I first became interested in El Pedregal when my wife, Sarah, and I were planning our first visit to Oaxaca, Mexico in February, 2012. We were researching places to spend a sabbatical once the kids were all out of the house in a few years. I was ready to go anywhere that had a permaculture project where I could volunteer. We had used previous vacations to visit Cuzco, Peru (too smoggy and too far from the US), San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and Costa Rica (in both cases, too many gringos). When we arrived in Oaxaca, Sarah knew right away that this was it.
Before our first visit to Oaxaca in February 2012, I did my usual search on the web for permaculture sites to visit and El Pedregal was one of the few that showed up. Having lived in wet, fertile Minnesota most of my life, I was interested in getting involved in a permaculture project in a dry climate. We called ahead and requested an English-language tour. But I was not prepared for what I found when we arrived at the site; a strip of green against the surrounding brown hills, and a view of Oaxaca that took our breath away.
Angel, our tour guide, walked us up and down the paths that wind throughout El Pedregal. He pointed out the variety of cactus planted to begin to hold the soil. He pointed out the dams, swales (ditches on contour), and gabians (permeable dam made of stone and chain link fencing) that had been installed to slow down the water during the rainy season, which runs from May until September. The area gets an ample 750mm (30inc) of rain per year, but almost all of that runs off, carrying with it what little soil it finds. Angel explained that slowing the water had allowed some of it to soak into the mountain, making it into a giant sponge. The sponge then gives back in the form of a small creek during the dry season. The goal was to get the creek to run year-round, greatly expanding the varieties of trees and plants that could be grown. The trees and plants would in turn provide organic matter, in a virtuous cycle of redevelopment.
Angel went on to show us all of the other permaculture technologies that were implemented or planned for the future, including dry toilets, sustainable buildings made of mostly local materials, a bicycle-powered water pump, fish ponds and greenhouses. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the idea that we humans, with a few simple technologies, could make the creek run year-round. And if we could do it here, why not on all of the slopes around Oaxaca, restoring the whole valley?
When Sarah and I recently arrived in Oaxaca for our sabbatical, we again got a tour of El Pedregal, this time from the manager of the project, Oliver Hunkler. Much progress had been made. The creek ran year-round, finishing touches were being placed on the last of the planned buildings, and the objectives of the project had pretty much been achieved. Still, there was work yet to be done.
Now that there was water, many more types of trees and other perennials were possible, but the soil was still pretty poor. So we are getting hands-on experience making the most of the materials readily available to try to improve the soil – its fertility, structure and biology – so that El Pedregal can produce a bountiful yield.
The meaning behind El Pedregal
Around the turn of the new millennium, non-profit INSO (Institute for Nature and Society of Oaxaca) started talking with the authorities at the pueblo of San Andres Huayapam (near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico), to see if they could provide a site for a funded permaculture demonstration project. Under the leadership of then-Mayor Don Pedro, there was community interest in the idea. But when the leadership changed, the new leadership was not interested in environmental issues. That was when Don Pedro offered up a portion of his land that is where El Pedregal is today.
The translation of the name ‘El Pedregal’ has a twist. ‘El Maizal’ would refer to ‘the maize field’ named for what it produced. So ‘El Pedregal’ roughly translates to ‘the rock field’ which is all it was good for at the start of the project. Forty years ago the steep sloping field was cleared of all trees, and soon the soil eroded off the mountain and ran off into the valley below.
With so much rain between May and September you can understand why there is precious little soil left on the slopes. But to INSO, the land looked like the perfect challenge for the project. So in 2005, work began.
The INSO project promised three things: 1) to regenerate the canyon, 2) to make it livable and productive, and 3) to create a permaculture demonstration site to inspire others.
The first goal, to regenerate the land, is almost complete some 10 years later. Where an eroding river once flowed five months of the year, a creek now flows all year long now because uphill, earthworks technologies were employed – berm and swale, gabians and small dams. This slows the water down so that it seeps into the ground, stored like a sponge, to be slowly released during the dry season via a small spring. The availability of year-round water has made possible many new kinds of plants, including fruit trees which hold out promise for a future yield, and corn fields that are in production now.
Toward the end of the rainy season the dams are full
Livability and Productivity
The second goal, to make El Pedregal livable and productive, is well in sight. Construction of sustainable buildings, including dry toilets, made from renewable, mostly local materials, is scheduled for completion this winter.
Agricultural productivity has been a little more difficult. What little soil is present is depleted of nutrients and organic matter. Recently, one of the ponds was dredged and the silt applied to a corn field on the property, increasing production 500%. Compost trials are under way this winter to determine which composting methods will make the greatest difference to annual (corn) and perennial (fruit tree) production. Worm compost, bocashi compost, thermal compost and aerobic compost tea will be applied and results recorded. The plan is to reduce the corn producing area (but with the same or even a higher yield) and use the freed up land for other crops.
The third goal, to create a permaculture demonstration site that will inspire others, is also at hand. Groups of various sizes tour the site frequently. Another village in the area, San Pablo Etla, has decided to follow El Pedregal as the second permaculture regeneration project in the Oaxaca Valley. ‘La Mesita’, as it is known, has already completed ‘earth works’ (reshaping of the terrain) to get ponds and swales in place to slow the water, and is constructing sustainable buildings.
As I look around the Oaxaca Valley, I see a thousand other potential El Pedregals. I imagine the impact of a thousand small creeks running year round. I dream of reversing the damage caused by thousands of years of agriculture. Then I look at El Pedregal, and smile.
Randy Baker describes himself as a born-again organic gardener who converted before it was cool. After receiving Step by Step to Organic Gardening by Shep Ogden from wife Sarah for their 4th wedding anniversary he suddenly saw that organic gardening is a game of system management. Randy has since taken his PDC, a soil biology training course and is now a partner at Organic Bob (www.organicbob.com), a lawn care, renovation and replacement service, with customers all over the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Life is good!