Chiapas is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. With its green mountains, tropical plants, and intense sun that soaks everything in golden light during the day and paints the sky in the evening, I continue to be surprised by the magnitude of the natural beauty that peeks from the other side of each hilltop.
My internship with Asociación Mexicana de Transformación Rural y Urbana (AMEXTRA), a grassroots development organization founded by Mexican evangelical leaders 35 years ago, brought me to this beautiful state. Based in Mexico City, AMEXTRA has development projects throughout southern Mexico.
For the past few months, I have been working with AMEXTRA’s Centro Agroecológico Pej’pem (“pake-pem”), a learning center dedicated to sustainable agriculture projects. Located just outside the urban center of Palenque, this site is dedicated to teaching and training students as well as nurturing and preserving the landscapes and agricultural systems in the region. The center hosts students like me who want to learn and do research, provides educational experiences to local school groups and trains local farmers in agroecological practices including agroforestry, composting, beekeeping and the use of non-harmful fertilizers and insect repellents.
Last week as part of a reforestation campaign, I drove with my supervisor and two coworkers a few kilometers down the road from the center. We parked on the side of a mountain. As we reached a hilltop carrying our bags of tree saplings, we saw an expanse of farmland with maize and fruit trees growing alongside a clear and cool mountain spring. I had been working so close to this beautiful space for five months and had driven by so many times with no idea that it existed!
I shouldn’t have been surprised to encounter such beautiful landscapes in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s richest states in natural resources, fresh drinking water and arable land. Despite this, Chiapas has long been considered the poorest state in Mexico. It is home to 1.1 million indigenous people (28% of the state’s population), the majority of whom report no income or live on the equivalent of less than $5 USD/day according to the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geographical Information. Most of the indigenous people in the state live in rural farming communities. The poverty in these areas is largely the result of systemic changes implemented during Spanish colonization in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
For the first few months of my internship I mostly worked on maintenance of the projects at Pej’pem alongside the center’s employees. Through various conversations with them I learned that during the pre-Hispanic period, most people living in Chiapas practiced some form of agroforestry, which utilizes the natural processes of the land to produce all the food needed to feed the community. Pre-Hispanic indigenous Mexican cultures did not have a concept of one God but rather believed that all living things, plant and animal, have an element of divine life. Believing that all our actions impact earth’s systems and that all living things are sacred, they understood agriculture as working alongside the earth rather than dominating it. In his book “Christianity Rediscovered,” Vincent Donovan writes that God is already present within all cultures that do not know the gospel and thus in those places there is an echo of God’s restorative and transformative work. When I learned for the first time about pre-Hispanic agroforestry practices from an employee at the center, I heard the echoes of God’s intent for humans to care well for creation and to respond with gratitude rather than greed for the ways that God has provided for us.
About five hundred years ago, Spanish colonists brought the gospel to Mexico. But while their words proclaimed life in Christ, their actions brought death to the land and the people living there. When the colonists arrived, they cut down forests and used land for monoculture systems that drained it of many of its productive abilities. By God’s grace, many indigenous people in Mexico heard and believed the gospel; sadly, they were also stripped of their rights to the land that God had given them to care for and worship on.
Though much of Chiapas’ natural beauty remains, the land continues to be harmed by exploitative industries. Unmanaged cycling of nutrients and use of agrochemicals results in eutrophication (the excessive richness of nutrients) and algal blooms in nearby coastal waters or rivers, causing further ecological and economic damage to farming communities. Right now, many farmers are stuck in systems in which large corporations sell them jugs of agrochemicals which they apply by hand, store in their homes, and have to handwash out of their clothes. Several studies in recent years have found high levels of glyphosate in the bodies of farmers and their families that live in communities that use agrochemicals. High levels of exposure to glyphosate have been found to cause cancer as well as a variety of other health problems, but no laws have been created to limit or control the use and sale of these agrochemicals.
Despite the damage caused by colonial actions, many indigenous people in Mexico continue to embrace their history and practice their traditional culture. In recent decades, grassroots efforts to restore dignity to these cultures have sprung up in various ways throughout the country. In response to the problem of marred landscapes, the AMEXTRA team in Palenque partners with local indigenous communities to teach and promote healthier agroecological practices in farming systems and village patio gardens to improve the health and economic security of residents. These projects don’t just meet physical needs, but also seek to restore the long-damaged belief that their land and bodies are good and worthy of dignity in the people living in these communities. Pre-Hispanic agroforestry practices cannot truly be reimplemented in communities without complete social and economic restructuring, but this work is a start.
For the last several months, I’ve been blessed to participate in projects such as reforestation campaigns with local farmers, work alongside women in community gardens and engage with local groups who come to the center to learn about agroforestry and the development work happening in local communities. Being part of the work to restore the indigenous history of respect and care for creation has made me thankful for God’s grace, which persists despite our failures to love one another and worship our Creator.
I cannot tie off this story with a bow of overly hopeful sentiment. I am hopeful for the coming of a new creation in which all will be made well, but for now I am learning, alongside the people I’ve met here, to grieve what is lost, seek the healing power of God and wait expectantly for the fullness of life yet to come.