Residents of the Mexican states of Chiapas and Oaxaca are still digging out from a rash of late summer landslides. The disasters killed dozens of people, destroyed homes and blocked rural highways. The landslides were blamed on unusually heavy rains and bad mountain roads… but deforestation and poor agricultural practices have made erosion a chronic problem in the region. Now some local residents are trying to address the problem by experimenting with low-tech traditional practices. Shannon Young reports.
REPORTER: Back-to-back storms have drenched Oaxaca and three neighboring states in this busy hurricane season. Much of this rain has hit remote mountainous regions that are already prone to landslides . Storm-related damage to roads has left some towns unreachable by car for weeks.
Forest management consultant Jose Rodriguez says the Mexican government hasn’t provided much help in cleaning up, so the task has largely fallen to unpaid locals with their own shovels.
Impassable roads are a fact of life during the rainy season in southern Mexico’s most remote areas. Deforestation and overgrazing on steep mountainsides have helped create serious erosion problems here…but much of the erosion is preventable. Without much help from the government, some local residents have begun fighting erosion and other land use problem with low cost do-it-yourself techniques.
The town of San Andres Huayapam overlooks Oaxaca City from the foothills of the Sierra Norte mountains. The town’s original name
means “on the big water”…but the springs that inspired the name have been drying up. The area now swings between drought and the kind of floods experienced in recent weeks. But one project here has developed a system to restore the ecological balance.
JUAN JOSE CONSEJO: “What we try to do is combine scientific and traditional in a way that everyone gets a better condition.”
Juan Jose Consejo is the director of Oaxaca’s Institute of Nature and Society. He’s working on what’s called the Pedregal permaculture farm and demonstration center. The project is experimenting with various combinations of modern and traditional technologies for retaining soil and recharging watersheds.
Consejo shows off one erosion control system on the Pedregal site.
Trenches running down this hillside channel heavy rainwater that would otherwise carve out gulches and gashes. The trenches contain chain link cages filled with rocks, which trap eroding soil. The topsoil is then collected and piled onto nearby hillside cornfields that have been stabilized with new terraces and hedgerows.
(water flowing through a small dam)
The demonstration center also has 2 small dams… one built with reinforced concrete and one made using an old technique combining earth and large rocks. The dams catch overflowing creek water during the rainy season for irrigation during the dry season.
JUAN JOSE CONSEJO: “The idea is to give a little help to nature to do what nature does in healthy conditions. That means – lets the water run down, forming ponds and steppes. Then we have a system of terraces in order to protect the soil from erosion.”
After the recent downpours, the dams and traps are filled to capacity. But the experimental plots seem to have weathered the season better than much of the surrounding landscape.
REPORTER AT SCENE: “Standing on a hillside, I can see the hills that have been reforested. Now, as I turn around and look at the opposite face of the canyon, gashes have been cut into the hillside by running water and these gashes converge into an entire area balded right down to the rock.”
(walking up a cornfield)
Local farmer and traditional leader Pedro Santiago set up the Pedregal center five years ago. Santiago says managing the many experimental projects here requires patience and ceaseless hard labor….but that signs of success are emerging.
Forest ecologist Jose Rodriguez says more than 2 dozen towns have implemented stewardship programs similar to the work done at the Pedregal center and elsewhere in the region… but tailored to their own diverse local conditions.
The combination of old and new approaches being demonstrated here won’t completely solve the erosion crisis in this part of Mexico. But these small-scale efforts here in Oaxaca are showing that it IS possible to restore degraded land and to protect Mexico’s hillsides against the devastating effects of rain that just doesn’t seem to stop.
For The World, I’m Shannon Young in Oaxaca, Mexico.