamerican people to grow one of the most advanced agricultures of their time, and it continues to be used in many indigenous communities in Mexico and Central America today. Polyculture can be used in land for many years without depleting its nourishing materials and without generating pest problems.

We also used ditches, which retain water and conserve the soil. Like the Milpa, this is a pre-Hispanic system that helped ancient communities manage water from rain or rivers without causing soil erosion.

In addition to these two techniques, we are using plants and animal excrement as green manure to improve soil fertility.

TH: What role do you think the Mixtec community has played in this process?

JLS: Despite the fact that many who practice modern agriculture say indigenous people have outdated practices, these practices can help boost an agriculture with less quarrying and polluting.

The peoples of Mixtec, with their knowledge and capabilities, have contributed greatly to the development of more sustainable systems. The Tequio, for example, is a way of organizing work for the collective benefit: The community works for the common good. In this way, they planted thousands of trees and built hundreds of kilometers of irrigation channels that are improving environmental conditions.

Photo of a woman taking care of her land plot in the Mixtec, Mexico.

Photo of a woman taking care of her land plot in the Mixtec, Mexico. Credit: Will Parrinello and Jim Iacona.
TH: Can you describe a typical day in your life right now?

JLS: Over the past 25 years I've devoted myself to processes that improve the life quality of indigenous peoples and peasants, based on proper utilization of natural resources. Our idea is to improve productivity and family nutrition from a local point of view. My life remains like that. I spend time with my organization: the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixtec (CEDICAM).

TH: What difficulties have you had?

JLS: The few economic resources donated by some foundations are insufficient for larger areas and more resources are needed to speed up the restoration of the environment in badly damaged regions.

Image of the Mixtec region.

Image of the Mixtec region. Credit: Will Parrinello and Jim Iacona.
TH: What impact do you think you've had or will have on other communities that know your work?

JLS: The Mixtec is proving that it is possible to improve the environmental conditions of communities. Many towns in Mexico and around the world suffer from problems like ours. That's why we must begin now, while there is still time to rebuild what we have destroyed. A portion of global warming results from forests running out. We need to rejuvenate these forests by reforesting.

TH: In many regions of Latin America, lands are being battered to achieve higher yields without thought of the future. What would you say to farmers who do this?

JLS: That we shouldn't think only about us, but also about generations to come. These generations are entitled to enjoy the resources of this planet. When we destroy the earth and everything on it, we are destroying the future of our children and grandchildren. Economic earnings are good, but it is better to leave as legacy a natural wealth that can create new life.

(1) According to Wikipedia, Milpa works because the crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary.

Jesus Leon Santos receives the Goldman Prize 2008.

Jesus Leon Santos receives the Goldman Prize 2008. Credit: Courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Read more about Jesus Leon Santos at the Goldman Environmental Prize website.

This is one in a series of interviews with the Goldman Environmental Prize Winners.

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