Growing Potatoes in Oaxaca

3 Sep


oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 063

It is late June in the village of Cuajimoloyas, high in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. Our friend Don Eustorjio Martínez leads us out to his potato field.  We follow him up a dirt road through cool oak-pine forests and pastures full of purple lupine, red salvia, blue forget-me-nots, and tiny yellow daisies. Eight-foot-tall maguey plants line our path in natural fencerows.

oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 044 As we walk, Don Eustorjio pauses frequently to show us local plants and explain their medicinal and other uses.  Cuajimoloyas (Cua-hee-mo-LOY-as) and other nearby villages protect the forests. which over the centuries have been damaged by over-cutting for timber and by clearing and burning to create agricultural fields. Today the villages harvest trees sparingly, milling the timber in a community-owned sawmill at the bottom of the mountains. The forests are protected now by local and federal laws.  Don Eustorjio tells us that selective culling is helping to control a disease outbreak in the forest.

Eventually we reach the potato field.  It lies near the crest of a ridge, surrounded by tall ocote pines. In the distance, valleys, pastures, and mountains stretch to the horizon. We are at nearly 10,000 feet, 5,000 feet above the city of Oaxaca which lies in the valley below.  Were there time, we could walk on mountain trails to other villages. The villages in this region, all semi-autonomous Zapotec communities, have banded together in an eco-tourist network to create trails and offer guide service and cabins to hikers.

The land here is primarily community-owned, and cannot be sold to outsiders. But local families have the right to use individual fields and pass them down through generations. In return, according to the traditional system of “usos y costumbres,” villagers are expected to fulfill responsibilities such as helping with road repair and filling rotating leadership positions at no pay. Villagers who migrate to Mexico City or the US can lose their community privileges unless they return to do their work or send funds to pay substitutes.

oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 064Don Eustorjio’s potato field is divided into two parts, and he alternates his crops between them annually. He tells us that this helps control an infestation of potato worms. When the infestation first occurred, outside “experts” advised the farmers to control it with a toxic chemical. The chemical did kill the worms, but farmers noticed that birds that ate the worms also died. Eventually, the farmers decided to disregard the experts and stop using the pesticide and all chemical inputs. Don Eustorjio explains that it is more important to protect the environment and the nascent eco-tourism project.  Now he saves the money he would have spent on agricultural chemicals.

He plants the non-potato half of the field in a mixture of oats and mustard, so today that area is covered in a yellow haze of mustard flowers. Hay from the field feeds village cows and short-haired sheep.  The oats  go to the chickens. I wonder if the mustard contains a natural substance that helps keep the potato worms in check.

Don Eustorjio’s potato plants are big, robust, and deep green, the healthiest I’ve ever seen. They were planted about six weeks previously, in April.  After plowing with oxen, Don Eustorjio fertilized with lime and a mixture of manure from local chickens, burros, cows, and sheep.  Then he planted the seed potatoes using two traditional Oaxacan farm tools. The “coa” consists of a shovel blade attached at a 90 degree angle to a wooden handle.  The “hacha coa” looks like the coa but with a narrower blade. Don Eustorjio shows us how he had planted the seed potatoes (whole if smaller than a fist, otherwise cut in pieces) about a stride apart in the furrows. He uses two local varieties of potato, but notes that one variety seems to be more resistant to the potato worms.

Don Eustorjio has spent his life in service to his community. In addition to other oaxaca 2010 07 03 J cuajimoloyas 060responsibilities under the “usos y costumbres” tradition, he has helped start the ecotourism  project, directed the village’s schools, and taught other farmers about the best methods to grow potatoes.

The system of local self-government based on voluntary service  is key to the cultural survival of indigenous communities throughout Oaxaca, where sixteen ethnic groups jointly comprise more than 40% of the state’s population. Community survival  depends on a complex balance of incomes sources, including agriculture, remittances from the US, and local enterprises such as handicrafts, wood products, ecotourism, and food processing. The village of Cuajimoloyas depends on leaders like Don Eustorjio to adapt to challenging conditions that have endangered traditional farming, marginalized indigenous people, and forced many to migrate.  Don Eustorjio tells us that his daughter is studying forestry management in Mexico City and hopes to return to help local environmental efforts. 

We finally walk down to the village through the cool mountain mist, and are greeted warmly by members of Don Eustorjio’s extended family, gathered in a big kitchen heated by a woodstove.  I tell him that I plan to send photos of his beautiful potato plants to my friend Paul, an organic farmer back home in New Hampshire, and that Paul would be envious.  Don Eustorgio flashes a wonderful smile.  He is a fine farmer, a teacher, and a generous friend. 


One Response to “Growing Potatoes in Oaxaca”

  1. kateinnh May 25, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    It is fantastic to see this type of eco-conscious farming and the community based system flourishing here, gives hope for the possibility that such could be brought back to use in the US, especially among people who suffer from lack of a decent food supply (that is fresh produce) and small farmers which are pressured to practice big-Ag methods instead of generations old ecological farming methods.

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