Mexico

At Women-Run Nursery, a Quiet Revolution Takes Root

Agriculture threatens one of Mexico’s vital ecosystems, but La Peñita collective has devised a solution to protect both the forest and its farmers.

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At Women-Run Nursery, a Quiet Revolution Takes Root

ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Mercedes Santos Santiago, front, and Miriam Cruz, of the conservation group La Peñita, have constructed a nursery to help restore one of Mexico’s most important forests. In the last two years, the group has planted 90,000 trees.

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CINTALAPA, MEXICO — As late afternoon unfolds, the watchful black eyes of Mercedes Santos Santiago settle on drops of water nestling on the leaves of small, shrublike “rat killer” trees.

Working with her sister, Vicenta Santos Santiago, she waters the line of trees, known as Gliricidia sepium, cared for and pampered by members of the La Peñita collective. Planting the trees is a quietly revolutionary act – both socially and environmentally.

“I really enjoy planting and taking care of the trees in the nursery,” Mercedes Santos Santiago, 54, says. “I know that it will help to preserve the jungle, the water, care for the planet.”

The five women who make up La Peñita manage the Ejido Constitución, communal agricultural land that connects two critical biological conservation areas in the southern state of Chiapas: the Selva El Ocote Biosphere Reserve and Los Chimalapas montane forests.

The nursery represents a creative solution to the problem of ever-encroaching cattle pastures and invasive logging in this southeastern Mexican jungle. Tens of thousands of trees will morph into hedges – sometimes called living fences – which allow for more environmentally friendly crop production. They’ll also generate income for the women of La Peñita, who scorn regional tradition by working outside the home.

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

From left to right, La Peñita members María Dora Santos Santiago, Mercedes Santos Santiago, and María Eugenia Vilchis Núñez walk to a stream to wash trays and seedbeds, which saves water to irrigate the nursery’s trees.

The government declared Selva El Ocote Biosphere Reserve a protected natural area in 1982. It includes 101,288 hectares (391 square miles) of land, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recognizes it as one of the most important forests in Mexico for its natural features and economic potential. It’s also home to the world’s highest natural arch.

The reserve hosts more than 700 species of flora, including economically vital timber and medicinal, edible and ornamental plants. Trees range from cedars to sapodilla. Hundreds of animal species – including the jaguar, puma and the ornate hawk-eagle – roam the area.

But the National Commission of Protected Natural Areas says that between 2000 and 2009, about 144 hectares (356 acres) were either modified or lost. Drought, fires and human factors have slashed the forest’s footprint.

“There is fragmentation, modification and destruction of ecosystems due to the advance of the agricultural and livestock frontier … extraction of species … forest fires … growth of human settlements … unmanaged forest exploitation,” according to “Social and Biological Vulnerability to Climate Change in the Selva El Ocote Biosphere Reserve,” a book edited by four scholars who work in Mexico’s southeast.

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Alonso López Cruz, an activist and university professor who has worked closely with La Peñita, helps the group prepare to plant guava trees.

This region is key because of its reservoirs and because it captures carbon. It’s also a natural corridor for animals to flow between North and Central America, says Gilberto Pozo Montuy, a researcher who has studied the Ocote jungle extensively. But these jungles face challenges such as deforestation and the spread of both agriculture and ranching in the area.

“It’s difficult to find a balance between conservation and people’s economic necessities,” he says. “Difficult, but not impossible.”

Two years ago, La Peñita presented an answer to this challenge: a nursery.

The group formed from a conservation and restoration campaign by the national commission and other environmental organizations. They reached out specifically to women as “an act of inclusion,” says Adriana Rodríguez, the commission’s field manager from 2016 to 2020.

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ADRIANA ALCÁZAR GONZÁLEZ, GPJ MEXICO

Mercedes Santos Santiago waters plants by hand to ensure their growth and early replanting.

Some women didn’t want to take part because they couldn’t imagine combining their duties at home with work at the nursery, says Mercedes Santos Santiago. María Eugenia Vilchis Núñez, 55, embraced La Peñita as a chance to care for the jungle, earn an income, and ruffle tradition.

“We live in a place where women’s work is the house, the children, the hearth … but we got out of there, we trained ourselves, and now we run a nursery,” Vilchis Núñez says.

Members of La Peñita earn about 1,500 Mexican pesos ($76) a month. They’re pursuing further training to include both fruit trees and ornamental plants, not just forage plants, which are used for animal grazing.

For the area’s ranchers, the nursery allowed reforestation and restoration to take place more quickly, easily and inexpensively. Santiago Zabala Velázquez, rancher and resident of Las Merceditas, a nearby village, promises to care for the trees after they’ve bloomed.

In Search of Sustainable Future, Farmers Embrace Traditionclick to read

“The women care for the trees in the nursery,” he says. “It’s not fair to them for the trees to come die in the pastures.”

The women work three or four times a week. Because of the relentless heat, they always start late in the day. They sow seeds, clean seedbeds, handle infestations, water and fertilize the trees and pack them for delivery.

The work also provides a kind of therapy.

“Coming to the nursery helps us to talk, to reflect on our problems,” Vicenta Santos Santiago says. “Sometimes we come angry, and here we have time to chew our cud and go home calmer.”

To date, La Peñita has planted 90,000 trees. They cover 100 hectares (247 acres) and serve at least 25 ranchers in the area.

“The trees in the nursery are life,” Vilchis Núñez says. “They are part of a process of conservation, of caring for the forest where we live. It is our home, and we must take care of it.”

Adriana Alcázar González is a Global Press Journal reporter based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.


TRANSLATION NOTE

Sarah DeVries, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.