Sustainable Food Education Program

Promoting permaculture as an answer to malnutrition and an alternative to chemical based farming

The Sexto Sol Center’s Sustainable Food Production Program aims to reduce malnutrition and eliminate the use of agro-chemicals by teaching people how to grow their own food organically. The Sexto Sol Center promotes an alternative model of food production that combines biointensive, organic farming methods with the principles of permaculture. This model of sustainable food production offers great promise for improving production, restoring environmental integrity, improving nutrition and helping rural people to enjoy better quality of life.

Below is a video by the Rodale Institute on how organic methods of agriculture can improve yields and thus food security. According to Rodale, if the world's agricultural lands were farmed organically, nearly 40% of the carbon emitted each year would be sequestered.

In this introductory section we provide context on the challenge of world hunger and describe the problems associated with the way people farm in the Sierra Madre. A description follows of Sexto Sol educational program at the Escuela de Agroecologia y Permacultura Tierra Linda in Motozintla and our work to establish permaculture garden projects at schools serving indigenous communities.

Food Security is the measure of how stable the sources of food are for a particular region. Ideally, local farmers and home gardeners produce enough nutritious food to provide an adequate diet for the people living there.

Hunger in a world of plenty is the result of an ethical “starvation” at the core of human affairs.

According to the United Nations, 800 million people live in hunger. This astounding crisis is the result of mismanagement of natural resources and a distribution policy within and between nations that leaves people in the countryside in severe poverty. In India an average of six hundred farmers a year commit suicide because of the despair of not being able to pay their debts. This is not simply an unfortunate reality. It should be seen as compelling evidence of the failure of human society.

The Earth can produce what we need to live well. Hunger is caused by our institutions, our trading system and our sense of separation from fellow human beings. The good news is that given the fact that hunger is a human caused phenomenon, we therefore have the ability to eliminate it. We invite you to consider your participation in the existence of hunger. We hope you will then work toward building the necessary political consensus that will lead to the changes that are required.

A person comes into this world to learn and to reach their potential as a human being. Among all of the people co-inhabiting the planet with us right now, 800 million are suffering from lack of food. Consider this, that the challenge of hunger is not only about the needs of the hungry but also about the need of those of us with our bellies full to reach our own potential as human beings by acting proactively on behalf of others.

The Problems with Agro-Chemicals: poor yields, health risks, water contamination

Farming is the main activity in the Sierra Madre of Chiapas, which is considered to be one of the most impoverished regions of Mexico. The ancient, sustainable ways of producing food still practiced by the Lacandon Maya have long been replaced here by farming methods that cause environmental destruction and perpetuate poverty.

Small scale campesino farmers lack access to the resources and information that would enable them to have better success with the cash crops they grow. They typically rely heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to remedy problems in their fields. Substances banned in the U.S. are available here or brought in from nearby Guatemala. Spraying with paraquat one of the infamous "dirty dozen", has replaced the traditional practice of using a hoe. The chemical is highly toxic to birds and is a serious health risk to farmers. It adheres to soil and when the fields are burned, can produce a very toxic smoke for up to thirteen years after it is applied.

Technical “advice” for farmers from government development agencies usually promotes chemical remedies. Farmers are generally unaware of the dangers of using these chemicals and do not use any protective clothing when spraying. Typically the fumigating pump and the chemicals are kept along with the other tools in the living areas of their houses. It is common to hear of poisonings from the mishandling of these toxic substances.

With thousands of farmers fumigating their crops throughout this mountainous region, these poisons wash into the drainage affecting fish populations and seriously contaminating the water supply for the City of Motozintla and the many communities downstream. Most people simply boil this water for drinking and cooking, killing bacteria but concentrating the soluble chemicals. The foods farmers supply to the population of the region have chemical residues.

“If you farm only corn, you will harvest only poverty”

Most farming families raise one crop a year of corn and some beans on steep un-terraced slopes. Their land lies fallow during the 6 months of the dry season. Soils are generally exhausted from over dependence on chemical fertilizers. In the spring after months of rainless weather, farmers burn the corn stalks to prepare for planting. This practice destroys organic matter further degrading soil quality. Poor soils yield sickly plants that are more susceptible to pest infestation. The farmers use chemicals to combat these pests. It is a vicious cycle.

In 1998, the practice of burning the fields in the dry season quickly sparked fires in the hot, dry hillsides. Large-scale fires damaged remaining stands of old-growth cloud forest as they burned uncontrolled for weeks. Yet each spring the burning begins again. The forests continue to disappear under the machete as people look for new areas to farm. With less forest cover, underground water levels have decreased. Springs that were once reliable no longer provide enough water.

Rural people use their land this way because they do not know of other alternatives. They live in poverty without knowing how to reach a better quality of life.

Creating food security one household at a time for a better future for the children

La Escuela de Agro-Ecología “Tierra Linda” is located on a ridge about a 15 minute walk from the center of Motozintla with a sweeping view of the river basin below and the dramatic rise of the Sierra Madre on all sides. Founded in 1999, at Escuela Tierra Linda we have provided training free of charge to over 800 small-scale peasant farmers, students, health promoters, and community members. We invite government agencies to the School to suggest that development programs should encourage food self-sufficiency on a household level and that it is possible to achieve without the use of toxic chemicals. Governor Salazar recently announced the new policy of promoting this model of as the answer to poverty. The Sexto Sol Center has been doing so since 1997.

The farm is a north-facing slope on a severely eroded ridge and is typical of many deforested areas in the Sierra Madre. This unlikely spot has proven to be an excellent site for demonstrating how to return fertility to damaged land. Using organic soil building methods we have been able to transform this previously unproductive site into an attractive homestead where the productivity actually increases over time, much to the surprise of local people who remember what it was like only a few years ago.

We show visitors how to build small dams called swales to catch water at our Parque Ecologico where we have been regenerating a deforested hillside. They can see native orchids and other forest plants in the small botanical garden kept humid with filtered gray water and shaded by an arbor of prolific edible chayote plants.

Land of this size, 1½ hectares, is usually planted only with corn. By contrast the School demonstrates how a small parcel can be made much more productive by growing fruit and nut trees, fish, poultry, vegetables and medicinal plants. The “huerto familiar” or family vegetable garden shows that by managing well a small area, a family can produce a significant amount of nutritious organic produce.

Escuela Tierra Linda fills the need for a facility that serves as a “living classroom” to give people hands-on training. Farmers can observe our vegetable and fruit production and see how compost is made. They can come repeatedly to see how the methods function over time, how we resolved pest problems and to receive help with problems they encounter with their own crops. The program has been made possible by the generous support of the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. Other major contributors have been Patagonia and the Rosenlund Family.

Permaculture, Biointensive and Organic Farming

The Sexto Sol Center actively promotes permaculture as a way to bring creativity and common sense to bear on how to use limited resources and solve site-specific problems caused by wind, poor soil, slope, and drought. We show people how they can produce an abundance of foods while at the same time creating a system where wastes are recycled, water is used wisely and energy consumption is reduced. In practice, permaculture creates a stable system that mimics nature and is therefore sustainable.

At Escuela Tierra Linda we teach biointensive, organic methods that rely on continually replenishing of the soil with compost, green manure, and other natural means. Properly practiced, the yields are higher than average and water consumption is less. This method is recognized as a promising alternative to chemical-based agriculture for small-scale vegetable and grain production in developing countries.

While people usually expect to be taught how to do these things, we are commited to providing them with enough information so that they can understand the natural processes involved. We believe that this level of horticultural education in the necessary to empower farmers and food gardeners to make good choices for managing their crops. It also is a delightful way to help people open up to the wonders of the natural world and to contribute to creating an ethic of stewardship.

Once coffee-growing families establish their own permaculture system they will be freed from worry about basic survival and improve the quality of their lives.

Permaculture in the Schools

Since 2008 we have been bringing permaculture to a new generation. Check with here soon for more information on this program.

We provide services to these institutions at Tierra Linda:

Centro de Recuperacion Nutricional – Mothers of malnourished children - workshops on child development, women’s self esteem, gender issues in child-rearing, and how to grow vegetables.

Instituto Mexicano de Seguidad Social–training in how to make family gardens to 180 health promoters for 350 communities, created demonstration garden at the hospital with high school students.

UNICACH – Scientific University of Chiapas, Agroecology majors - to invite students to be part of the solution in their future careers.

Public School & pre-schools - environmental education for all ages.

CEBETIS, Trained the faculty of the Technical high school in how to incorporate environmental themes in the curriculum.

Demonstration gardens for remote mountain schools: Empowering families to eliminate malnutrition

Two major challenges prevent children from impoverished indigenous communities from developing both physically and intellectually - chronic malnutrition and the lack of schools. Most children in the Sierra Madre suffer severe malnutrition. This intolerable public health situation does not bode well for the future of the region. In addition, these communities have only primary schools that are typically under-funded, teachers are frequently absent and the overall quality of education is very poor. It is not uncommon for some children to walk as much as 2 hours each way to get to school.

Albergue Providencia: provides housing in Motozintla for 45 girls from communities without schools. Parents can not pay all that is needed to feed the girls so we are designing a system of planters to provide growing space on the large cement patio. With funds provided by the Sierra Club, Beyond the Borders Mexico Projects we built two large planters on the cement patio, where snowpeas, garlic, lettuce, herbs, squash and more are already poking through the soil. In 2003, we provided a workshop on permaculture to the parents of these girls.

Escuela Secundaria Tecnica #122 Bajucu serves children from 10 Tojolobal-speaking indigenous communities located near Las Margaritas in Chiapas. Escuela #122 has a very large area that is not under any production. Sexto Sol is working with students and teachers to establish a food production system using the principles of Permaculture. Part of the project will be to improve the inadequate dormitories and to make the school more attractive with edible landscaping. We are seeking funds to build a greenhouse to extend the growing season. Currently the local diet does not include vegetables resulting in malnutrition. The school will become a source of vegetables for the local community.

In September, 2003 we launched the project to create a permaculture system to produce food for the boarders and to serve as the demonstration of sustainable food production. We showed a video of permaculture projects from around the world to 200 parents with enthusiastic reception. Volunteers will be placed at the school to incorporate students in the project.

Maximizing benefits: In general Sexto Sol projects aim to maximize beneficial outcomes by working on several levels at once. In the case of the Escuela #122, the immediate benefits will be an improvement in the living conditions and diet of the children and the creation of a source of much needed income for the school that is insecure about its future as the Director retires. Our involvement will enhance the curriculum and provide support the young, committed teachers who have worked with inadequate resources. But the most lasting benefit will be that the school will serve as a powerful demonstration of how to become food self-sufficient on a household basis for the 267 families whose children attend the school.

The second phase will be the important work of addressing the serious impact of a recent clear cut of the nearby pine forest by a foreign logging company. In the year since the logging, the river has dried up and the aquifer is seriously depleted. We plan to establish a large-scale pine nursery and involve the children in planting the trees. In this way, we will create a generation that will never allow the forest to be cut again.

Volunteer Opportunities

We seek volunteers interested in providing technical support to people enrolled in the Sexto Sol Center’s Permaculture projects. People with knowledge in organic and biointensive methods are welcome. See our Ecovillage and Volunteer pages or contact tamara@sextosol.org for more information.

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