TLAXCO, MEXICO — In 1956, inventive young Carlos Caballero Zamora returned to his home town in this mountainous countryside to purchase the worst stretch of land he could find.
Brimming with ideas hatched during a residence on an organic farm in upstate New York, Mr. Caballero went home to do his part to reverse the soil erosion and desertification that prevail over the region.
"I came with the intention of being among the landlords of the forest," Caballero says. Seeing it as an obligation, he wanted to focus on a small piece of land and leave it in better condition.
Today, Caballero's 40-acre plot high on the Pacific slope of the Continental Divide is a vibrant, green anomaly here.
With his wife and six children, Caballero has spent nearly four decades coaxing life back into the ridges and riverbanks of Rancho El Pardo, the family's reclaimed home. The ranch is a meeting place for poor farmers who learn sustainable farming practices and how to make their land profitable.
What one sees at Rancho El Pardo is an entire ridge of regenerated forest, its varied ground cover evidence of a healthy, complex system. On another slope are plants and small saplings along the banks of long contour trenches dug across the incline to hold nutrients and check runoff during rainfall.
But one also sees unorthodox, organic vegetable gardens in which crops are planted together in thriving clusters. Nearby, are long beds of rich, organic compost. Abutting these are pens for goats and sheep. The method, according to Caballero, is to join the various elements of the farm and existing ecological systems so they work together.
Culture and ecology
Mexico cannot afford to relinquish its land-based heritage, which predates the Spanish conquest, he says. For this reason, Caballero has enlisted the help of a Nahuatl girl to teach him Totonac, the ancient language of an indigenous group renowned for its skill in sustainable farming practices.
The junction of culture and ecology underscores the experiments under way at the Caballeros' ranch.
While the senior Caballero delves into the language of history, his adult children, who pursue development projects of their own, have adopted the terminology of the new.
Alejandra Caballero and Jos Caballero call the work at El Pardo "permaculture," the junction of "ecological permanence" and "sustainable human culture."
"Permaculture is not a set of rules or an end, but a way of living and of viewing the environment with the end of sustainability," Alejandra says.
Educated as an architect, Alejandra adapts "permaculture principles" to her professional specialty: the construction of homes with local building materials such as adobe, hay bales, and earthen plaster.
The basis of permaculture, she says, is that human needs can be worked into sustainable, self-perpetuating natural cycles. And a key to creating "permaculture systems" is to think of multiple functions for every resource.
The vegetable gardens here, flourishing without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, provide the most vibrant illustration of Rancho El Pardo's symbiotic design.
Corn, onions, beans, potatoes, salad greens, and herbs are planted together so that the natural characteristics of each fill needs of its neighbors. Tall, leafy corn offers shade for a type of bean that prefers indirect sunlight. A ring of aromatic herbs is planted around the cluster to provide a natural insect repellent.
Rancho El Pardo has become a meeting place for poor, rural farmers. Along with a variety of development workers, agronomists, and environmental designers, campesinos , or farm workers, travel from Mexico and Central America to attend courses taught by the Caballeros.
"We have been farming with chemicals for so long, and we didn't believe that there is really another way," says Ernestino Lara Prez, a campesino from the neighboring state of Puebla.
Farming without pesticides
Mr. Lara Prez says he is hoping to convert his farmland to organic production. "We are seeing that the fertilizers, the pesticides, serve less and less," he says. "They are expensive, and we are seeing health problems from the chemicals."
Permaculture techniques offer an alternative to expensive chemicals and fertilizers.
Though many of the campesinos say they had heard of organic farming and nonchemical pest-control before, none would stake his livelihood on descriptions in a pamphlet or the words of the well-meaning foreign development workers that circulate Latin America. In contrast, they say, Rancho El Pardo exists as 35 years worth of living proof that sustainability and restoration are feasible.
"One leaves a course with the Caballeros having put information into practice - not just words, but concrete application of what we've learned - so that that knowledge can be adapted to any community setting," says Martha Merino Prez, who attended a course on behalf of the office of environment and ecology in the city of Uruapan.