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Healthy Landscapes and Healthy People: Lessons from the Rarámuri


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August is the time of rains in the Sierra Tarahumara, and near the village of Norogachi, the blue sky and cotton ball clouds quickly change above our heads into a roiling ceiling of grey. José Pedro Turuséachi, an Indigenous Rarámuri farmer and community organizer, gives us a tour of his community’s maize fields, thriving now with the healthy rains and despite the sandy soils of the Sierra. When they fled to these mountains centuries ago to escape Spanish invaders, the Rarámuri brought with them their sacred corn, which has been artfully adapted over time to flourish in this exact environment.

A proud farmer and father with a soft-spoken and serious manner, Pedro has a healthy skepticism of the straight lines and technology fixes brought by successive waves of outsider agricultural technicians who give inadequate attention to the curves and flows of this mountain landscape. He is a key team member of Consultoría Técnica Comunitaria (CONTEC), a home-grown NGO working throughout the state of Chihuahua to back Indigenous farmers by blending traditional knowledge systems with nature-based technologies.

“To plant is not only to know the seeds or the earth, it is also to know the forest, the rain and the wind; it relates to the animals, it relates to the culture, the community and the pueblo,” he says. “Seeds have helped us understand how to live in the world and how to coexist with nature.”

The Rarámuri rely on the rich heritage of the many maize varieties their ancestors domesticated and brought to the Sierra. With increasing marginalization and the outmigration of the men for menial labor, women play an increasingly dominant role in maize production

In Rarámuri villages of the Sierra Tarahumara, like Norogachi, the rancherias of terraced sandy soils and stone-walled fields are shaped to a complex landscape of hills, forests and streams

In addition to caring for his own fields, Pedro leads CONTEC workshops in Rarámuri communities helping farmers to leverage agroecological technologies to deal with pests, disease, drought and erosion. He also helps to organize communities to confront the latest wave of invaders, the illegal logging and top-down development projects as well as the hyped up ‘high-yield’ seeds and their petrochemical companions, an unsustainable and uneconomic package of inputs not suited for these mountain conditions. Across the Sierra these battles are being fought in the context of climate change in dry highland landscapes where the viability of maize is being tested.

The Rarámuri and their allies in the Sierra talk about la defensa del maize (the defense of corn), their David vs. Goliath stance against the incursion of non-native varieties being pushed by outsiders including rogue genetically-modified stock that is apparently spreading despite the efforts of Mexican scientists and courts to protect local maize heritage. Maize is defended as an intimate family relative whose diversity and beauty is part of every stage of life. The Rarámuri believe that the foreign varieties and their expensive input packages will make their land sick and if their land is sick, the Rarámuri are sick.

These days, deforestation, tourism and the narcotics trade are also affecting Rarámuri lands while a decrease in the knowledge and availability of medicinal plants and edible greens are directly impacting community health. A burgeoning network of empowered farmers and communities, however, are turning things around in the Sierra Tarahumara, laying out an endogenous development path that can serve as an example for the rest of the country.

Battle of the Bulges

Walk into a convenience store in Creel, the former logging town-turned-tourism hub, and it’s easy to see why Mexico has the sixth highest incidence of diabetes in the world. Shiny packaged snack foods sparkle like fireworks in the light, offering concentrated doses of fats and sugar. Though the traditional Rarámuri diet consists of healthy legumes, grains and greens direct from la tierra, the creeping cash economy and new roads are leading many to this pantry of processed and packaged foods, the first stop for sustenance on the hazardous journey from full-time farming to… something else.

Processed food has expanded rapidly in Mexico, which now has world leading rates of diabetes. As elsewhere, Indigenous and other Mexican groups who maintain traditional diets show much lower rates of the disease

As opposed to packaged and processed products, humble fresh foods and grains, such as the traditional tortilla, provide a better diet in health terms and help to maintain domestic and cultural life

The alarming health crisis in Mexico has many as 10 million people suffering from type 1 and type 2 diabetes. But unlike the Native Americans to the North, who are more than twice as likely as white Americans to have diabetes, Indigenous Mexican communities are significantly less likely to develop diabetes and obesity than their non-Indigenous countrymen, according to a range of research including a study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The difference, in large part, is that many Indigenous Mexicans like the Rarámuri still get healthy food directly from the land, a task requiring significantly more physical energy than fetching a bag of chips and a Fanta at the corner store.

While Rarámuri communities may have healthier diets on the whole than other Mexicans, they are certainly not devoid of maladies. Located far from modern clinics and doctors, many Rarámuri are afflicted with easily curable illnesses, have little access to basic vaccinations and experience higher rates of infant mortality. Taking these problems head-on is a distributed network of Community Health Promoters, around 120 Indigenous volunteers (mostly women) trained in a mix of Rarámuri healing traditions and western public health approaches. Supported by The Christensen Fund via the Dioceses of the Sierra Tarahumara, which practices a remarkable liberation theology tradition in this region, this growing group of house-call health workers gives basic medical attention and advice on health issues to 166 locations where most of the time there is no doctor.

One of these health promoters is Jesusita, a master Rarámuri healer with an encyclopedic knowledge of the local flora that she gained mostly from her mother. Jesusita and her colleagues share with us the basics of the their rural health practice, which includes teaching people about diabetes and the dangers of fatty foods and fizzy drinks. She says that the Health Promoters have cured several community members of diabetes by prescribing medicinal plants and a switch to a traditional diet including some of the nutritious greens – quelites, in Spanish –  that the Rarámuri of the Sierra Tarahumara have encouraged to grow alongside their maize for generations. These healthy quelites may have been dismissed as weeds by agronomists and thought of as backward by the authorities but they, like the Rarámuri, have survived against the odds for centuries.

With the gradual acceptance by the church and support of The Christensen Fund, traditional medicines are seeing a revival throughout the Sierra Tarahumara. Here, Rebeca (right), a group leader of the Community Health Promoters of Samachike, describes a small portion of the group’s potent inventory

In fact the knowledge of local plants is not static, and even when apparently lost it can return again when the people have the will to seek it out.  “Sometimes the knowledge of the [medicinal properties] of plants comes in dreams,” Jesusita says, describing the ways that traditional medicinal knowledge is stewarded within the community of Samachike.

By reinforcing the use and knowledge of medicinal and edible plants and working within Indigenous concepts of health, the Community Health Promoters are improving the wellbeing of both the people and the landscape. As more people return to nurturing botanical varieties that bring them more vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants, the fields, hillsides, animals and insects benefit from a richer and more resilient web of biodiversity. This is what the Rarámuri mean when they say that individual health is inseparable from The Whole. Perhaps the trick is to help Mexico to incorporate this same wisdom into its local and national health and agriculture strategies.

From the Tierra to the Top

The fresh food of the Rarámuri is seasonal, and on a rainy summer day we are treated to a feast that includes esquiate (toasted corn drink), nopal (cactus) and quelite de agua, one of the many greens that are still cultivated or collected in these mountains. Delicious varieties include edible plants from the genera Amaranthus, Brassica, Chenopodium, Cosmos and Bidens.

In a collective effort to protect the knowledge and seeds of the nutritious greens of the region, ethnobotanist Dr. Robert Bye, working with Rarámuri researchers and the Institute of Biology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), has documented over 120 species of edible plants in the Sierra Tarahumara. Research projects of this kind have sometimes been used to extract knowledge and exploit the natural heritage of Indigenous Peoples, but Dr. Bye and his team hope to develop a published database with a culturally-appropriate access interface for the Rarámuri, including pictures of plants and seeds, making it legally impossible for outsiders to claim a ‘discovery’ over their traditional heritage. Mexican health services can also use this information to promote greens that have higher nutritional and cultural values than the typical western veggies in the common health poster. To enhance food sovereignty and develop more livelihood options for the Rarámuri, Dr. Bye and other local collaborators are working on the first hydroponic giribá growing system to bring these delectable greens to local markets and even to fine restaurants in Mexico City.

For Pedro, any home-grown initiative that reinforces the cultivation and consumption of indigenous crop varieties makes sense.

“The agri-industries plant the seeds that the market asks for, and the campesino plants the seeds that the nature asks him for, that nature favors,” he says. “This is the big advantage of our type of cultivation. Principally the campesino produces seeds to eat and not to sell, maybe to exchange.”

“Our seeds help us to exchange knowledge.”

Across the Indigenous heartlands of Mexico an extraordinary diversity of maize varieties still thrives. The different types add resilience to farming in variable environments and support a wide diversity of cooking and meal types. Also, farmers find the native maize to be beautiful and like share them with each other

Pedro Turuséachi (CONTEC) and Juan Daniel Villalobos (Rakema) are part of a network of community-based agronomists and cultural activists who played a crucial role in supporting Rarámuri to deploy diversity to weather and bounce back from climatic changes, droughts and variability

We travelled outside of Creel to the picturesque ranch of Juan Daniel Villalobos and his NGO, Rakema A.C., set amid red-brown bluffs and green conifers in the high sierra and exploding with numerous varieties of maize and beans. These fields, and the adjacent buildings, serve as an in-situ seed bank and experimental Indigenous breeding station for many of the region’s most important varieties. Pedro talks shop excitedly with Juan Daniel, one of the few non-Rarámuri farmers who has earned the respect and trust of the Indigenous farmers in this region, hard-working campesinos who have been around the block, like Pedro Turuséachi. Only a few years ago, the Sierra Tarahumara was pummeled by a long-lasting drought that brought starvation to many communities. In the face of gathering climate change, both Pedro and Juan Daniel are working to make sure that never happens again.

Rakema helps to sustain and return ample seed of important varieties to farmers at critical times, and have also embarked with their community partners on an extraordinary breeding effort to generate new diversity that can help farmers adapt in a changing environment. Rakema has deliberately cross bred all the traditional lines of maize to produce an abundance of seed types in which genetic innovations in different lines (for example in regard to frost or drought tolerance) transfer between gene lines. A network of farmers growing across altitudes and soil types in the Sierra plant these new lines, rigorously re-selecting varieties that meet agronomic or culinary objectives. This home-grown effort is a world-leading example of how to deploy heritage diversity and indigenous plant selection skills to tackle climate change.

Operating under the Rarámuri sharing principle of Kórima, which loosely translates as ‘What I have you have’, Rakema is a key player in the grassroots movement enabling disparate communities in the Sierra to collaborate and implement agroecological intensification through Indigenous innovation in order to meet the growing demand for food and water in the face of multiple threats. This movement is bringing together academics, the church, local and international NGOs, and community leaders like Juan Daniel and Maria Luisa Bustillos Gardea, a formidable Rarámuri woman who is taking the lead on a new Indigenous-run organization, Grupo Nátika, with the goal of uniting multiple Indigenous pueblos to assert management control of an entire watershed basin in the Sierra.

Maria Luisa Bustillos, a longtime community activist in the Sierra Tarahumara, attends a convening of local farmers and leaders in Creel.

Indigenous Peoples often learn the vulnerability of having beautiful lands. While tourism development in the Copper Canyon brings opportunities for employment and craftwork sales, a different model will be required to ensure equitable benefits and to avoid more land alienation in the Sierra

At a recent convening of Indigenous leaders and their allies in Creel, organized by The Christensen Fund, Maria Luisa laid out her vision for a new era of Indigenous collaboration in the territories of the Rarámuri.

“We want that the youth of today, hand in hand with the elders, continue to work to ensure that our culture remains strong,” she says.  “We must continue with our ways of planting, our ways of learning and knowing so that we can continue caring for our lands, and our world.”

As the country around them is being caught up in the type of development that can make both people and lands sick, the Rarámuri believe that your territories will only take care of you if you take care of them. They are charting a new course for the Sierra that is rich with lessons for other parts of Mexico, and for the world.

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