Model Community Development in Rural Mexico

While Will and I were in Mexico we visited several very interesting and innovative projects that were established to address the issues of the country’s widespread rural poverty. The first project is an amazing group called CEDESA (loosely translated as Center for Sustainable Rural Development and Solidarity), located in the town of Dolores Hidalgo. A liberation theology priest established this organization 50 years ago. Their goal was to help peasants in the northern communities of the state of Guanajato attain a level of self-sufficiency by growing all of their own food.

When we visited the site 3 years ago, we learned that so many of the families in rural communities were made up of primarily women and children. Most of the men had gone to the US to find work and were sending money home. The families had stopped producing their own food and were just buying food for their families with the money that was being sent from the US. Consequently, there were many health problems among the villagers because of the poor quality of the food available in the stores. CEDESA set about teaching the families how to re-connect with their traditional foods – how to grow and prepare foods like beans, rice, vegetables, nopales cactus and medicinal herbs. They worked with the peasants to help them establish bee colonies for honey production.

Once people learn to produce honey and other products that can be made from honey, CEDESA helps set up small markets for them to sell the products not needed to sustain the families. Honey products are usually the first things sold at the small markets, but extra vegetable products are sold as well. So, the first step is for the families to be able to feed themselves and keep themselves healthy using traditional methods and growing medicinal herbs. The second step is for them to make a little extra money by selling the surpluses. In working with the peasant population, the folks at CEDESA stress the importance of self-determination and self-satisfaction from being able to support their own families and communities.

There is also a real shortage of water in this region – partly because of the high desert climate and more importantly, because big farms have moved in to produce food to be shipped to US markets. Huge broccoli and alfalfa farms are using tremendous amounts of water, draining the aquifer, and lowering the water tables in the communities. As the water table gets lower, the water becomes more polluted with arsenic and fluoride. So CEDESA has developed some innovative technologies to address these issues, such as: water catchment systems, grey water systems, and composting toilets. They have also developed a couple of cook stoves which are much more efficient in the use of wood and have chimneys that keep the smoke out of the houses. The organization works with all of their communities to help the people install these simple and low-cost technologies. They have also taught rural farmers how to build cisterns, and configure roofs and patios to collect rainwater to fill the cistern.

In addition, leaders in the small communities that are really affected by these big industrial farms and the resulting polluted and scarce water are organizing for change. They have worked with community organizations like CEDESA, Via Organica (the Mexican affiliate of the Organic Consumers Association), and CATIS (International Center for Appropriate Technology & Indigenous Sustainability), another community-based organization working to develop low-cost water filtration systems, to try to get public officials to recognize the health problems that result from the big farms. And, like the US, there is a lot of corruption at the government levels and collusion with those companies who are growing for export.

In the fall, these leaders organized a mock tribunal to bring attention to health problems within the communities and shed light on the worst polluters. The organizers had hundreds of pages of testimonials from rural people whose health had been compromised by the polluted water. Their goal is to compel the federal and state governments to put some rules or laws in place that would protect the peasants and punish the perpetrators of the pollution.

So, it’s an uphill battle. But, these folks are bravely taking on the Mexican officials and the multinational export farms, the current power structure. It inspired us to keep on doing the same here!!

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