Tag Archives: sustainability

Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast Offers Biodiversity for NC State University Students

After five days around Oaxaca city and into the rural Tlacolula Valley, our group of 13 people boarded the Little Airplane That Could — the 13-passenger AeroTucan, for a 35-minute flight to Puerto Escondido.

Over the next five days we would immerse ourselves in the the bio- and cultural diversity of Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast.

Beach food: shrimp and snapper tacos

There we would meet meet a mango grower and an organic peanut butter cooperative, participate in an baby sea turtle release of endangered Ridley hatchlings, swim in the bioluminescent Laguna Manialtepec, explore the delicate ecosystem that supports mangrove trees (worldwide mangroves contribute to 30% of the earth’s oxygen), climb seacoast rocks in search of rare murex snails that give up purple shell dye, understand propagation and cultivation of native pre-Hispanic brown, green and cream-colored cotton, delve into genetics and plant hybridization of corn, coconut, and beans at a federal research institute.

Protecting endangered Ridley sea turtles
Rock climbing in search of rare murex sea snail

A highlight of this part of the study abroad experience was the day we spent in Tututepec, the ancient Mixtec capitol, in the mountains overlooking the ocean. From this vantage point, 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, the most famous and powerful Mixtec warrior, ruled a vast territory before the Spanish conquest.

Tututepec murals depict history, ethnic diversity of Oaxaca coast
Luis Adan incorporates murex purple shell dye into traditional cloth
Fresh seafood makes up local diet; the daily catch

After visiting the archeological museum and murals at the cultural center, we went to the home of 27-year-old weaver Luis Adan, who is rescuing the traditions of his people. Luis Adan is researching and reproducing ancient textile patterns using traditional back-strap loom weaving techniques, and native cotton that he grows, cards and spins by hand.

Genetic seed breeding creates a healthier, more productive coconut tree

Luis Adan traveled two hours by bus to Puerto Escondido to take us along the rocky coastline searching the crevices for the allusive caracol purpura. Sustainability, we learn, comes in many forms. Luis Adan milks the snail to extract the purple color, applying the liquid directly to skeins of hand-spun cotton or silk. The snail is then return to the rocks, alive, to regenerate. The purple color is woven as as accent color into local cloth, rare and costly.

Oaxaca native cream, green and coyuchi cotton before it is carded and spun
We ate our fill, just picked, ripe and delicious

At the Mango Orchard: most of the mangoes grown along the hot, humid coast of Oaxaca are organic. Farmers use no insecticides and apply a bio-fertilizer mix of molasses and rice flour. Water from wells is pumped using a microaspersian watering system. Along the coast, farmers plant mango, papaya, peanuts and sesame. Whatever they grow depends on market demand.

Mango farmer Gil, with a bundle of ripe ones; he ships to Puebla and Oaxaca city

Growing papaya takes more of an investment because it requires pesticides. Small scale farmers can’t afford organic certification because it takes four years to get a field certified as organic. Farmer Gil told us he pays field workers 200-300 pesos a day when the Mexican minimum way is 100 pesos a day; he has a hard time finding labor.

Green beans add nitrogen to the soil, a natural fertilizer at the experimental institute

We are planning our 2020 and 2021 programming and want to offer similar study abroad opportunities to universities in the USA. Please contact us if you are interested. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Cultural Continuity and Sustainability in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Valley

I thought it was important for the North Carolina State University Study Abroad students to spend an overnight in an indigenous Zapotec village while they were here in Oaxaca. So, I recommended to Professor Ricardo Hernandez that we include a stay in Teotitlan del Valle as as part of our itinerary.

Teotitlan del Valle church sits atop Zapotec temple, archeological site

The students were here in Oaxaca — the valley and the coast — to study sustainability. Through the experience they learned that the definition is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It has to do with the land and her people, traditions and beliefs, values and practices. It is economic and social and political. It is still small scale agriculture here where farmers use age-old practices rather than technology.

It is instructive to study cultures where people have been successful for generations by transmitting knowledge as a way of life.

The market experience in Teotitlan del Valle

Afterall, this is the region where corn (maize) was hybridized over 8,000 years ago up the road at Yagul. We talked about Monsanto and GMO, how to overcome hunger and develop crops abundant enough to feed people without sacrificing nutrition. We compared the industrialized agriculture of the USA and the disappearance of family farms, and noticed how things work — and don’t — in Mexico.

Olivia, Alysia and Emory enjoy artisanal hot chocolate

I arranged for them to sleep at two local bed and breakfast inns — Casa Elena and Las Granadas B&B — operated by three generations of women. They ate home-cooked and delicious meals prepared from locally sourced, organic meat and vegetables.

After lunch at El Sabor Zapoteco, Reyna Mendoza treats us to nieves de tuna

Teotitlan del Valle is one of the few villages that still operates a daily market. It is a sight to behold entrepreneurial farmers and vendors who sell native corn, squash, beans, squash blossoms, poultry and meat, and more, plus all the household necessities for a home to operate here.

After indigo dye demonstration, the group gathers for a photo, Galeria Fe y Lola

After the market, we toured the church and noted the carved stones inlaid into its walls. When the Spanish arrived, they razed the Zapotec temple and used the stones to build the church walls. The stucco has been peeled away to reveal this part of the village history. We walked around the back side of the church to see the recently restored archeological site that was the temple foundation.

Grace tries her hand at weaving with Omar, while Alysia is next in line

This is a rug weaving village. There are now about 10,000 people who live here and more than 2,000 looms. Only about a dozen families use natural dyes to color the wool they use. We visited one of them — the home workshop of Galeria Fe y Lola –to see the process and learn about this part of the culture.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the Chavez Santiago family makes red dye from cochineal
Professor Hernandez talks with master weaver Federico “Fe” Chavez Sosa

Student takeaways:

  • It was wonderful to be in the village market and explore it on our own.
  • Meeting 26-year old Omar Chavez Santiago from Galeria Fe y Lola was a testimony to artisan life and pride of workmanship — he is dedicated to continuing his culture. This is refreshing to see.
  • The church offered me a glimpse into the blend of Zapotec and Catholic traditions.
  • There is a reverence for community here that we don’t see at home.
  • Families are close-knit, welcoming to outsiders.
  • Everyone was consistently kind.
  • It was important to see the different ways people earn an income: baking bread, sewing, selling food, services and repair work, doctors and teachers, musicians and weavers — it looks like a self-sustaining community.
  • Walking the back streets of the town gave me a perspective for how people live in rural Mexico.
Watch and listen to Omar Chavez Santiago talk about natural dyes
Guillermo decides to take this one home to Wilson, NC

At Gracias a Dios mezcal palenque in Santiago Matatlan at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley, Emmy Hernandez, the daughter of mezcalero Oscar Hernandez, showed us the artesanal process of making this distilled beverage. Agave is an important native plant and agricultural product in the region. It contributes to Oaxaca’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. This is also a family business and Emmy is the next generation to sustain it.

Mezcal, not at all like NC moonshine, yet still made by the same process

How many different types of agaves are there? They say over 200 types of agaves exist and 30 are suitable for making mezcal. Espadin is cultivated and easily to reproduce, and therefore, the most sustainable. The wild, or silvestre agaves, have a long growth cycle and are rare. I love cuishe (also spelled cuixe) and tepextate and tobala. For everyone harvested, some growers like Gracias a Dios are planting three to replace them. The wild ones are earthy and take on the flavors of the soil they grow in.

We are accepting reservations for 2020 and 2021 university study abroad programs. It takes about a year to plan this program. Please contact us for a proposal. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Agave in the fermentation vats — oak barrels, just like wine-making
Emmy Hernandez, the next generation to sustain artisanal mezcal

North Carolina State University Study Abroad Comes to Oaxaca, Mexico

For the past 10 days, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC (and me!) was host to 11 students and Professor Ricardo Hernandez. They came to study sustainability in developing countries. Dr. Hernandez is a leading international researcher in agricultural greenhouse design in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at NC State University.

With Professor Hernandez at Monte Alban

This is the second time I have worked with him to host a group of visiting students. We developed the program together and I sourced the contacts to meet his needs and made all the arrangements.

A hot chocolate break in the Teotitlan del Valle market, made from scratch
Restored wall, Zapotec temple, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

We were based in Oaxaca City for the first five days of the trip and then flew to the coast of Oaxaca, staying in Puerto Escondido to investigate commercial and small scale farming techniques, hybridization, plant cultivation, natural dyeing and weaving. Temperatures on Oaxaca’s coast this time of year are in the stratosphere. The heat index on some days reached 100 degrees Fahrenheit!

Grace tries her hand at weaving with Omar’s help. Alysia waits her turn.
At Taller Fe y Lola, the NC State University group around the indigo dye pot

Students couldn’t help but learn about the culture of Zapotec and Mixtec people along the way as they studied the milpa planting system, visited mango and peanut farms, and explored the Hierve El Agua canal systems built by Zapotecs centuries before the Spanish arrived.

The NC State Wolfpack Jump, Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden #rocaxaca
Fresh red snapper and shrimp tacos, Puerto Escondido

They ate mole, chapulines, and handmade tortillas. They visited a mezcal palenque and learned about agave cultivars. They dug deep into Oaxaca history with a climb up to Monte Alban, a walk into the depths of Benito Juarez market, and a tour of the Ethnobotanical Gardens.

#packabroad #rocaxaca at Hierve el Agua
Calcium deposits, Hierve el Agua

For one overnight, they experienced traditional village life in Teotitlan del Valle where they met rug weavers, cooks, and market vendors. They compared the daily village market and supermarket shopping at home. They saw the newly restored Zapotec archeological site that serves as the church’s foundation.

Tasting wild and cultivated mezcal at Gracias a Dios, Santiago Matatlan

Some students told me their parents were afraid to let them go to Mexico. Nine were undergraduates and two were master’s level students. All said this was the experience of a lifetime!

Lunch with Reyna Mendoza finishes with nopal fruit sorbet called tuna

Over the next few posts, I’ll be featuring select stories and photos of the NC State University Study Abroad Program journey through Oaxaca. If you are an Instagram user, check out the group posts at #rocaxaca

Puerto Escondido baby Ridley sea turtle release is trip highlight

We can customize study abroad programs for university faculty and students on a range of topics, including agriculture, sustainable development, art, archeology, history, textiles and cuisine. Contact me to explore options. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Climbing rocks in search of endangered murex snails used for purple dye
Fishing boats and NC State group, looking at daily catch
Luis Adan weaves with murex snail dyed cotton, Tututepec Mixe, Oaxaca

Book Preview–Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Oaxaca Food, Recipes, Sustainability

When I visited photographer Judith Cooper Haden in her Santa Fe home recently, she showed me the final proofs for Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future. The book explores the Mesoamerican way of growing, cooking and eating food.

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The photography is stunning! Four years in the making, the book is a collaborative visual narrative filled with pictures that touch your heart, delicious recipes you’ll want to cook, and cultural commentary to understand more about how Oaxaca’s original people grow their food and the risks associated with environmental devastation.

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The book will be ready for printing, distribution and purchase shortly. It is a combined effort by community development organizer Phil Dahl-Bredine, Jesus Leon Santos, Goldman Environmental Prize winner and director, Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM), cultural photographer Judith Cooper Haden and chef/teacher/author Susana Trilling.

You can pre-order this book today!

haden.judith@gmail.com, 505-984-9849 USA

With 289 pages and 267 photographs and bilingual presentation, it explores food issues, presents mouth-watering recipes, and offers stunning documentary photography about how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1,000 year-old seeds and planting practices are being revived in the environmentally devastated Mixtec region of Oaxaca. Through example, the narrative can help us meet the ecological, health and food crises of today.

This is a taste of what is to come.

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Judy Haden says, “I had no idea I was initiating a 4-year long odyssey when I asked Phil Dahl-Bredine, a 14-year resident in the Mixteca Alta, if I could somehow help him and the non-profit CEDICAM.  This first discussion over hot chocolate on the Zócalo quickly became the seed of a ‘political cookbook’ that incorporates Phil’s thought-provoking essays on local food and international sustainability issues, heritage seeds and the ill effects of GMO’s, Susana Trilling’s tasty and carefully tested traditional recipes from our Mixtecan cooks/contributors, and my own images.

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“The sepia portraits and the color food shots are, I think, so helpful in really understanding the conditions and the situation in the Mixteca Alta (a short hour north of Oaxaca City). Susana and I traveled to many small towns and villages over two years to interview the members of CEDICAM (http://www.cedicam-ac.org/) and spend hours with them learning and documenting their delicious recipes, and the planting of the crops. We visited feast days, religions holidays and private homes. Our plates were always full! 

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“The book is divided into different sections based on each milpa crop. As Charles C. Mann explained in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, “A milpa is a field…in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth,and mucana….Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary.”

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The book has received heart-warming advance endorsements from many people, including Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Lila Downs, vegetarian chef and author Deborah Madison, agro-economist Miguel Altieri, photographer Phil Borges, Chef Iliana de la Vega, seedsman Steven Scott/Terroir Seeds and food author Peter Rosset. This is very gratifying to the authors after working so long and hard on this project.

Milpa: From Seed to Salsa is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is a hopeful book that shows in careful detail how extremely well the old ways of farming and living in community can not only feed rural populations but also provide them with medicine and fodder for animals.  This is a viable alternative to big agriculture and so-called improvements from elsewhere; this is a fine example.

Milpa is also a remarkable book because, like the community of families that tends the milpa fields, this book is product of cooperation among some very extraordinary people—two activists, a chef, and a photographer, who all found a way to bring to light a story of hope with great wisdom and beauty, with the cooperation of the Mixtec community who live the life this book allows us to witness. I am so grateful for this book. It is a treasure.

~Deborah Madison, Chef, Writer, Teacher, James Beard Award winner.

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Judith Cooper Haden with Mixteca women

The book is bilingual (Spanish and English), with 290 pages and 276 images. It is beautifully printed in full color. Regular retail is $40.  Pre-orders through August 31st receive a 10% discount and a signed copy….and the first 25 pre-orders will receive a free 5”x7” brown-toned image from the book.  Shipping is additional. We use USPS Media Rates. Ship date is late September 2015. For orders and additional info, please write to:  

Judith Cooper Haden, haden.judith@gmail.com

Soft Landing: Oaxaca, Mexico

The Continental flight from RDU to IAH to OAX was easy, fast, painless.  The plane left the gate in Raleigh-Durham at 2:30 p.m.(EDT) and arrived in Oaxaca at 8:30 p.m. (CDT).  I was welcomed into the arms of family cousin Uriel Santiago (you can find him on Facebook: Teotitlan Fruit Company [UriCorp]).  He managed to get my oversized bag stuffed with four months worth of clothing, shoes and workshop paraphernalia (LCD projector, tripod, camera lenses, writing notebooks, pens, external hard-drive, computer, iPad) into his tiny Chevy with room to spare.  Uri named his Facebook page after a Pablo Neruda poem.  In it, Uri says, “Neruda writes that ‘…and on the seventh day, God distributed the world, and South America was for the  United Fruit Company‘ [see link for poem]. Gabriel García Márquez also talks about that in his 100 años de soledad [100 Years of Solitude].”

Quite fitting, I thought, since my last post was about cultural sustainability and big agribusiness.  Zapotecs are quite good at poking sardonic fun at the disintegrating world around them as they continue to preserve culture through tight-knit communities organized and operated by self-governing, communitarian principles.  A great example for thriving and staying true to personal values, which is why I love it here.

This morning I was greeted by Federico and Dolores who had already been to the daily market.  The kitchen table was laden with huge chunks of fresh papaya, a delightful nopal cactus/tomato, onion, pepper salad, chapulines, rice, fresh steamed green beans and mushrooms,  queso fresco sautéed in olive oil with scallions, and tortillas.  I made a cup of my favorite morning beverage, that I call Choco-Cafe (Oaxaca chocolate mixed with coffee and a little sugar).

Now, it’s time to put the Oaxaca Photojournalism Workshop preparations aside (it begins this Friday evening), and take a walk in the campo (countryside) before we welcome Patricia this afternoon who will look at Federico’s extraordinary rugs he weaves with naturally dyed wool.