Interrelationships of Land and Society in Mexico

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 2 : May – August 1996  [Research]

Human beings-as much as the technology they use or the resources on which they rely-are the key to creating sustainable environments. This is one critical focus of both research and action in the Master’s of Rural Studies program at El Colegio de Michoacán in Zamora, Mexico.

For the last decade, the Center for Rural Studies has been pursuing a line of investigation aimed at studying the relationship between society and the environment and stimulating academic projects which transcend classroom learning. Students are essential as they address local environmental concerns in their research on economic, cultural, social and political topics.

Three projects at the Center for Rural Studies which focus on the interrelationships between society and environment address local areas and concerns: the Purépecha Plateau, the community of Huáncito, and the use of pesticides in local agriculture. Professor J. Luis Seefoó Luján, a faculty member and recent graduate of El Colegio, says the center’s mission encompasses both the land and the people.

“Both in the plateau, and in Huáncito, and in the strawberry and tomato fields,” he says, “in study and action toward the preservation of the environment or the restoration of the damage produced by human activity, we aspire to sustainable production and economic development which satisfies our material and spiritual necessities for present and future generations.”

Interdisciplinary investigation

Research at the Center for Rural Studies is inherently interdisciplinary, as it approaches socio-environmental problems from a system-wide perspective. “There isn’t incompatibility, but rather compatibility among the disciplines,” says Seefoó Luján.

For example,the center’s environmental research provides a deeply layered understanding of the interplay between anthropology, geography, economics, and sociology that have contributed to an unusual circumstance of drought living conditions within an ecosystem of abundant water resources in the Purépecha Plateau.

The plateau’s geography provides natural waterways, such as the Carapan River and the Camecuaro Lake, which irrigate Zamora and are replenished by abundant precipitation. These are complemented by highly permeable ground, elevated topography, and abundant forest vegetation that supports agriculture in the lower valley. Yet the region’s inhabitants live in near-drought conditions.

It is a matter of economics. Of the 400 million cubic meters of water caught annually by the mountain and run through the Lerma-Duero river basin, half serve the agriculture of the Zamora Valley. Of this half, 40 percent feeds the 2,000 hectares of strawberries that are cultivated and exported out of Zamora each year.

The strawberries in the valley use water resources very heavily–at a rate of 40,000 cubic meters per year. Strawberry production supports much of the local income, thus, people living on the plateau have learned to compensate with one of the lowest water consumption rates in the world–just 12 liters a day, or four cubic meters per year.

The discipline of sociology provides insight into how this consumption ratio is sustained. Michoacán researcher Patricia Avila García writes, “This is explained by the development of a sociocultural strategy based on a culture of drought and by the existence of forms of social organization which establish a communitarian control over water. These can include conservation and maintenance of sources which supply water; as well as ecological use and management of water.”

Tackling integrated problems

Just as the topography of the Zamora region led to the study of water use, two more projects of the Center for Rural Studies grew directly out of local conditions. The first is the improvement of childhood nutrition through the identification and use of regional plant resources in the town of Huáncito. As part of the “Cañada de los Once Pueblos” that forms a port of entry into the Purépecha Plateau, Huáncito is a small town with a population suffering chronic unequitable economic and ecological interchange between the rural valley and the urban areas.

This inequality is manifested in the socioeconomic, ecological, and health conditions of the village. Rural men and women must hire out as agricultural laborers on large farms or as domestic employees in the city of Zamora. Natural resources are depleted, particularly clay from the soil, as local forests are cut down for construction and furniture. Children under four years of age suffer nutritional deficiencies and intestinal parasites which cause under-average height and weight .

To address this variety of problems, the Huáncito project–with the assistance of Mexico’s National Institute of Nutrition–has embarked on three tasks: the rediscovery and use of nutritional and medicinal plants of the region; the establishment of a nursery with nutritional, ornamental, and forest plants to support gardens in the community; and the installation of sanitation facilities to discourage open-air defecation and to gradually modify hygiene habits.

Encouraging sustainable pesticide use

The third major project–and Seefóo Luján’s primary area of research–is to seek a sustainable method for pesticide use in local agriculture. Here the fields of economics, sociology, demographics, public health, and agriculture examine effects on the market, the birth and death rate, and the nutritional system of individuals and communities in Zamora.

Pesticides not only decline in effectiveness as pests develop resistance to them, but they also cause serious health problems among workers. Approximately 50 cases of poisoning and one death were reported each year between 1980 and 1989.

“Irrational use of pesticides deteriorates the nutritional system, and in the long term . . . the volume of pesticides makes the crop uneconomical. The employment of petroleum as an energy base for agriculture is unsustainable,” says Seefoó Luján. “This we know. What we ignore is the impending catastrophe it will cause.”

In response, the Center for Rural Studies began an experiment in the integrated, sustainable control of pests. With the support of the Entomology Center of the University of Postgraduates in Montecillo, Mexico, and the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), the Center set up two demonstration plots. One uses of a type of mite and the other of a type of mushroom, both of which serve pest control functions and thus allow for less investment in synthetic pesticides.

The study also includes monitoring of runoff pollution in the soils and water, and of toxic chemical substances found in the blood of local agricultural workers.

The research has had two concrete effects on the community so far. A few large companies have experimented with the natural pest control, and more immediately, courses in the prevention, reporting, and treatment of pesticide poisoning have been implemented for local workers. Physicians and paramedics collaborated with government health workers on this latter effort.

The project will conclude with a report on the impact of pesticides on both human and environmental health conditions, and the interaction between these two. Additional research and demonstration projects will explore alternative pest control options and will support the introduction of changes in local agricultural practices.

Institutional commitment

El Colegio was founded in 1979 as a graduate research and post-secondary training institute for the social sciences and humanities. It was created purposely as a small institution-approximately 50 students are enrolled in each two year program. In addition to the Center for Rural Studies, it also includes centers of Historical Studies, Anthropoligical Studies and Traditional Studies.

The institution signed the Talloires Declaration in 1993. Beyond its socially and environmentally responsive research, the college has also made advances in ecologically sound institutional changes to support environmental integrity including water and energy efficiency measures and purchasing systems.

In addition, it is expanding beyond its own boundaries to participate in the greening initiatives of the local municipalities of Zamora and Jacona. This includes developing strategies to engage local community groups and city authorities in the projects. The college is also one of four Latin American institutions involved in the Talloires Environmental Citizenship Network (TECNET) project to develop interdisciplinary case studies for use internationally.

Through its highly integrated research and instruction and its responsiveness to problems affecting its community, El Colegio de Michoacán seeks to fulfill the Talloires agenda. Seefóo Luján says the key to success in such interdisciplinary work is to have an open mind: “It is important not to be prejudiced toward one way of thinking. We must be open to integrating science and technology into social and natural sciences to find solutions to complex environmental and social problems.”

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