Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chiapas Diaries: Day 5, Part 2 - The Students' Orchard

This is the tenth diary in a series about my recent trip to Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, to meet with and learn about the Zapatistas, an indigenous insurgent movement made up of several ethnic groups, and their food and agriculture. On our fifth day, we were supposed to leave as early as possible for the long drive to Palenque. When we were invited to a ceremony put on by the students of a secondary school, we scrapped our plans and decided to stay and watch. This diary is about the students' orchard.

(I went with the group Schools for Chiapas, an organization that works with and provides aid to the Zapatistas. Check out their website if you are interested in either traveling with them to Chiapas yourself, or simply buying some artisanal goods or coffee produced by Zapatistas. Aside from the obvious politics involved in supporting Zapatistas, you are supporting human beings who live in extreme poverty and work their asses off to educate themselves and their children and provide for basic needs like water and health care.)

At a very minimum, a peasant diet in Mexico is tortillas and beans every day, for every meal, with little else. Depending on where one lives, how much land one has, and how much money one has, this might be augmented with store-bought items (bread, soda, pasta) and whatever other fruit, veggies, eggs, and meat can be grown or produced. A fruit tree or two can provide a fantastic addition to the diet because - assuming it bears fruit and does so reliably every year - it produces not just a tasty and abundant food, but might also provide some nutrients that are not present in tortillas and beans.

That said, planting a fruit tree isn't as simple as planting a seed you find in a particularly delicious apple or orange. The fruit from the tree that grows from the seed might be nothing like the fruit that seed came from. In fact, the fruit tree that grows might not even produce very much fruit. And, since it often takes a tree several years to begin bearing fruit, by the time you find out your tree isn't what you'd hoped, you've already waited several years. A more reliable way to plant fruit trees requires grafting. And, in the particular community we were visiting - as of several years ago - nobody knew how to graft fruit trees.

That's where the organization Schools for Chiapas came in. They purchased 65 grafted trees that grew several types of fruit: apple, orange, mandarin, lemon, loquat, avocado, fig, peach, pear, white sapote, and tangerine. Each tree cost between 35 and 85 pesos, or roughly $3.50 to $8.50 in U.S. dollars.

Then, working together with the children of the secondary school in Nuevo San Gregorio, they planted an orchard. With the exception of the few avocado trees, which were badly grafted, all of the trees survived. And, perhaps most importantly, the secondary school added grafting to its curriculum, so now the community has an orchard to provide fruit and the ability to grow as many fruit trees as they need.

They did this a while back, and now our group was coming back to check up on the trees. They looked good, mostly, although we found one tree completely covered in ants, and a few others with yellowing, curled leaves where it looked like some insect had laid eggs. We didn't have time to work on the trees on our trip, but Peter and Susan noted the issues and planned to return in the future for a work day.

What's cool about this project is that it will have such an enormous impact on the lives of everyone in this community, but it did not cost that much to do. All in all, it was under $1000. Susan, who works with Schools for Chiapas, said to me, "You know, the World Bank thinks we gotta spend a zillion dollars to do anything and it's just not true."

Peter also mentioned to me that they were looking into low-tech ways to dry or preserve fruit. Of course, as you'll see in the pictures, nobody is having the problem of "too much fruit" just yet. The trees are still pretty tiny. Here are a few pictures I took:

A fig tree, now growing its first figs

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