The Zapotec stewards of the forest

Posted on October, 21 2021

The Copalita-Zimatan-Huatulco watersheds (CZH) lie South of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The CZH is pieced and held together by mangroves and corals in the South, and sinuous hills of pine-oak forests in the North, with endemic species of birds like the Sinaloa Wren (Thryothorus sinaloa) and the Golden-cheeked Woodpecker (Melanerpes chrysogenys) flying over them.
In the upper part of the CZH, embraced by this biodiversity, lies the municipality of San Miguel Suchixtepec, a community of roughly 3,000 people. The residents of San Miguel are mostly of Zapotec ethnicity, an indigenous group that, along with pre-Mayan Chontal, have a presence in the region that can be traced back to 15,000 years.

Unfortunately, this environmentally and culturally significant landscape suffers from deforestation caused by excess logging; water contamination from agricultural sources; and the effects of climate change on water availability. Since 2005, WWF has worked with communities like San Miguel Suchixtepec to monitor, safeguard, and restore the landscape through reforestation, capacity building of best agriculture and developing sustainable water management practices through the recognition of local culture and customs. 

Building on the work, lessons and community relations of these last 16 years, IKEA Social Entrepreneurship and WWF-Mexico, working with WWF’s Initiative Nature Pays, began a partnership in 2020 to strengthen the operations and potential access to markets of 13 community conservation enterprises (CCE) whose work and products aid in the conservation of CZH. Made up of people from communities living in landscape, including San Miguel Suchixtepec, these CCEs are inspired by generations of Zapotec knowledge and traditions that promote a more balanced relationship between people and nature.
To recognize and celebrate our collaboration with them, we sat down with three members of three different CCEs – Fabiola from Nayé, Porfirio from Guitiani and Romeo from Alternativa Agrícola Suchixtepec (AAS) – to talk about how Zapotec culture and traditions shape their relationship with nature, and empower them to create sustainable livelihoods for their future and communities. 

Cosmovision of nature

“We depend on nature, not the other way around. We need to take care of it; nature is a treasure for us and future generations”, Fabiola

Surrounded by evergreens and burbling water springs, San Miguel Suchixtepec lies in the presence of ever-present nature. Porfirio, Fabiola and Romeo view this nature not as a commodity or something to use and discard, but a part of their lives. Without it, says Porfirio, we wouldn’t be able to exist. This cosmovision of the life around them informs how they relate to and work with the soil they till, the water they drink and crops they grow. 

“It’s a joy to live here in this community, in this forest; we are people of the forest (…) Why look for water and food on other planets? We have everything here. We need to protect life here and not work against nature, but with it. We say no to overexploitation because, by destroying nature, we are destroying ourselves”. Romeo 

“Nature means life, without it we wouldn’t exist (…) It gives you food, water, clothing, everything. (…) If nature didn’t exist, no amount of money in the world would help you. That’s exactly why I think about how to pass down this sentiment to other generations, to the future.” Porfirio 

Stewards of Zapotec tradition and nature 

“The protection of nature comes from our ancestors; it comes from people we were lucky to learn from; how they took care of soil, animals and flowers. (…) If we forget where we come from, we can’t give nature its proper place and value.” Porfirio 

Romeo’s agroforestry farm involves pear, apple, avocado  and peach trees grown together with corn stalks on steep slopes of red soil. The farm’s processes involve organic, self-made fertilizers and seeks to reduce erosion by intercropping  fruit trees with commonly grown corn. Around his farm, sticking out here and there, signs in Zapotec language explain the work AAS does. Naye’s products, made of native species of medicinal plants, carry Fabiola’s grandfather’s legacy and his gift for curing ailments with natural products, famous in San Miguel. Like him, Fabiola blesses thyme, rosemary and the other plants in Naye’s nursery before and after using them to make products. Porfirio’s vision of Guitiani, a farm with different fruit trees grown with methods similar to Romeo’s, comes from the teachings his father passed down. 

“You can’t separate Zapotec language from agroecology, they go hand in hand (…) We use signs in Zapotec so people from the community can see what we do in our mother language. We don’t want Zapotec to disappear. (…) Some agricultural practices need to be passed down in Zapotec, there is no other way; if you ask an elder to explain it in Spanish, it’s not possible”. Romeo

When we started Nayé, the people in the community were happy we were continuing my grandfather’s work. They know the ointments and soaps we make because my grandfather made them. (…) We preserve native plants and do what our ancestors always did: finding out how certain plants can help us. I’d love for my children to learn and carry these knowledge to the future, so they can do this when we are no longer here”.  Fabiola 

Community Conservation Enterprise (CCE)

Along with 10 other social enterprises from different parts of CZH, AAS, Guitiani and Nayé hope to become fully operational CCEs: enterprises that provide dignified, sustainable livelihoods that preserve the ecosystems in the watersheds. Beyond having successful, environmentally-friendly businesses, members hope to develop their products and overcome challenges on their own terms: loyal to the cultural and family traditions they’re based on. 

“Competition is our biggest challenge. There are companies out there with better presentations and marketing, but we’re told people like our story, how we came to be. And among us we say that we need to believe in our product, believe in its effectiveness and hope people do so as well”. Fabiola 
“We struggle to be completely independent and make our own organic fertilizers and pesticides, and increase our productivity through agro-ecology. (…) But we are working on it, creating ideas and learning how to apply science on our processes”. Romeo 

We need to find a stable, committed market for our product. At times we don’t work 100% of our time in our parcels because we know that we’ll have a lot of product, but no one to sell it too”. Porfirio 

In June 2020, IKEA Social Entrepreneurship and WWF, began a partnership to strengthen the products and improve the  potential access to markets of these 13 CCEs; the project hopes to create sustainable livelihoods for rural communities while supporting productive practices in harmony with nature. To achieve this, the 3-year collaboration carries out workshops on climate change adaptation, best agricultural practices and integrated water management; as well training and exchanges on organizational and business development. 

The agricultural workshops are based on agroecology, a model that aims to conserve water and soil by using organic production methods like applying bio-fertilizers and pesticides. In crops like avocado, these practices have reduced water consumption and production costs by 64% and 59%, as well as increased saving costs by 33%. At the same time, the business development workshops hope to strengthen the CCE’s capabilities to access local and national markets. 

This model of livelihood development could help create sustainable social enterprises that help preserve the biodiverse landscape of CZH and local cultures. Through the Oaxacan Council of Agroecology, this model, and its impact on the livelihoods of the CCE , could be taken to other regions and landscapes of the state. The project hopes to replicate this type of model in six other municipalities of the landscape. 
We’re 13 members in AAS, the workshops helped visualize a singular dream, because every member has different visions for AAS. It helped us create a collective dream by helping us join ideas, goals and aspirations. This is nice, because it helps us believe in AAS and maybe it stops members from migrating and looking for jobs elsewhere. This happens here. (…) The other workshops taught us how to improve our agri-inputs, like how to make better fertilizers and compost; all of this improves AAS.” Romeo 

During the workshop, they asked us to do a drawing of how we see Nayé in the future, and we came up with a drawing where people from the community helped grow the plants we use for our products (..) they helped us visualize Naye’s value, its future and how to get there; how to plan better and how interact with each other.” Fabiola 

The Road Ahead

Although not free of obstacles, the journey for these three social entrepreneurs is marked and paved by the generations that walked them before. Headstrong, Nayé, Guitiani and AAS build on the work their grandfathers and parents did and look for ways to carry it forward. And although at first glance it seems that it’s the pine trees, flowing rivers and hills that piece the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco watersheds together, a closer look reveals that interwoven with this nature, the beliefs and commitment of people like Fabiola, Porfirio and Romeo do their part on keeping nature alive for tomorrow’s generation of stewards.

Read the Spanish version here
Romeo Salinas Ramírez – Alternativa Agrícola Suchixtepec – Organic vegetable, fruit and rabbit farm.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México
Fabiola Ramos Hernández – Nayé – Medicinal soaps and ointments made of native species of plants and flowers.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México
Porfirio Hernández Hernández – Guitiani – Organic farm of various fruits for the production of bottled fruit.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México
Fabiola teaches her son Matías about the plants’ smell and texture, as well as how to cover them with smoke. She thinks it’s important to share this tradition with her son, just as her grandfather shared his with her.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México
Porfirio smiling with one of his bottled apples. He mentions that the bottle represents the effort he puts in his work. The apple and the mezcal in this bottle were produced in an agroecological way.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México
Porfirio smiling from the upper part of the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco watersheds with the rest of the landscape in the background. He says that what he does in the upper part has an impact on everything in the lower parts.
© Antonio Hernández Ramos / WWF-México