Recovering Landscape Health and Cultural Resilience in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico

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Luís and Tomás Palma gathering native pine seeds for a tree nursery in their Sierra Tarahumara community Credit: David J. Rapport

The Rarámuri people (also known as Tarahumara by non-Rarámuri) are an indigenous group living in the Sierra Tarahumara, a part of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. This region of high sierras and deep canyons boasts an exceptional ecological diversity, and is home to some of the most resilient indigenous societies in the North American continent. The Rarámuri (about 70,000 people, living mostly in isolated settlements and small villages scattered across the Sierra Tarahumara) speak a distinct language and have maintained a strong identity and vibrant cultural traditions through over five centuries of contact with the now prevailing Spanish-speaking population. They are subsistence farmers, and have traditionally also relied extensively on a variety of wild plant and animal species for food, medicine, and other basic needs.

However, their long-term adaptation to this mountainous region and their ability to sustain their livelihoods and way of life—and ultimately to retain their cultural and linguistic identity—have been severely threatened by rapid environmental, socio-cultural and economic changes brought about by virtually unrestricted mining, logging, ranching, mass tourism and now increasingly the drug trade, all of which have been facilitated by extensive road development and the building of other major infrastructure. These activities have collectively resulted in massive deforestation causing the loss of forest plant and animal species; overgrazing; soil erosion with consequent loss of water resources; frequent droughts and flash floods; water pollution; decrease of arable lands and diminished soil quality and fertility, resulting in lower crop yields and periodic crop failures; displacement from traditional lands; out-migration, especially of the younger generations, due to inability to make a living in the communities; induced social and cultural change; social dislocation and loss of social cohesion; erosion of intergenerational transmission of values, beliefs, knowledge, practices and language; and a variety of health and nutritional issues. Adding to these woes, global warming is s projected to bring long-term drought to the region.

The scale and pace of change are challenging the Rarámuri’s ability to continue to live and develop according to their own worldview and way of life. Many elders and other community members are concerned about the Rarámuri’s future as a distinct people if the erosion of their landscape and culture continues. While stressing their long-standing resilience as an indigenous people, they perceive threats to their physical, cultural, and spiritual survival and to the transmission of Rarámuri identity, values, knowledge, customs and language to younger generations. They see the need to take action, and some of them recognize that, in addition to their own efforts, they can potentially benefit from working with outsiders who can provide needed expertise and other resources.

In response to this need, the project “Eco-cultural Health in the Sierra Tarahumara, Mexico” spearheaded by the NGO Terralingua with funding from The Christensen Fund and Canada’s International Development Research Centre, was developed in partnership with two Rarámuri communities in the vicinity of the town of Norogachi. The project began in 2006, building on a relationship between Terralingua and the Rarámuri that had been evolving since 2000. At a meeting between Terralingua and traditional Rarámuri authorities, elders and youth in 2004, consensus had emerged to work together on a collaborative project focused on the recovery of the health of the landscape and the social and cultural resilience of the communities. Participants agreed that the first priority should be water, which they saw as the basis for all life and at the same time as an increasingly scarce and unhealthy resource, with serious consequences for humans, animals, forests, wild plants, and crops. Revegetation was also a high priority, along with concerns about human health and culturally appropriate education for children and youth. After the authorities consulted back with their respective communities, an official invitation was issued to Terralingua to come back to work with Rarámuri communities.
According to the priorities expressed by the Rarámuri, the project was conceived in phases. While the ultimate goal was the development of an on-the-ground, practical education program that would assist the Rarámuri in their effort to recover and take direct control over the eco-cultural health of their landscape and communities, initial steps focused on bringing in potable water to one of the two participating communities, developing tree nurseries and home gardens, assessing issues of health, hygiene and sanitation, and addressing literacy for women. For these purposes, Terralingua formed an interdisciplinary team of collaborators with expertise in biocultural diversity, ecosystem health, human health, hydrology, ecological restoration, and indigenous education. Project activities in this phase took place between 2006 and 2008, with five field visits by Terralingua team members, while community members continued activities between visits.

The potable water project was carried out entirely by community volunteers. The Rarámuri had already identified a distant upland spring (about 8km north of one of the two settlements) that has good drinking water. They had the intention of bringing water to one of the two communities, which had no potable water, so that people had to resort to drinking polluted water from a nearby stream and various seeps and pools. For this purpose, they had previously built a small holding tank there, but lacked the resources to lay a pipeline from the spring to the community. With materials provided by Terralingua, the volunteers undertook the project, which involved not only an important engineering aspect (laying the pipeline and burying it in places over rocky ground), but also building an unusual level of cooperation among several settlements along the route. This effort required taking time off from daily subsistence activities and was completed over a period of about one year, as allowed by weather conditions (summer floods, winter ice) as well as seasonal farming needs (planting and harvesting) and the occasional need to earn income in off-season by working outside the settlements. At present, the entire pipeline has been laid and the system is in operation. Community members have also taken the initiative to build a large holding tank near the settlement for long-term water storage, as a way of countering the effects of the dry seasons and the periodic droughts.
An assessment of the health of the local landscape showed considerable evidence of degradation—owing to the combination of massive deforestation by outside logging interests and overgrazing by both non-Rarámuri cattle ranchers and Rarámuri farmers. Much of the landscape around the settlements has lost most of its topsoil, with large erosion gullies visible everywhere due to the action of winds and rains. The complexities of landscape-level restoration were compounded by lack of secure land tenure and control over land use around the settlements. It was apparent that community members could not always effectively control land beyond the immediate vicinity of their household compounds, due to incursions by unfriendly neighbours and cattle ranchers.

Initially, the project entertained the possibility of starting pilot revegetation on a hillside identified by community members, which would have been fenced off to keep out the grazers (both the goats owned by the Rarámuri themselves, as well as the larger cattle, often owned by non-Rarámuri who take them to pasture in the area). Some of the restoration techniques that would have been applied, and that were demonstrated at the outset (such as creating swales by laying rocks and branches across the slopes to impede water runoff and capture soils) were actually akin to traditional Rarámuri practice of building trincheras (ditches) along hillsides—a practice that some of the local elders mentioned, but knowledge of which seemed to have disappeared or have gone dormant among younger generations.

However, doubts soon arose that it would not be possible to adequately protect this site from grazers long enough for revegetation to take hold. Therefore, the consensus was that it would be better to start by establishing tree nurseries near the households, over which people could have greater control. Community members would then be able to transplant trees close by, where there is little or no shade or plant life, with the added possibility of selling seedlings in the nearby market town. Transplanting nearby would also provide an easily accessible source of firewood, whereas people currently have to go long distances to the remaining wooded areas to provision themselves with dead wood and fallen branches.

A small temporary nursery was set up, and people gathered and planted seeds of local pines and oaks in improvised containers made from plastic bottles and tin cans filled with topsoil from the nearby riverbed. Some nut trees, such as walnuts, were also planted as a source of commercially viable fruits. As well, this provided an opportunity to demonstrate the preparation of a compost pile using plant materials and manure for later use to fertilize the fields—another practice that, according to elders, was germane to traditional practices, and had probably been supplanted by the introduction of chemical fertilizers. Subsequently, with materials and guidance provided by Terralingua, community members built a full-fledged enclosed tree nursery, which was enriched with soil from the riverbed and in which four kinds of local pines were planted. The nursery includes an irrigation system with 1/2-inch pipe and a hand-held sprinkler engineered by the community, with which they can readily water the plants. Results so far have been mixed, in part due to extended drought, which has threatened the viability of the seedlings, and in part to some of the seeds gathered locally (particularly oaks) failing to germinate. Most pines and walnuts have been growing, however. Eventually, the nursery might supply pine seedlings for hillside revegetation wherever possible. Aware of the role of trees and other plants in holding soil and moisture, community members also intend to do some tree planting near the upland spring, to help preserve their water, and to plant agaves around other smaller water sources to retain both soil and water.
Terralingua team members also carried out a survey of health, hygiene and sanitation issues, practices and concerns in the settlements, with the goal to incorporate these topics in the later development of an educational program from an eco-cultural health perspective. The survey was coupled with demonstrations of hand washing and sanitary handling of food and water. Further, the survey sought to assess nutritional status, as evidence from the medical literature suggests that a shift from the traditional Rarámuri diet, consisting largely of corn and beans, toward increasing adoption of non-indigenous foods is responsible for negative changes in Rarámuri health. This has combined with malnutrition due to periods of drought and other effects of environmental change on soil fertility and crop abundance. In order to help improve food supply and nutrition, the project worked with community members on home gardens, demonstrating various techniques for capturing rainwater and grey water for irrigation, creating contours to retain water and soil, using mulch, and increasing the production of vegetables and fruits. Two enclosed home gardens were built, with cooperation between families that did not normally work together. The intent was that each family would harvest the food, but share the seeds with the community, thus enhancing community interaction and cooperation and reinforcing the kind of community solidarity that is indispensable to strengthen cultural identity and support cultural affirmation.

Along with the health survey, project team members surveyed the situation of educational services in the two communities, to assess existing education programs for children and adults. Existing programs mostly follow a conventional transitional bilingual education approach, that is, one that only uses initial literacy in the indigenous language as a stepping stone for literacy in Spanish, after which literacy in Rarámuri is no longer maintained. Community members themselves appear to generally favour literacy in Spanish as a means to better navigate the outside world, and tend to attribute lesser value to literacy in Rarámuri. In the course of the survey, in fact, community women expressed the desire to learn to read and write in Spanish. Some literacy sessions were conducted, during which the women learned to recognize and write their names. Because the prevailing educational approach disfavours or altogether excludes Rarámuri language and culture, and often forces children to travel a long distance (mostly on foot) to go to day school, or even to attend residential schools, the project aimed to determine whether and how Rarámuri language, culture and traditional knowledge might be integrated in alternative in-situ education initiatives within an eco-cultural health framework. This goal dovetailed with the interests of some of the Rarámuri (including an influential elder), who are more keenly aware of the threats that the existing educational system poses for the maintenance and intergenerational transmission of Rarámuri identity, language and worldview and for community cohesiveness.

Based on these experiences, the second phase of the project aims to focus on two goals: the development of hands-on eco-cultural health educational materials with and for the Rarámuri, intended for elementary school children and youth while also crucially including teachers and community adults and elders; and capacity building for adult community members to carry out further ecological restoration and improve landscape and community health. The guiding philosophy is the co-creation of knowledge, know-how, and educational materials, bringing together traditional and scientific knowledge and with a community-oriented, service-learning approach. It is also clear that, for a long-lasting impact, it is imperative to go beyond what can be accomplished during project team’s time-limited visits to the communities, by creating means for continuity and self-sustainability of educational and on-the-ground activities. A focus on “training the trainers” (selected community members, teachers, health providers, and others involved in community-level work) is central to accomplishing this goal in the longer term. At present, the main challenge s for undertaking this phase of the project reside in mustering new funding during a global economic downturn, as well as in an increase of tension in the region due to escalating drug-related violence. A hopeful sign, however, is that a local and an international foundation are working together to establish an overall Rarámuri education initiative in the Sierra Tarahumara, which shares many of the project’s goals. Terralingua may be able to join forces with this larger initiative and link it to the communities with which the project has been working, thus ensuring that they benefit from the initiative.

One of the key lessons learned in this project has been that entraining and sustaining a truly participatory community process is a long-term and complex undertaking. This is particularly the case in a situation in which the ecological, socio-cultural and economic issues involved are on a scale far larger than what local people may traditionally have had to contend with, and that require a level of community cooperation far greater than usual—while at the same time those very issues pose immediate survival challenges that community members are often led to confront individually rather than cooperatively. Some of the Rarámuri fully realize that the scope of the threats they are facing requires going beyond individualism (and sometimes community rivalries), and they strongly advocate working together to address the problems. From this point of view, it appears that the project has had a positive role, facilitating a number of community discussions and reflections on the issues at hand that would rarely have happened otherwise, and fostering collaborative work that people might not have engaged in otherwise. As one leading elder put it, in expressing his satisfaction for this process and exhorting his community to continue along this path: ‘It has been an awakening for us.’ The “awakening” is still tenuous, however, constantly challenged by the forces that are bringing about rapid ecological, economic and socio-cultural change. If the project succeeds in further developing it’s educational and capacity building activities, more enduring seeds for eco-cultural survival may be sowed.

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