March 15, 2007: Near commerical raspberry
production in the Guadalajara area of northwestern Mexico
lies a thriving community built on cooperative learning, teaching
and enterprise development. La Asociacion Comunitaria de Autosuficiencia
A.C. (ACA, www.ggs.com.mx)
is an organization dedicated to teaching sustainable farming
to local farmers with minimal resources, teachers and school
students in La Ribera near Lake Chapala. In English, the name
is the Community Association for Auto-sufficiency.
The collaborative efforts of subsistence farmers learning
organic farming techniques are forging new avenues of agricultural
opportunity as global trade makes what used to work unsustainable.
The ACA Eco-Training Center, Country Store and demonstration
gardens are near the northwest shores of Lake Chapala, where
hills rise steeply above the small town of Jaltepec. This
is just 45 kilometers south of the 500-year-old city of Guadalajara,
the second-largest city in Mexico, with a metro population
of 4 million people. Local expatriates say it is like Los
Angeles, but with no freeways and better public transport.
In the commercial agricultural area not far north of nearby
Jocotepec, hundreds of acres are dedicated to chemically intensive
raspberry production for American, Canadian and European markets
by BERRYMEX (www.berrymex.com),
whose only customer is Driscoll’s (www.driscolls.com).
BERRYMEX hires many farm workers from the nearby towns, including
Jocotepec and Nestipac. Their organic berries grown for Driscoll’s
are on the other side of the lake, near Zamora.
Lake Chapala, the largest natural lake in Mexico, is located
in the states of Jalisco and Michocan. Because it is very
shallow, its size varies from year to year, depending on rainfall
and water releases from upstream dams regulated by the Mexican
government. After years of low water, the lake regained its
level quite a bit from 2004 to 2005.
Setbacks to farmers, fishers
This was good news for most people and most farmers in the
area, but not for the producers who had been growing corn,
vegetables and blue agave (the tequila plant) on the reclaimed
lakeshore below the high-water mark. This land is leased from
the government of Mexico, which controls all water resources,
rivers, lakes, production from wells and waste water disposal.
By Mexican law, the farming fields on the upper hillsides
and mountaintops belong to the Native Mexicans—Huichol
Indians in this area. They have no access to irrigation, so
they depend on seasonal rainfall for their crops. Most local
subsistence farmers can’t afford irrigation. They also
depend on the rainfall during the wet summer season from June
to October and need an alternative to the expensive and dangerous
chemicals used to prevent pests and fertilize their fields.
The historical local fishing industry has been impacted by
the growing industrial and agricultural pollution of the lake.
Coupled with the sewage plants’ effluents, the problem
has led many people to refuse to eat fish from the lake.
Two Canadian women, Marie Pruden and Wendee Hill, founded
the ACA in 1996. Over 11 years they have forged a strong support
base of local farmers, citizens, teachers, students and the
large—mostly retired—population of U.S. citizens,
Canadians and other foreigners.
The English-speaking foreign population of the Guadalajara
area is estimated to be more than 30,000, mostly concentrated
on the north shore of Lake Chapala, between the towns of Chapala
and Jocotepec. The major attractions are the year-round almost-ideal
temperatures, low-cost housing and reasonable prices.
The local farmers, teachers and students are the beneficiaries
of the ACA’s educational training programs in organic
farming and the creative enterprises its students have created.
“Rural people in Mexico are realizing the only ticket
out of poverty is education and access to it,” says
Wendee Hill. “The more this education dialogue continues,
the more impact will be felt.”
She mentions these projects that have sprung from their work:
Edible schoolyards in three schools. Leaders
integrate nutrition classes and a lunch program into the
school curriculum of environmental studies and health.
Vermiculture models. ACA has designed
three systems for producing worm castings for various uses
in backyard gardens, in schools and—on a larger scale—for
Integrated Pest Poultry & Plant Production
Model (IPPPM). This system shows how small to mid-size
farms can synergistically incorporate poultry, forage feed
systems and vermiculture to provide safe pest management,
nutritional animal feed and higher-protein yields.
Local retired people have been big supporters of the ACA
Country Store, which sells organic vegetables, including the
“Great Greens” salad mix. The store, through its
retiree customers, have helped expand the local market for
other organic growers. One sign of market success is that
a former ACA student, Manuel Navarro, is now a successful
organic farmer and a vendor to the local markets. The retirees
serve as volunteers within the ACA on its board of directors
and helping with fund-raising.
Students into leaders
Thanks to its classes and on-the-job training, ACA has developed
three former students into valued employees.
Gloria Garcia Flores and Luz Elena Jimenez Valentin say they
do everything at ACA. They plant, water, till the fields,
manage the vermiculture process, feed animals and wash the
“Great Greens” crops (in converted wringer washing
machines), which they then dry and package in plastic bags.
They also reluctantly admit to being teachers of both children
and adults, giving tours and teaching ecological farming techniques.
Previously, both were laborers on commercial farms near Nestipac.
The work was hard, but it was exposure to chemicals that drove
the women to start their training at the ACA. Flores is a
14-year employee who had asthma, which was aggravated by the
chemicals. Valentin has two years’ experience. Marie
Pruden says the two have grown into the “right hand”
of the organization at its Eco-Training Center.
Outreach coordinator Carlos de la Garza is another former
student. Carlos says that ACA aids farmers by bringing them
hope. For 70 years the government protected the farmers and
their products, but now has left them alone in the world of
globalization agricultural trade where their farming existence
is based solely on money, he says. Prices are fixed in a country
far away, by people who do not know them, their country and
De la Garza continues: “Organic production is an option
so the farmers can produce food for themselves, and sell the
rest, without having to ask for credit to buy seeds, fertilizers,
etc. This way, their health improves without using chemical
fertilizers. Like a farmer friend of mine says: ‘[This
organic option] is starting to create the farmers’ economy.’”
“In each class that I lead for the gardeners, none
of them knows that chemical products are poisonous,”
he says. “They believe their health problems are because
they ate something that was bad. They do not use anything
to protect themselves. Everybody can buy the most toxic of
chemical poisons at the market without any restriction.”
Many local people believe that if they don’t die there
is no problem with the product, de la Garza explains. “Once
a fisherman told me that if pollution was so harmful, then
why there were still fish in the lake? Yet sometimes he had
to return some of the fish to the water because they did not
have skin, and nobody buys those fish.”
Welcoming more internationals
Thanks to its efforts to upgrade its educational efforts,
ACA has been approved to receive 12 social-service interns
from a regional technical school. The nonprofit also serves
students from outside Mexico.
“Spring and summer is generally the peak season for
international interns, who often come during their university
break," Hill explains. “This winter we had a group
of 10 interns visiting from a Vermont university for an alternative
spring break program. Northwestern University has a group
of 14 that has come twice for their spring break, and has
ACA listed as an ongoing approved international break site.”
Other ACA training includes:
- Four classroom discovery days, which were booked in one
month from Jocotepec and Tizapan el Alto (on the south side
of the Lake) and brought in approximately 15 to 30 students
- Two gardening short courses per month, which usually have
6 to 12 registrants.
- Offsite classes three times a week in a special school
for disabled children in Ixtlahuacán de Los Membrillos,
just over the hill from Chapala on the highway to Guadalajara.
The ACA experience shows the potential of a nonprofit ecological
organization to work with small farmers while utilizing the
talents and resources of a nearby retirement community. Their
eco-training and education programs create effective bridges
between diverse populations. Their work empowers poor subsistence
farmers and engages relatively well-off retired foreigners,
teachers and students to create new possibilities for everybody