By Jo Ann L. Guillao, Climate Change Team
The cool mountain climate of a large part of the Mexican southern state of Oaxaca, home to about a million indigenous Mixe people, is now getting warmer — a situation that has proved to be both a boon and a bane for the upland farming folk.
With the warmer weather, villagers can now grow fruit-bearing trees, which used to grow well in low-lying areas. But the warmer weather proved to be disastrous in other respects, we found out during a field visit to the two municipios (towns) of Santo Cristobal Chichicaxtepec and Santa Cruz Condoy on October 9-14, 2013.
In the community of Santo Cristobal, for example, the warmer climate enabled local farmers to diversify their crops and livestock. Aside from planting fruits, local farmers can now breed horses.
As the local climate changes, the Mixe people have experienced either too much rain or the lack of it in some areas. When it rains in the community of Santa Cruz Condoy, for instance, it pours so hard that soil erosion has become frequent and widespread.
And as more soils erode down into the rivers, the water in rivers has become acidic. The acidic rainwater has proved disastrous to local crops such as coffee, beans and chili, the production of which, farmers reported, declined in recent years.
But unlike before, rain is now becoming rare in Santo Cristobal and the weather continues to get warmer with dire consequences. Water wells are drying up and vital plants are becoming extinct. Chichicaxtle, an herbal plant that is used to ease muscle pain, and amapola, a wild plant used as herbal medicine to calm people, are among some species vanishing.
Poisonous snakes and harmful pests and insects have also appeared. But some edible mushroom varieties, which go well with various bean recipes, are also hard to find now.
Women Participation. The Mixe people, particularly the women, have united to confront the inevitable impacts of climate change.
The community of Condoy Santo Cristobal through its Women Association, for example, has been working with the non government Asamblea Mixe para el Desarrollo Sostenible or ASAM-DES (National Council for Sustainable Development) to revive farm soil’s fertility and restore threatened crops.
ASAM-DES has helped the community become aware of the climate change phenomenon and helped train villagers to implement projects and programs aimed at enhancing their livelihoods. ASAM-DES also keeps track with the activities of the women’s group, at least meeting with them yearly to provide timely support.
The community has also been oriented about climate change mitigation efforts. ASAM-DES, for example, has encouraged the community to plant trees in degraded areas. ASAM-DES provides the seedlings, which include coffee and fruit tree seedlings. Once fully grown, these trees help prevent erosion and can augment villagers’ income as well. ASAM-DES also trains the women to ensure productivity and quality of their produce.
ASAM-DES has been supportive of women’s initiative since they have proven to get things done. A women’s group called Nosotras Mujeres (We Women), for example, has this motto: “Nobody is going to come for us but we need to do what need to be done.”
Apart from the women, the youth actively take part in community affairs. The youth are also trained in both household chores and farm work.
Like other indigenous peoples, the Mixe people regard the land as life source and thus should be tended and managed wisely, and organic farming, which is popular hereabouts, is one way to take care of the land and thus help mitigate climate change impacts.
As organic farming advocates, the Mixe people strongly oppose chemical use in farms, which, they say, harm the soil in the long run. They also discourage mono-cropping, which, they add, disturbs the balance in biodiversity, plant and microorganism life cycles, and productivity.
For example, in a plot, they intersperse corn with beans or squash with potatoes. Diversified cropping is considered a “law” for the community. While the government allows people to use synthetic fertilizers, the Mixe people do not follow this but use organic fertilizer instead.
Besides organic farming, the people have perfected a way of sustainably managing their forests based on traditional approaches. For example, different areas of the forests are delineated according to their functions. So a designated protected area will remain so and cannot be used for other uses. If people want to grow crops and fruit trees, certain areas are designated for these purposes.
As they cope with current challenges such as climate change, the Mixe people continue to draw strength from their rich tradition. One good practice is in choosing their leader, who is expected to have the community’s welfare in mind above all.
The community has long set some criteria for a good leader, foremost of which is he or she must have “a good heart and good mind.” A good heart spells commitment and the willingness to serve the community. A rich mind, on the other hand, means the leader is well-versed about his customs and traditions. “A good leader,” the community believes, brings about “a good community.”
While the community stresses on “good leadership,” community members collectively think, decide and act together to address their needs and concerns. Herein lies the community’s strong governance system and community solidarity.
The strong traditional community governance and value systems also serve as check and balance to the mandated responsibilities and obligations of elected or appointed government officials. The mayor, for example, is expected, as part of his main responsibility, to administer the town and to do his work well. The Commissary Officer has authority over the territory and the Comisanado de Bienes Comunales is expected to set boundaries with other communities.
As with other indigenous communities, the Mixe people have a way of sharing and lightening each other’s burdens. This is done through tequio, an old and still ongoing practice in which each person renders for the community free labor for 12 days a year.
The free labor includes cleaning and managing wastes of the community, helping build public facilities such as schools and roads, monitoring the state of forests, and, if needed, a community member must plant trees to help restore deforested or degraded areas.
If a person is not available to take part in the tequio, he or she can pay someone to do the job.
And if a person leaves the community or have stayed outside the community for some time, once he or she returns to the community, he or she cannot own a land.
Collective Resource Mobilization
What also continue to help sustain the Mixe people in various aspects of development in the community are their independence and self-sufficiency. For them, the essence of development is when people can stand on their own feet and are able to run their own affairs.
They recognize that government, as part of its responsibility, must provide basic services for the community. But on their own initiative, they would not just wait for funds, which come at turtle’s pace, to be disbursed by the municipio to small towns before doing what needs to be done. They collect some amount from community members to raise much-needed funds for the community. Through their own initiative and resourcefulness, the people were able to build schools, roads and other facilities.
Still, other basic service facilities need much to be desired. The Mixe people badly need health facilities, for example. The community has no clinic or a regional hospital to serve the sick. As a result, people resort to home remedies for ordinary ailments and some young people resort to self-prescribed medicines over the counter if they happen to travel to urban centers.
The use of indigenous language in formal education has proved crucial for the Mixe people. A decade ago (around 2004), elders noted that children lacked confidence in attending school because of barriers in language. Since schools would use Spanish, Mixe school children who speak only their indigenous language, had difficulty catching up with classroom lessons.
To address the language-related problem among Mixe school children, elders, with the help of ASAM-DES, negotiated with the government and pushed for the use of indigenous language as classroom medium of instruction. Their proposal paved the way for a law finally instituting what is officially called Intercultural Educational Systems.
In no time, government educators began translating educational materials into the indigenous language. The effort brought positive results. Elders and educators noted the new setup boosted the confidence of indigenous school children, who can now comprehend lessons better than before. They also can write, speak and express themselves well as they are more comfortable with their mother tongue.
Using the native language as classroom medium of instruction has an added bonus for the Mixe. They are confident that their indigenous culture and knowledge systems will continue to be transmitted to the next generation as long as they continue to use their indigenous language.
The government has its forest protection program, which includes Protected Areas. But indigenous peoples have concerns with government-designated protected areas. They complain that they cannot enter government-certified protected areas to gather fruits or hunt wild game for food. Before they can even enter a government protected area, community people have to pay a certain fee.
Community leaders and representatives of ASAM-DES recommended some actions for both partner organizations to consider. One was the need to improve advocacy work at the national level by seeking the support of experts and government leaders in implementing climate change actions.
They also stressed the need to enable more community women leaders to attend Tebtebba-sponsored global workshops. Tebtebba, for its part, had committed to respond to this need and, through these workshops, would expect more community women leaders to participate in global workshops and meetings.
Similarly, they recommended further research on community dynamics and collective actions about gender, land tenure and territorial management.
They also requested Tebtebba to help support the community's livelihood projects and programs.