The Soil is Alive: AJWS Partners Learning in the Field


The Soil is Alive: AJWS Partners Learning in the Field

December 18, 2008

by Daniel Moss

In an outdoor classroom, agronomist Cesar Morales describes how to erect a greenhouse to grow vegetables to feed extended families.

"When our kids have the stomach flu, they can't make good use of the food we give them. It's just the same with soil. When the soil is sick, nutrients don't get to the crops. Organic agriculture ought to be for all of us—not just for export while we eat poison." This was part of the wisdom shared at a training session on sustainable agriculture that AJWS partner UCIZONI, the Union of Communities of the Northern Zone of the Isthmus, recently attended.

Working against so many challenges and with little formal education behind them, AJWS partners tend to thirst for learning. They seek out peer institutions to help them learn about community radio, about women's rights, about sustainable farming techniques. Grassroots training sessions like this one offer organizations the chance to come together, discuss the difficulties they are confronting in their communities, and work towards constructive alternatives.

The sustainable agriculture session was held at the Center for Support to the Popular Movement of Oaxaca (CAMPO), a long-time UCIZONI ally, and led by Cesar Morales, an indigenous agronomist from a farming family. The participants brainstormed ways to combat the environmental degradation caused by toxic pesticides sold by agri-business corporations in Mexico. The UCIZONI farmers learned new techniques that are sustainable, affordable and just.

"The government programs sometimes offer us these giant greenhouses," said Juan Garida, an agronomist from UCIZONI. "I say 'sometimes' because you never know when the funding will get cut off. But the funding isn't the only problem. The huge scale isn't right and the government agronomists are still hooked on chemical inputs with no understanding of how soil works."

In this hands-on training, the UCIZONI farmers grabbed a hammer to install a drip irrigation system.

Cesar Morales demonstrated how to loosen the soil to the depth of half a meter, add worm compost and water it with drip irrigation. "The soil wants a balanced pH—and chemical fertilizers just make it worse. It's like drinking Coca Cola—it has a pH of 4. It's healthier to drink tequila," he joked.

Garida was pleased at the applicability of the small-scale greenhouses that CAMPO demonstrated. For about $100, families could erect a rustic greenhouse to control pests and retain moisture.

Garida's colleague, Lucia Antonio, filmed the training session to share it with people from remote villages back home. "The women are excited," she said, pointing to the dozen or so women in attendance. "They'll bring the composting worms back to their communities. The video I'm making here will help the women repeat the trainings with their neighbors." Antonio oversees UCIZONI's community radio stations and plans to turn the training into a radio program and broadcast it to villages that the women might not reach.

"There is so much that we want to learn," said Garida. "We have colleagues in the Dominican Republic and Cuba that could teach us a lot—about biodiesel and wind power, for example. But to be honest, many foundations are leaving Mexico. They think it's a rich country even though it's just a few billionaires distorting our economic figures."

"I've been to trainings that haven't been all that useful," said Lucia as she turned off her camera, "that talk over our heads. This was a very good one. We'll keep working with CAMPO; maybe next time we'll do a training on fish farming."

Daniel Moss is a consultant for AJWS. He is based in Oaxaca, Mexico.