Los Maestros de Muestras

Although I have been in Oaxaca for almost two months, and coming into work at the office of the Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca (INSO) for over 7 weeks, it does not feel as though my internship really started until about 4 weeks ago. Things in Mexico move a little more slowly than I am used to, and between taking Spanish classes and going out into the country to take water samples, my inclusion in the functioning of INSO as an organization was a long time coming.

Hence, much of the first month was spent learning how to properly take water samples and attempting to speak Spanish. It was only mid-way through July that I began accumulating responsibilities within the organization. Two groups of high-school aged kids, the first from the Boston area and the second from Wales, came to visit El Pedregal, INSO’s sustainable farming project and demonstration site that it runs with local farmers. The kids were on hiking and service trips with World Challenge, and each group stayed 4-5 nights at El Pedregal, working on various projects during the day and playing Mafia and cards by night. As a native English speaker, it was my job to translate, help explain the alternative technologies being demonstrated at El Pedregal, make sure everyone knew how to do the tasks they had been assigned, and to generally make the visitors comfortable. As one might imagine, it was a blast!

Here is a little summary of the kind of explanation I helped to translate and give to these student groups: As the groundwater levels in Oaxaca have been drawn down over the last 50 years or so, the plants on slopes at the valley’s periphery, which must survive an 8-month dry season, have lost their access to water for most of the year. Hence, the compromised vegetation no longer holds the soil together, and during the wet season heavy rains wash fertile topsoil away, further exacerbating the harsh condition in which plants are attempting to grow. In addition, and perhaps of greater concern, is the loss of this water. Rather than being captured by the soil and filtered down to aquifers where it might feed wells, it runs downhill and is “wasted” as what is referred to here as “fast water.” The work here, therefore, is to implement methods of capture and regrowth to make this “fast water” of greater utility as “slow water.” Small check dams called “gaviones,” catchment ditches called “ollas,” and erosion resistant and preventing plants like vetiver grass and a native tree called “copal” are just a few such methods. The erosion and flooding these tools have prevented has made a desolate hillside green once more, allowing Don Pedro, the land’s owner, to grow “milpa” again, the ancient squash, beans, and corn Mexican permaculture technique. And every drop of water that would have washed soil away before can now be used for the drip irrigation tomato plating, herb gardens, and tilapia aquaculture that Pedregal houses. However, the most impressive part of this project is how it functions as a demonstration site. INSO can point to this project and say, “Look, it’s possible to do this! Put aside your doubts and give us your support to help more people implement these techniques.” Tours are given to local and regional government officials, to potential donors, and to school groups regularly. In addition, households are brought in to see alternative technologies like dry composting toilets and high-efficiency, low-pollution stoves in the hope that they will purchase these cheaper (in the long-run) and more environmentally friendly alternatives to flush toilets and open-fire stoves, respectively.

But the work at El Pedregal is just a part of what I am doing down here. I have continued to take Spanish classes, something I have begun to think of as “work for INSO.” Occasionally, I am asked to do something related to the various other projects INSO has going, but most of my time is spent water sampling. Two days full (8-9 hour) days are spent in the field checking the specific conductivity, turbidity, pH, DO, nitrates, iron, and manganese levels of water bodies, conducting flow tests, and taking bacterial samples. It takes another day and a half to properly digitize and organize all the data, and after adding one more day a week working at El Pedregal, it begins to feel like I will never have time to begin working on my thesis. But water sampling is fun, and the overall objective of the work is very exciting. Water quality (and quantity) data has not been reported in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca since 1990, and an update on how the water is doing is long overdue. Especially at a time when the State is partnering with the World Bank to follow in the footsteps of other dry-climate cities like LA and Vegas and construct a huge dam that will supposedly “meet the water needs of Oaxacans for the next 20 years,” with little or no analysis of its environmental impacts, it feels very important to help INSO and the rest of the NGO community here to know what water sources they already have, which of them are polluted, and (hopefully) why they are polluted. However, this water sampling is not directly work for INSO. They may find it useful, but I feel as though I am more aptly acting as a research assistant for Mara. It is hard sometimes to find connections to the organization I am supposedly working for. I am still very excited to be here doing what I am doing, but it is a little disappointing that I am not more useful to INSO in the direct and traditional internships ways that I had imagined.

Hope everyone is enjoying their Summers!