Since I’ve been in Vermont after returning from a 10-day intensive field study in Chiapas, Mexico, I’ve been struggling with how to tell the story of this experience. The title of the field course, “INT 372: Agricultural Adaptations and Climate Change in Chiapas, Mexico, implies a heady, empirical study on the topics of agriculture and climate change–and if you had read the 400-some-odd pages of scientific text that we examined as preparation for the course, you might as well begin thinking this is the case. While this theme was central to the trip (a good excuse, if you ask me, to travel to a tropical paradise for two weeks in January), what unfolded during the winter intensive was a multi-faceted, cross-cultural exchange of ideas, knowledge, and language.
While a strictly scientific expedition may warrant a scientific report, by what means does one describe a global field study that was equal parts an exploration of climate change resilience and an inquiry into culinary traditions? Equal parts watershed analysis and applied political science? Equal parts structured philosophical discussion and carefree splashing in salty ocean waves and deep blue-green jungle rivers?
The red, green and white flags that fly over the pedestrian way at the center of the city are the iconic image of San Cristobal de las Casas, an ancient Spanish city in the heart of Chiapas that we called home base. It is an up-and-coming city full of history and culture, and with a growing population, yet it is still small enough for one to easily access the countryside. At nearly 7,000 feet in elevation, the city cools off at night, but in the daytime it is showered by the dazzling tropical sun.
The first farm we visited, a half-hour outside the city, is one of a handful of organic vegetable farms in the area. On a two-hectare parcel, Don Angel grows produce for market in intensively hand-managed beds. He saves his own seed, uses compost for fertility, and integrates fruit trees such as peaches, plums, and apricots into his production. Don Angel recalls that while it used to frost once or twice a year when he started farming, now these frosts seem to have stopped. He views this as a good thing: maybe next year he can finally plant citrus and grow tomatoes on his farm.
Inside the city limits, a small, organic marketplace has emerged over the past 10 years, started by a group of concerned growers with a desire to market their produce directly [to consumers]. The small network of organic growers who run the tianguis marketplace also sit on a board that “certifies” each farmer’s practices as agroecological. The market has grown so dramatically in recent years that they now exceed their market space and have to turn new producers down. Just like in the United States, the tianguis market attracts a different demographic than the city’s conventional produce market.
Our team of seven students and two instructors visited the southern coast of Chiapas, where we examined silvopastoral ranching systems in the Coapa River Watershed. This area is less mountainous than San Cristobal and has a warmer climate, and the majority of land is opened up to pasture for dairy and beef cattle. In the last twenty years, the area has experienced two major hurricanes that have flooded the landscape and devastated the agriculture. We stood on farms near the river where the hurricane floodwater had once risen up to [the level of] our chests, and talked with producers who are building their capacity to resist this kind of disaster in the future.
We drove back up into the mountains, examined shade-grown coffee production, and then made our way down the back side of the mountains towards the Lacandon Jungle. Here, we observed traditional slash-and-burn, or milpa agriculture. The three sister crops of corn, beans, and squash have been grown in Chiapas for thousands of years, and today their cultivation remains very much the same. Locally-adapted varieties of crops are co-evolving with the climate, allowing their productivity to continue even as weather patterns change. In Mexico, maize yields have declined by an average of 3.8% since 1970.
Many of the systems we visited were under traditional cultivation, which sadly is a dying art in Chiapas. While the agriculture still looks the same as it did back in the day, nearly every producer we met mentioned that the climate has changed. Planting dates are less predictable. The dry season lasts longer. Rains are more intense and more erratic. These changes in climate are subtle, but noticeable. Still more noticeable is the change in the social climate of the region. Young people are less likely to continue practicing traditional agriculture than their parents. Hybrid seeds are becoming more common than the ancient landraces. Fewer and fewer people still make homemade tortillas. And as fewer and fewer people practice shifting cultivation, more and more forest land turns over to palm oil plantations or permanent pastures.
To gain some perspective, we took a field trip to Yaxchilan, a ruin of a Mayan civilization from 1500 years ago that sits mere feet from the Guatemalan border. Here, staring up at canopies of 10-foot-in-diameter Ceiba trees (Trees of Life), where monkeys dangled from branches above the colossal ancient stone temples, we pondered the eerie thought that sometimes history repeats itself. Long before chainsaws and palm oil plantations, the Mayan civilization that occupied modern-day Chiapas clear-cut 80% of the original forest and planted corn to feed their growing civilization. Unable to continue this form of production, and without means to transport outside food, their civilization eventually collapsed.
One last anecdote: On the last day of the trip, while driving the remaining five hours from the Lacandon Jungle back to San Cristobal de las Casas, we encountered a roadblock and found traffic stopped along the highway. A bright red tractor-trailer truck was dangling over a 30-foot precipice in the center of where the road used to be, tipped over on its side, its contents spewed across the hillside. We were stuck on one side of the washed-out road with a plane to catch in less than 24 hours. While we made the flight, the image has left an impact. Uphill deforestation, coupled with a heavy rain, deteriorating infrastructure: a perfect storm. And what better culprit to fall victim to this trap than a tractor-trailer-load of off-brand Coca-Cola, en route from the factory to the city. The world is badly in need of restoration, and as we face the uncertainties of climate change, we must continue to build up our adaptive capacity. If we do not learn from our mistakes, we are bound to repeat them.
Written by Ezra Fradkin.