I come from down in the valleys

Yes the title is a Bruce Springsteen reference.

In June I arrived in Oaxaca to start my internship at the Instituto de la Naturaleza y la Sociedad de Oaxaca or INSO. Nervous? Yes. Prepared? probably. Spanish language skills? Not quite there, but working on it.

During my first day I was taken under the wing of the research/science branch of INSO. Unexpectedly I ended up working with the only other gringo at INSO for my first two months (he left to go back to school), furthering the stereotype down here that all white people know each other. We in the research branch are tasked with investigating the effects of permaculture at El Pedregal (the demonstration site INSO owns), gathering data about the Rio Atoyac-Verde watershed, and using GIS to create maps showing different aspects the watershed. Currently I am working on creating maps (putting my GIS to put my map making skills to use), that we are using in our workshops we put on for different communities in the watershed. I am also conducting experiments at El Pedregal to learn more about infiltration rates of soil, it is interesting….really. The maps that we create are used to show the local communities there place in the hydrological cycle/watershed (and to help show them what a watershed is).

Alfredo (my boss) explaining the Plan Comun during a meeting on subterranean water in the central valley

As part of their latest water Blitzkrieg INSO started what they are calling the “Un Plan Comun para un Bien Comun”. This involves reaching out to all of the communities in the watershed as well as collaborating with the WWF, and state agencies to gather more information and ideas for moving forward to address water issues in the Rio Atoyac-Verde watershed. INSO is a strong believer in decentralized develpoment, empowering individuals, and opposing large infrastructure and dam projects. A key component of the Plan Comun has been to share INSO’s “tool kit” that they have created to address water issues in the Rio Atoyac-Verde watershed. The “tool kit” consists of high efficiency stoves made from sand and mud, dry bathrooms, permaculture farming, and rain water harvesting techniques. They then bring these technologies out to the communities to help educate and assist individuals who attend the workshops put on by INSO. It is INSO’s hope that this will make it easier for the communities to adopt these technologies to help with water issues in the Central Valleys.

Workshop in Zaachila hosted by Ale and Alvaro seen on either side of the white board.

The respect that INSO has for community sovereignty is incredible. INSO does not deliver heavy handed decrees, passed down from on high, to fundamentally change the way in which people live to appease the ever pissed environmental gods. Rather they offer an encouraging push, with helpful and familiar hands, in the right direction. They have been working with over 60 municipios in the Central Valleys, building relationships with them over the past 20 years.The direction INSO is trying to take the valleys in will both improve the lives of the people as well as the natural environment in which they live (not that these things are easily separable). The people who respond most to INSO haven’t shirked their responsibility to solve issues in the watershed because they are part of collective fault. These communities in the central valleys have taken the issue head on, to work for a future in which the only source of drinking water aren’t jugs that are shipped in from across Mexico, but from the very resources they here possess. The same resources that have supported dozens of civilizations in the Central Valleys for over 10,000 years.

All of my days aren’t spent hunched over a computer, chugging coffee, digitizing maps because no state organization seems to want to use ARC GIS. No, every Thursday the office heads over to the permaculture demonstration site to work on various projects. Most of my time there has been spent working to build a botanical garden into the rocky face looking over the driveway, but this Thursday I helped Nelly (a co-worker in the science department) give a tour to 14 students from Portland State University.

Over looking the permaculture demonstration site of El Pedregal

Hearing Nelly speak about all that INSO has done to help people here, creating this beautiful example of permaculture to show that any person as long as the have the know how can build a better life for themselves, was a much needed breath of fresh air. Spending days, even weeks constantly fighting to get information we need, information that should be public, information that would empower individuals to take action, can wear on a person. We tend to get stuck in our individual worlds and lose sight of why we are now digitizing a map of soil uses from 2004 (Seriously I have had to digitize more maps than any one person should). However, listening to Nelly, and more importantly the days we spend at El Pedregal, provides a needed perspective that INSO has made a positive difference for the people in the Central Valleys. In spite of the fact that the odds seem to be stacked against us, that we still need to reach the other 200 municipios that make up the watershed, there have been success stories. People here in the valleys have taken charge of managing their water resources, showing that INSO together with the people here can make a positive difference for the future of life here in the valleys.

And it is reminders like that which make me love my job (well volunteer-ship, but tomato tomate).

Thank you for reading, and Viva Mexico.