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Agroecology Center revalues agriculture - and culture - in Oaxaca
Centro Santa Cruz teaches children to plant, heal the soil, care for the Earth, and enjoy their native traditions
By Diana Manzo Posted in Agriculture, Alternative Education, Mexico on February 16, 2023
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Ixtepec, Oaxaca – It is morning, and the sun’s rays have barely come out. And at the Santa Cruz Agroecological and Cultural Center, an independent space located in the Zapata neighborhood in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, there is already a bustle of girls and boys eager to learn how to make compost, plant a garden and care for the environment through hands-on, practical workshops.

Promoted by Juan Rodriguez – histologist and connoisseur of traditional agriculture – and Jesús Hernández Velásquez, sociologist and retired professor, the two friends decided to launch this project that seeks to build environmental awareness, while also helping to restore the food sovereignty that has been lost in the  Oaxacan countryside.

“What we want is for children to know how to take care of the soil, and for that we do a soil healing practice, because it has been contaminated with the use of pesticides and other things,” explained Juan Rodriguez, who considers himself a permaculture apprentice. “So what we do is detoxify it, and then plant and share. Here you come to share – that is the great lesson of this workshop.”

Para leer esta historia en Español haz click AQUÍ

The children observe how their chili seeds are germinating and admire the process. (Diana Manzo photos and video)

The Santa Cruz Agroecological and Cultural Center, in addition to recovering and revaluing traditional agriculture, also promotes traditional cuisine through typical Zapotec dishes and works to promote local cultural practices – nurturing a love of traditional music, for example, in the younger generation.

“We wanted to share our knowledge with the girls and boys and it has been fabulous,” said Professor Jesús. “We already had the first and second stage and we saw how they learned to make their own compost, to take care of the plants they have at home and know the best things to plant. This is a lesson for life and we are grateful to the parents who bring their children and accompany them on this adventure.” 

Between talks they take a tour of the space, which was conditioned to be able to show the phases and stages of the agricultural process, the production of organic fertilizer, and the best care for the environment.

In a collective, hands-on lesson, the children learn about the Bokashi process, a Japanese technique which accelerates the composting process.

With dry leaves, tiny stones, manure, molasses, a fermented compost called bokashi and microorganisms that will speed the decomposition process, the preparation of the compost begins. All these elements are carefully selected by the Agroecological Center, which was born a decade ago.

Two of the ancestral concepts that this workshop for children revives are the tequio – traditional collective work for the benefit of the community – and “Communality,” an Indigenous approach to healing and strengthening community bonds that was developed in the 1980s by the late Mixe intellectual Floriberto Díaz Gómez. From the moment they step into the center, each child carries out activities to care for the shared space. For example, there are those who collect the leaves, others dig the soil, and others look for materials to gather to create their compost.

Once the compost is made, they begin to plant seeds, mostly vegetables – for example chili, cucumber, carrot, radish, and lettuce, among others.

Everywhere you look there is something to learn. In addition to the planting and tending of traditional crops such as corn and squash, they also teach the children to take care of the planet.

Don Juan Rodríguez teaches the children step-by-step the process of caring for the land. Before beginning, he tells them, they must first admire everything that surrounds them.

So far, there have been two “generations” or graduating classes from the year-long program.  Another objective is to encourage the children to share their knowledge and the fruits of their labors. That has been achieved with the first two generations, said Jesús and Juan, with some students even coming back to teach incoming groups of children.

Don Juan talks with the children about the need to heal the soil.

Parents also play an important role. Before starting the workshop, breakfast is shared, from traditional food to drinks, and everyone enjoys — but now, as the saying goes, “with a full belly, there is a happy heart”.

Professor Jesús Hernández talking about the importance of food sovereignty, of cultivating the food that will later be eaten at the table.

“We have learned to take better care of our environment”

Ivana and Alexa, 13, both studied at the center, where they learned to cultivate and take care of their plants.

With their wheelbarrow they wheel through the site and collect soil with a shovel, which they will mix with compost to put it on the plants. The two teens were students of the second generation, but they continue to attend the workshop. They teach good practices to the new students who attend every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.

“Here they taught me to plant, to compost, to take care of the plants, but best of all, they allowed me to be myself, and that makes me very happy, because I make my decisions and also take care of the planet, which is our home,” said Ivana.

They also learned to eat other foods such as raw nopal and figs, and they invited other children to join the courses, because in addition to learning, their time at the Centro is good therapy.

Caring for the planet is the most important mission of this Agroecological Center, the children quickly learn. Here they listen carefully to the recommendations of Juan’s recommendations as he works to form a food culture based on growing one’s own food.

In addition to these workshops, on weekends, as part of their food sovereignty practices, they make organically raised chicken broth, and they enjoy traditional music with the Duendes Traviesos (Naughty Goblins), a group of girls and boys who, through the music of the Isthmus region, are learning to revalue their music and at the same time their native language, Diidxazá (Zapotec).

“Together we cultivate, and together we eat, and hopefully more girls and boys will come and join this workshop that will leave them with lessons for a lifetime,” said Jesús.

This story first appeared in Spanish in the Istmo Press and is republished with the author’s permission.

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