Posted November 10, 2006: In 1986, someone in
Missouri gave Norberto and Lisa Cortes a stack of old Organic Gardening
magazines. It’s just the kind of thing you do for missionaries
who are giving themselves to a community.
Norberto saw to his astonishment that The Rodale Institute was
doing variety trials and seed improvement on amaranth, an ancient
Meso-American seed crop that European religious zeal had virtually
succeeded in wiping out.
He went back to Toluca, a community of the Mazahua indigenous group
where the couple now has a mission based in the ex-hacienda of Tepetitlan,
a former agrarian estate. The dry, central highlands area is about
65 miles (about 2.5 hours) west of Mexico City in the state of Mexico.
The Mazahua people have been socially and economically marginalized
for centuries, and many people from the villages near Mission Mazahua
leave for Mexico City or attempt to immigrate to the US to find
jobs that will allow them to support their families.
Lisa Cortes said she believes some 1,700 people have immigrated
to the US from the region in recent years, including 800 from a
single town who now live in Yonkers, New York.
Corn losing viability
Corn farming is still subsidized by state governments, Norberto
said, because governors vie to keep their states as the “top
producers” by supporting chemical and fertilizer inputs. Soil
is degrading, yields are declining and prices continue to fall as
the NAFTA trade agreement lets subsidized US corn pour onto the
Mexican market. Local farmers are intensely loyal to raising corn
as a defining part of their lives, despite the lack of profitability.
To encourage younger farmers to diversify into new crops with more
economic promise, the mission program models an organic farming
system of crop rotation using compost and cover crops, including
fava (faba) beans. Norberto obtained amaranth seed in the Mexican
state of Chiapas some years back, and continues to seek ways of
making it an attractive crop to local farmer entrepreneurs.
A current value-added product is popped amaranth made into snack
cakes that look a lot like rice cakes. They include local honey
and sunflower seeds to make a highly nutritious food, as amaranth
is a high-protein, gluten-free pseudo-grain, in a technical sense.
There are some 60 species of amaranth—a relative of common
pigweed, so well known to US farmers—with some grown for their
highly nutritious leaves in tropical areas. Click
here for nutritional details.
Amaranth was all but wiped out by violent efforts to prevent its
growth, due to its ritual religious use. It was mixed with the blood
of human sacrifices by the Aztec people when Spaniards first discovered
their rituals. The crop survived only in remote villages until modern
efforts to commercialize it as an alternate crop that can be easily
naturalized back into its genetic zone of origin.
Norberto continues to believe that amaranth, grown in a proper
crop rotation, will be a key to the agricultural regeneration of
the local countryside. He works as he can on marketing amaranth
products to build economic options for his neighbors.
In addition to human-scale organic agriculture, Mission Mazahua
works toward “wholistic transformation” through micro-enterprise,
basic education, language development, social and spiritual instruction.
The mission seeks to create ways for students to build livelihoods
in their communities through vocational training in an array of
crafts including sculpture, ceramics and technically appropriate
systems for sustainable production of rabbits and mushrooms.
“The whole creation is waiting to be redeemed,” he
quotes from the book of Romans when he gives his biblical reason
for a commitment to organic agriculture. “I take those words
seriously,” he said, in seeking transformation of Creation
and people where he is.