What the peasants can teach the world

We are odd bus fellows barreling down an obscure highway through the central Mexican countryside -- 16 Africans, two Sri Lankans, one Filipino, one Colombian , nine Mexicans, and eight Americans.

But one thing unites these international development planners: the search for ways to end the debilitating hunger that besets 800 million of the world's rural poor.

Here in the state of Puebla, bold experiments have resulted in quantum leaps toward a solution to the problem. And this busload is turning the Peace Corps concept inside out for the day -- venturing out to learn from the country people what they are doing and why it works.

The early morning air at this 7,000-foot elevation is crisp and cool. As our expedition pushes northward from the city of Puebla (east of Mexico City), the sun rises to our right over the majestic volcano Pico de Orizaba, shining across a vast expanse of cornfields punctuated with huge red-frueted cactus trees. To the left, wispy clouds disperse from snowcapped peaks of two more volcanoes -- known by the Mexicans as "The Sleeping Lady" and "The One who Watches Over Her."

Here is all the age-old traditional charm of Mexico's proud, if impoverished, country villages: flat-topped houses washed with festive colors; mothers drifting barefoot along the road with babies in their arms, trailed by exuberant young children; skylines dominated by church steeples and painted domes rising above flat-faced brick chapels.

But it is also a Mexico where the faces of modernity are popping up farther and farther out into the countryside. A new Volkswagen plant sits conspicuously on the outskirts of Puebla. Large roadside advertisements have gone up for John Deere agricultural machinery. Coke and Pepsi signs have moved into the smallest of villages. And in urban centers, the gas stations with their canopy-covered shining pumps seem to thrive -- a constant reminder of an oil industry that holds out no little prospect for a population expected to surpass 100 million by the turn of the century.

Mexico is known for its contribution to the "Green Revolution," the breakthroughs that produced radically bigger crops through hybrid seeds and large-scale commercial farming techniques.

But not all experts are satisfied with the progress made so far.

"Despite advances in research," veteran agriculturist Edwin Wellhausen explains over the roar of our bus engine, "we are not keeping up worldwide with the staggering population growth. Nor are we reaching the majority of farmers who have very small plots, use traditional methods in tropical regions, and do not have irrigation or reliable rainfall. Only one in four have benefited and they are generally better off to begin with. The question is, can the other three become more productive, and how?"

"If the world is to feed itself and improve living standards of the masses of rural poor," he adds, "we've got to do something different. We need new strategies."

Indeed, this is a veritable busload of strategists, specializing in creative plans for development to involve the masses of rural poor themselves.

The Sri Lankas, Filipinos, and Colombians are deeply immersed in development that activates the human resources in their countries.

The Africans are about to launch some bold experiments of their own -- highly evolved versions of a concept originally put n the international table by Andrew Young, the former United States ambassador to the United Nations. (In 1977 he had proposed at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that each developing country could make great strides forward by mobilizing a "Food Corps." Groups of trained volunteer workers, he said, could be recrueted from within each country to go into the countryside and help the poorest of poor improve their production.)

Supporting planning and discussions among the Africans and Asians are American development specialists, including an originator of the Food Corps concept, Dr. Ruth Morgenthau (a Brandeis University professor and US representative to the United Nations Commission for Social Development) and Dr. John Pino (director of Agricultural Sciences of the Rockefeller Foundation).

But, for the moment, expert has turned learner, eager to hear from the peasants, the "campesinos," of Puebla.

After all the theoretical planning is said and done, it is this discussion that should prove most helpful to the Africans, who will launch their pilot projects in the coming months. They need assurances that can only be gained by meeting farmers face to face: Is it really practicable to hand over more responsibilities for policy to the peasants? Are they ready to accept new technologies, interested in better business techniques, in sharing knowledge with whole regions?

Our bus climbs higher into the mountains.

"We are approaching Zacapoaxtla, the site of our development projects in this region," the leader of this expedition, Dr. Leobardo Jimenez of the Colegio de Postgraduados in Chapingo, says pointing to lush wooded mountains and fertile valleys that are still populated by pure-blooded descendants of the Indians who inhabited Central America thousands of years ago.

At the town of Zacapoaxtla, our bus squeezes through narrow streets and grinds to a halt outside the project's central office. Dr. Jimenez leads the way through an arch to a courtyard. Campesinos in white straw hats greet us, as children lean out windows to glimpse this odd conglomeration of Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and assorted Mexican technicians and translators.

The "human chemistry" is magical.

The campesinos are fascinated by the intricate, swirling designs embroidered on the robes of Aly Cisse, a prime mover of development planning in Africa's Sahel, and Wally Salieu Ndow, an aide to the president of Gambia. The curiosity of curiosities is Aly's brimless white hat -- a stark contrast to the wide-brimmed hats proudly sported by virtually every Mexican male in sight.

Not since the days of the foreign invasions (by the Spanish in the 16th century and the French in the 19th) have peoples from such distant climes been seen in the region. And times have changed. These foreigners have not come to exploit, but to learn.

We are seated in a makeshift classroom whose only light is daylight from two windows behind us.The campesinos waste no time in sharing their enthusiasam for development, showing slides, and reading with quiet pride from written texts. Though these were no doubt prepared with the help of the Colegio de Postgraduados, the peasants' efforts to read are not lost on planners from countries facing vast problems of illiteracy.

"We are not just interested in producing greater amounts of food," Eulogio Manzano, secretary of the peasants' organization, explains. He is a slight, dark-complexioned man with a warm smile and shy manner, who wears his hat tipped back on his head.

"We want greater welfare for our families. We are not part of a political group or a religious group, and we don't want to be. We intend to stay independent, organized by peasants for peasants."

Until 1974 the farmers' problems were drastic, according to a filmstrip prepared by the young Mexican who handles the campesinos' communications. Traditional agricultural methods were producing small crops. Middlemen had been siphoning off profits. Difficulties were compounded by poor transportation and the absence of electricity, drinkable water, education, and health services in many villages. The result was an all-too-common plight of developing countries: widespread unemployment and migration to already over-crowded cities.

But in 1974 a cooperative venture with Dr. Jimenez and his colleagues at the Colegio would change all that. The agriculturists gave advice on use of new seeds, fertilizers, and pest control. The experts, for their part, had some learning to do from the peasants about growing conditions, other challenges, and techniques. And with some financial backing and services from the federal government, new plantings were ready to go.

But what made it all work was the vast network of cooperation that look hold among the farmers themselves. "Engineers" were appointed from among their ranks to learn vital skills from the Colegio, and take this knowledge back to the villagers. A farmers' cooperative brought together campesinos from across the region to supervise the marketing, fight exploitation by middlemen, and resist pressure from disapproving local politicians.

Crop increases were dramatic. In the first year, the peasants and the Colegio claim, production of maize (corn) was up 78 percent; in 1975 it jumped 49 percent; in 1976 another 41 percent; and in 1977 another 24 percent.

Most important for Mr. Manzano is the fact that the campesinos have themselves become prime movers in the process. The subject kindles fire in his otherwise ultra-mild, polite speech.

"Now we are no longer the Indians who can be humiliated. We are more than 100 communities, 10,000 farmers, fighting for the same ideals, for the welfare of our families to get better education for our children and better employment in this region."

Maximo de la Cruz, president of the farmers' cooperative, takes the floor to explain in more detail. For the campesinos' leader he is relatively young, with jet-black hair, mustache, and pronounced Indian features. Clutching the belt of his trousers with one hand. With the other hand holding his text close to his face to help him see in the dark classroom.

"We now know that our future will depend not only on the unity and awareness of the campesinos of our region, but also the attitude the government will take toward our activities. We have decided that we must stay organized but independent from political groups, even independent from too much reliance on the Colegio de Postgraduados."

He looks up from the prepared text, and passion surfaces.

"In 1979 local politicians tried to destroy our project. They joined with the rich people in the region. They knew we had people from the Colegio de Postgraduados working full time for us, and they brought the matter to the governor. They tried to get the college to fire them, even though we supported them with picketing.

"Thus we know that the farmers must take their own decisions, work on an independent basis. We peasants should support the graduate college, because it helps us with planning and to get an ear with the government ministers. But we cannot ultimately rely on outside assistance to do things for us."

Our party again moves out into the countryside -- this time to meet peasants working in the fields.

Transferring into smaller Volkswagen vans, we penetrate deeper into the countryside through miles upon miles of cornfields. The roads are lined with giant, seven-foot-high maguey plants that look like huge pineapple tops growing out of the earth. It is the rainy season in this part of Mexico, and with mid-afternoon approaching, spectacular low-lying cloud formations begin to roll in on the horizon. Every day it rains at about 2 p.m.

White hats appear on the road ahead. The local campesinos have come to meet us, with their wives and children, dogs and donkeys bringing up the rear. Led by a local farmer, we meander down a dirt road to a clearing in the surrounding crop fields where his home is, next to a complex of crude, wood-framed shelters with corrugated metal roofs that house cows and chickens.

The clouds cut loose from above. Everyone runs under the overhanging roof of the cow shelters. Nothing but this rain could have brought Africans from Tanzania and Gambia, an Amercan Peace Corps worker, a Sri Lankan, and four campesinos closer together in animated conversation

"How do you get financial credit?" Gambian Wally Ndow asks the Mexicans.

"Is it legally recognized by the government? Can you get credit for all staples? Does the land actually belong to those who work the land?"

Time stands still. The rain seeps through cracks in the leaky shelter roofs, dripping onto the clothing of the tightly huddled group. Mud gathers underfoot. The stench of cow manure rises around us. No one seems to mind.

"You know, right now in my country on the other side of the world, it's already night?" Wally tells the farmer.

He is amused.

The campesino turns to the Tanzanian and Sri Lankan. "What time is it in your country?"

They grin.

"Eleven p.m." "About 12 midnight."

"What do you ultimately hope for your children?" David Levine, an official with the Peace Corps, asks.

"I want them to get education, so that they will be able to make a better living," comes the instant reponse of the campesino.

"Even if that means moving from the farm?"


There is a long pause.

"What do you do here in Mexico to stop the rain?" the Gambian quips.

"I don't know, what about you?" the Mexican returns.

"Back home we bury sald," comes a half-joking reply. "Maybe you should try it."

The farmer nods seriously.

There can be no real rural development, the planners were later to conclude, unless peasants play their full part in it; that handing out technical advice is not enought -- local conditions and values must be taken into account. The peasants' knowledge of local farming must be understood and respected; properly supported, peasants can make more of the decisions. Indeed, with population growth and hunger so widespread, they must do so.

Organizations like the World Bank -- which in the past has heavily emphasized the strictly economic aspects -- have been reaching similar conclusions.

Dr. Morgenthau observes:

"This is precisely why the Mexicans have been so successful, not only in Zacapoaxtla, but also in projects around the state of Puebla. They've established that fruitful connection between research done in the laboratory and the knowledge and aspirations of the farmers themselves. That combination is hard to get going.

"In the Sahelian region of Africa, for example, it had long been a policy of French administrators to keep research separate from higher education, and both of these separate from development administration," she adds. "Villages are the domain of administrators who rarely even visit them. So money and services tend to stop with the administrators. It is this gap between knowledge about services and actually providingm services that must now be bridged."

In still broader global perspective, the very image of the peasant may itself be in for radical change.

"Without the small farmer," Dr. Jimenez had told the planners back at Puebla, "we could do nothing to improve agriculture and deal with hunger."

None of these planners has any illusions about the fierce battles ahead in the war on hunger.

In Rome, the director general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has been calling urgently for emergency assistance from food-donor nations to help starvation-racked African nations.

The African "Food Corps" planners have their work cut out as they prepare to launch programs in Tanzania, Mali, Senegal, and Upper Volta next year; Gambia and Niger shortly afterward. In November they will send agricultural workers to Sri Lanka to learn how to teach farmers. THe experts also plan more discussions through their international liaison committee coordinated by Dr. Morgenthau.

Finally, nagging questions remain for the developing countries: Will there be enough resources and money to back up their farmers' efforts to grow bigger crops? Will the international community be willing to make the needed changes in the world economic climate? Is it possible that the masses of small farmers can be reached in time to turn the tide on human hunger?

But for at least one day in the Mexican countryside, the problems have been moved to a back burner. The campesinos of Zacapoaxtla have planned a celebration. They are not about to let their visitors leave without a shower of Mexican country hospitality.

We follow their lead along a bumpy dirt road out to a community center in the fields. Under a huge white cloth canopy, the center's outdoor patio is decked out with tables of food and drink more lavish, we speculate, than the Aztec chief Montezuma set before Cortez and the Spanish centuries ago.

Women working in steaming back kitchens send their children out with large pots of food -- tortillas, enchiladas, guacamole, salads, chicken, fruits, Musicians play folk tunes in the background.

Holding a half-functioning microphone triumphantly to his lips, a peasant leader tells his guests that his family is better off now than ever before, that his children have a brighter future ahead. The Gambian joins his host to share a word of thanks on behalf of his fellow Africans.

"Our outward differences are indeed great. While your communities are awake and active, my people on the other side of the world will still be asleep. But we realize today that the world food crisis affects everybody. Your problems are our problems. We are pleased to have had the opportunity to understand your situation in this part of the world so that we can better understand what to do when we get back home."

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