FROM FARMLAND TO FOREST - PART II


How Reforestation Projects are Helping Rural Farmers in Chiapas

As we drive along the windy highway between Yalumá and González de León, it is evident just how much deforestation has occurred. Vast swaths of land beside the road have been clear cut to make way for earth-toned cornfields, beans, and squash plantations. For an area of less than 100 000 residents, the amount of farmland is astounding. But agriculture is their livelihood, for many of them, all they’ve ever known. For generations, the Indigenous, Mestizo and Spanish descendants of the area have lived off the land, farming for sustenance. So, how do these communities adapt to the current realities of climate change, while maintaining their way of life?

A woman looks out over a cornfield in González de León, Chiapas

The tight-knit community of González de León is home to just under 1000 people. The majority of the residents are Tojolabal, an Indigenous group descending from the Mayan civilization. Few speak Spanish, with most preferring their native tongue. Most of the women wear their traditional clothing, a long striped dress with a white blouse, adorned with colourful patterns and weaves. And as with Yaluma and many other rural communities in Chiapas, farming is the main source of income.

Traditional women's dress

We met with Rogelio Jiménez Jiménez, a stocky man with broad shoulders and a contagious smile. Rogelio has worked this land most of his life, and understands the farming traditions and values passed down from previous generations. We accompany Rogelio and his family to a cornfield, where they are in the process of harvesting corn.

Rogelio Jiménez Jiménez

Forming a long line across a small section of the cornfield, the group works together to pick the corn by hand. Men, women, children, and elders all pitch in on the labour. Shedding the corn from the husks with their work-roughened hands and a small nail-like tool, the farmers work quickly and efficiently to clear the corn stalks. They throw the corn into large knit sacks they carry over the shoulder like a shopping bag. The work is strenuous and exhausting, especially in the sweltering sun.

We talked with Rogelio about the role of women in the home, community, and fields. He believes that the women work even harder than the men. “The women are the ones that work the most as they wake up very early to make the tortillas and do the house chores” Rogelio notes. “Once they’re done making the tortillas, they bring them to the fields, and then they say ‘we’re coming with you’” he continues, explaining they work the fields together.

A few of the women of González de León

Alicia Pérez Jiménez takes a more practical view of their contributions. Carrying her baby as we walk through the fields, she explains “we work together in the plot so we can get more work done.” The teamwork extends to other areas of the community as well: “When there’s an area of the community that needs to be cleared [of weeds, plants, etc.] we work together to get it done.”

Alicia Pérez Jiménez

We walk with Jiménez Jiménez and his family to another plot, where they have begun the process of reforestation with the help of Cooperativa AMBIO. Although they had been thinking for a while about converting some of their existing farmland back to forests for a while, they were unaware that programs such as Scolel’te existed.  After speaking with a friend from Yalumá who participates in the project, they learned more about the potential benefits of planting trees. In 2015, together with his brothers and brothers-in-law, they started reforesting 10 hectares of land, hoping that the new forest will help improve their agricultural plot output.

As Jiménez Jiménez talks about their plot, you can tell he’s excited about the potential of their land. “Now we can see the trees growing, and that makes us enthusiastic. We want to put our best effort into this. If we do, other people in the community might become interested in planting trees”. Lucia Jiménez Jiménez is equally eager to see the growth of the trees. Speaking in her native Tojolabal, she explains “I’m happy to see the trees, and looking at them, I’m very glad to have planted them.”

Lucia Jiménez Jiménez

Indeed, other members of the community are taking notice of what’s going on. Rey David García López began participating in the AMBIO program about a year ago, after hearing about it from Rogelio. He planted one hectare of Cypress trees to start, taking a week to clear the land in preparation. They measured out 3.5 metres between each spot, and planted the trees in order, with the men digging the holes and the women planting the trees behind them. García López is looking forward to seeing how they grow, explaining “I hope that they grow well, and in the future, we’ll have big trees.”

However, this concept of using valuable cropland to plant trees breaks from traditional approach passed down through the generations, and it’s unclear just how many farmers would be willing to make the sacrifices needed to improve the climate and productivity of the existing plots. Rogelio understands this, but is optimistic – “We were taught by our parents, plant corn, plant corn. Sometimes it seems we don’t have the ability to change, but now there are new ideas coming”. These new ideas, he hopes, will help improve their lives and the lives of future generations.

Special thanks to Cooperativa Ambio for access and interviews. Find out more about Ambio and Scolel’te at http://ambio.org.mx/

For more information on the Plan Vivo Standard, visit http://www.planvivo.org/