Human beings-as much as the technology they use or the resources
on which they rely-are the key to creating sustainable environments.
This is one critical focus of both research and action in the
Master's of Rural Studies program at El Colegio de Michoacán
in Zamora, Mexico.
For the last decade, the Center for Rural Studies has been pursuing
a line of investigation aimed at studying the relationship between
society and the environment and stimulating academic projects
which transcend classroom learning. Students are essential as
they address local environmental concerns in their research on
economic, cultural, social and political topics.
Three projects at the Center for Rural Studies which focus on
the interrelationships between society and environment address
local areas and concerns: the Purépecha Plateau, the community
of Huáncito, and the use of pesticides in local agriculture.
Professor J. Luis Seefoó Luján, a faculty member
and recent graduate of El Colegio, says the center's mission encompasses
both the land and the people.
"Both in the plateau, and in Huáncito, and in the
strawberry and tomato fields," he says, "in study and
action toward the preservation of the environment or the restoration
of the damage produced by human activity, we aspire to sustainable
production and economic development which satisfies our material
and spiritual necessities for present and future generations."
Research at the Center for Rural Studies is inherently interdisciplinary,
as it approaches socio-environmental problems from a system-wide
perspective. "There isn't incompatibility, but rather compatibility
among the disciplines," says Seefoó Luján.
For example,the center's environmental research provides a deeply
layered understanding of the interplay between anthropology, geography,
economics, and sociology that have contributed to an unusual circumstance
of drought living conditions within an ecosystem of abundant water
resources in the Purépecha Plateau.
The plateau's geography provides natural waterways, such as the
Carapan River and the Camecuaro Lake, which irrigate Zamora and
are replenished by abundant precipitation. These are complemented
by highly permeable ground, elevated topography, and abundant
forest vegetation that supports agriculture in the lower valley.
Yet the region's inhabitants live in near-drought conditions.
It is a matter of economics. Of the 400 million cubic meters
of water caught annually by the mountain and run through the Lerma-Duero
river basin, half serve the agriculture of the Zamora Valley.
Of this half, 40 percent feeds the 2,000 hectares of strawberries
that are cultivated and exported out of Zamora each year.
The strawberries in the valley use water resources very heavily--at
a rate of 40,000 cubic meters per year. Strawberry production
supports much of the local income, thus, people living on the
plateau have learned to compensate with one of the lowest water
consumption rates in the world--just 12 liters a day, or four
cubic meters per year.
The discipline of sociology provides insight into how this consumption
ratio is sustained. Michoacán researcher Patricia Avila
García writes, "This is explained by the development
of a sociocultural strategy based on a culture of drought and
by the existence of forms of social organization which establish
a communitarian control over water. These can include conservation
and maintenance of sources which supply water; as well as ecological
use and management of water."
Tackling integrated problems
Just as the topography of the Zamora region led to the study
of water use, two more projects of the Center for Rural Studies
grew directly out of local conditions. The first is the improvement
of childhood nutrition through the identification and use of regional
plant resources in the town of Huáncito. As part of the
"Cañada de los Once Pueblos" that forms a port
of entry into the Purépecha Plateau, Huáncito is
a small town with a population suffering chronic unequitable economic
and ecological interchange between the rural valley and the urban
This inequality is manifested in the socioeconomic, ecological,
and health conditions of the village. Rural men and women must
hire out as agricultural laborers on large farms or as domestic
employees in the city of Zamora. Natural resources are depleted,
particularly clay from the soil, as local forests are cut down
for construction and furniture. Children under four years of age
suffer nutritional deficiencies and intestinal parasites which
cause under-average height and weight .
To address this variety of problems, the Huáncito project--with
the assistance of Mexico's National Institute of Nutrition--has
embarked on three tasks: the rediscovery and use of nutritional
and medicinal plants of the region; the establishment of a nursery
with nutritional, ornamental, and forest plants to support gardens
in the community; and the installation of sanitation facilities
to discourage open-air defecation and to gradually modify hygiene
Encouraging sustainable pesticide use
The third major project--and Seefóo Luján's primary
area of research--is to seek a sustainable method for pesticide
use in local agriculture. Here the fields of economics, sociology,
demographics, public health, and agriculture examine effects on
the market, the birth and death rate, and the nutritional system
of individuals and communities in Zamora.
Pesticides not only decline in effectiveness as pests develop
resistance to them, but they also cause serious health problems
among workers. Approximately 50 cases of poisoning and one death
were reported each year between 1980 and 1989.
"Irrational use of pesticides deteriorates the nutritional
system, and in the long term . . . the volume of pesticides makes
the crop uneconomical. The employment of petroleum as an energy
base for agriculture is unsustainable," says Seefoó
Luján. "This we know. What we ignore is the impending
catastrophe it will cause."
In response, the Center for Rural Studies began an experiment
in the integrated, sustainable control of pests. With the support
of the Entomology Center of the University of Postgraduates in
Montecillo, Mexico, and the Pesticide Action Network of North
America (PANNA), the Center set up two demonstration plots. One
uses of a type of mite and the other of a type of mushroom, both
of which serve pest control functions and thus allow for less
investment in synthetic pesticides.
The study also includes monitoring of runoff pollution in the
soils and water, and of toxic chemical substances found in the
blood of local agricultural workers.
The research has had two concrete effects on the community so
far. A few large companies have experimented with the natural
pest control, and more immediately, courses in the prevention,
reporting, and treatment of pesticide poisoning have been implemented
for local workers. Physicians and paramedics collaborated with
government health workers on this latter effort.
The project will conclude with a report on the impact of pesticides
on both human and environmental health conditions, and the interaction
between these two. Additional research and demonstration projects
will explore alternative pest control options and will support
the introduction of changes in local agricultural practices.
El Colegio was founded in 1979 as a graduate research and post-secondary
training institute for the social sciences and humanities. It
was created purposely as a small institution-approximately 50
students are enrolled in each two year program. In addition to
the Center for Rural Studies, it also includes centers of Historical
Studies, Anthropoligical Studies and Traditional Studies.
The institution signed the Talloires Declaration in 1993. Beyond
its socially and environmentally responsive research, the college
has also made advances in ecologically sound institutional changes
to support environmental integrity including water and energy
efficiency measures and purchasing systems.
In addition, it is expanding beyond its own boundaries to participate
in the greening initiatives of the local municipalities of Zamora
and Jacona. This includes developing strategies to engage local
community groups and city authorities in the projects. The college
is also one of four Latin American institutions involved in the
Talloires Environmental Citizenship Network (TECNET) project to
develop interdisciplinary case studies for use internationally.
Through its highly integrated research and instruction and its
responsiveness to problems affecting its community, El Colegio
de Michoacán seeks to fulfill the Talloires agenda. Seefóo
Luján says the key to success in such interdisciplinary
work is to have an open mind: "It is important not to be
prejudiced toward one way of thinking. We must be open to integrating
science and technology into social and natural sciences to find
solutions to complex environmental and social problems."
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