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From Ronnie Commins

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Editor’s note: One of my most inspiring assignments so far this year brought together two important movements for the healing of the Earth: the first Ecosystem Restoration Campin the Americas, and Vía Orgánica, the host organization. I went on to write about them both for Mongabay Latin America and the brand-new issue of Permaculture Magazine. This article is an outtake of Regenerating Agriculture, Regenerating Communities, available to Permaculture Magazine subscribers here.

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico — Like so many other children of Mexican farm families, Azucena Cabrera’s father moved to the city to earn a living, becoming an electrician and a plumber to support his family, as farming had become a money-losing enterprise.

Like millions of subsistence farmers throughout Mexico and Central America, the Cabreras could no longer eke out a living from the degraded soils and harsh arid climate of the region. Added to the general decline of productivity of the country’s degraded soils, Mexico’s rural agricultural economies have been decimated since the North American Free Trade Agreement by tons of cheap subsidized corn imported from the United States, making traditional agriculture more of a ceremonial ritual than a means of subsistence.

But Azucena’s father had a strong commitment to the land of his fathers. “I was born here, these lands fed me,” he told his children. “I have to take back the land.”

So on the weekends the family headed out to the countryside, and though Azucena was a city girl, she grew up playing in the milpa, eating wild tomatitos (a tiny native tomato) and huanzontle (a Mexican wild edible related to lambs quarters), looking for flowers and bees. As a young girl, she decided to study agronomy, thinking that it would put her back in touch with that nature. However, when she saw the options for employment, she began to think she’d made a mistake.

“The agricultural models made me think, ‘What will I do when it’s over? Work in an agribusiness, selling fertilizer products in a poison office? ‘

Fortunately for Azucena, she discovered Vía Orgánica, a regenerative organic farm established in 2009 in San Miguel de Allende as a model for the region’s campesinos and a project of the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association. She says it was like a dream come true. She took a class, signed up as a volunteer, and has since worked her way up to become its coordinator, and a teacher and inspiration to thousands of visitors and students each year.

Azucena explains the sophisticated composting system at the Via Organica Ranch as Via Orgánica cofounder Ronnie Cummins translates for Ecosystem Restoration Camp volunteers from Germany, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and the United States. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

Azucena Cabrera discusses how the ancient technology of ollas, or ceramic pots, have been used for irrigation in arid zones since prehistoric times. (Tracy L. Barnett)

“I decided, I don’t want to be an agronomist. I am a campesina (a peasant),” she says with pride. “Because a campesino has that knowledge, that wisdom, this instinct of a human being who knows how to do things. “

She feels a special satisfaction when she tells her students: “We need to get close to Grandpa and ask him what he did, what he ate, how did he know? Because there is a lot of new knowledge available, and the instinct falls asleep, and now modern knowledge dazzles us. “