Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mexico Diaries: Day 2, Part 2 - Jalisco Ecological Collective

This diary series is about my trip to Jalisco, Mexico to research agriculture among subsistence farmers and the economic pressures here to immigrate to the United States (legally or otherwise). This is the second installment of my post on Day 2 and it covers a meeting with the Ecological Collective of Jalisco.

After our trip to the Ecotienda (Eco-Store), we went to meet the group that runs the store, the Jalisco Ecological Collective (Colectivo Ecologista Jalisco or CEJ for short). On the way there, our driver got lost, so we had the opportunity to drive around and view a rather upper class, very nice neighborhood in Guadalajara. The homes were beautiful - and very colorful compared to the drab colors of U.S. homes. Furthermore, I think it stands to reason that there are well off Mexicans who could certainly afford to buy the organic Mexican products exported to the U.S. Mexico may have it's fair share of subsistence farmers, but those farmers don't constitute the entire population.

At last, we arrived at a private home, which was every bit as nice as a home an upper middle class American might live in. Then we sat in a circle in the living room around a laptop and a projector and made our introductions. We quickly determined that, on average, their English was better than our Spanish (our group runs the range from fluent to knowing little more than "hasta la vista baby" whereas they all spoke English quite well). So we spoke to one another in English.

The CEJ was surprisingly impressive, especially compared to the relatively small store we had just seen. They work together with other groups, particularly Pesticide Action Network (a favorite of mine), Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice, and to a much lesser extent (from what I could gather) Organic Consumers Association. Here is how they describe themselves on their website:

We are a non-profit, non-partisan organization of civil society, founded in Guadalajara in 1986. In the CEJ we are dedicated to environmental education, the public impact, and the relationship between different stakeholders in improving relations between society and nature. We are an integrated interdisciplinary team of people from different backgrounds and professions.

How do we work?

In the CEJ, we believe that the work should be between different sectors and we should find alliances between different actors with different perspectives, both local and global. We understand the environmental crisis is related to lifestyle, diverse political interests, and dominant economic dynamics. That is why our approach is based on group facilitation and consensus building for creative and inclusive integrated alternatives that promote both individual and collective action.

One thing that CEJ does is print a bimonthly newsletter called Circle (Circulo), named after their program The Circle of Responsible Production and Consumption. This program recognizes that it takes both producers and consumers to make a change - without both, change cannot happen. They gave us three copies of this newsletter, one about an international initiative to increase access to information on the environment to the public, one entirely devoted to the importance to corn in the Mexican culture and to subsistence farmers here as well as current threats to Mexican corn such as genetically engineered corn, and a third on a network of flea markets and organic markets that provide options for sustainable shopping in Mexico.

They told us they were one of the few groups in Mexico working on pesticides, which isn't on the radar of many Mexican environmental groups. Their concerns with pesticides led them to supporting organics. They opened the EcoStore 14 years ago as a means of fundraising to support farmers going organic, and they were only the 3rd eco-store in all of Mexico. Still, they say the farmers are struggling with organics. They see farmers who can go organic on a small scale, but they see much fewer who can grow to a commercial scale. One member of CEJ visited New York and was amazed at the number of people shopping at an enormous Whole Foods. And while she'd love to see equal enthusiasm for organic foods in Mexico, she's also concerned that a business as large as Whole Foods and the farms that supply it can stay truly sustainable.

The Circle of Responsible Production and Consumption was founded as a group of producers and consumers. It was initially five producers and then it grew. However, most "producers" are just processors. They've also had trouble with their consumers. At first, the city people who said they would consume responsibly didn't show up to the market to buy the food. They decided to charge people $50-$60 to join the circle, and the consumers paid the fee and then STILL didn't go to the market. Then CEJ moved to a CSA model, but they STILL struggled because the consumers weren't always willing to eat what came in their baskets. Ultimately, they've reached the point where they have enough consumers in their circle that it's no longer a mess - enough consumers show up to the market to buy the food.

One issue they've had was with certification, because organic certification is very expensive and most consumers here don't understand the certification (which means paying for certification isn't worth it to producers). Instead of using a certification for producers in the Circle, they rely on trust, and they take city people to the countryside to see the farms themselves.

They have started to work on a new kind of certification, a Participatory Guarantee System. These are in effect in a few other countries, notably India and Brazil. A prerequisite for certification is being part of a farmers' market. Next, a farmer would fill out an application and send it to a committee for review. The committee reviews the application and if it's acceptable, then proceeds to the next step: a committee visiting the farm. The committee is made up of producers from the region, consumers, environmentalists, and technicians.

After the visit, the committee evaluates whether the producer meets their standards. If not, the producer is given technical help to transition to organic. In this system, producers teach one another. Also, the system recognizes gradients - not just black and white, organic or conventional. A product can be certified organic, transitional organic, natural (for wild gathered foods), and agroecological (which is beyond organic, when a farmer doesn't just omit toxic inputs but attempts to mimic nature to produce food).

One last very interesting point they noted is that most information on toxic chemicals is in English, so on the educational part of their website, they provide information on where a Mexican might fight toxins in their home in Spanish.

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