Native environmental hero: Jesus Leon Santos.

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Recipient of the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize for sustainable development

By Rick Kearns -- Today correspondent

NOCHIXTLAN, Oaxaca - In one of the most barren regions in the world, an indigenous farmer using ancient Mixteca traditions helped to conserve more than 4,000 acres of farmland, prevent massive soil erosion, increase local farm productivity, create more economic growth and, among other things, plant 2 million trees.

For these efforts and others, Jesus Leon Santos of Nochixtlan, Oaxaca, Mexico, was awarded the $150,000 Goldman Environmental Prize for sustainable development for 2008.

The prize, awarded each year in April, was started in 1990 by philanthropists Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman to annually honor grass-roots environmental heroes from Africa, Asia, Europe, islands and island nations, North America, and South and Central America. It recognizes individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk. Each winner receives an award of $150,000, the largest award in the world for grass-roots environmentalists. Santos was this year's winner for North America.

''Jesus Leon Santos leads an unprecedented land renewal and economic development program that employs ancient indigenous agricultural practices to transform this barren, highly eroded area into rich, arable land,'' according to the Goldman Award press statement. ''With his organization, the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca [CEDICAM], Leon has united the area's small farmers. Together, they have planted more than one million native-variety trees, built hundreds of miles of ditches to retain water and prevent soil eroding, and adapted traditional Mixteca indigenous practices to restore the regional ecosystem.''

In a series of presentations he has made in the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean since the award, Santos has recounted the circumstances leading to the environmental disaster of Mixteca - known as one of the most severely eroded areas on the planet, according to the United Nations - and how he and a group of Mixteca neighbors began the process that lead to this achievement.

''It was 25 years ago when we realized we were experiencing a severe ecological crisis that was causing poverty, malnutrition and migration,'' Santos recalled. ''We regret that our ancestors left our lands so deteriorated. The Mixteca region was severely damaged by the exploitation of our natural resources that came with the colonizers.''

According to natural history sources, Santos' home region looked very different before the Spaniards arrived.

The Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca - named for one of the indigenous peoples who live in that region - had originally been the home of oak forests and shrublands as well as large fields of corn, beans, squash, chiles, tomatoes, potatoes and various fruit trees. By the time Santos was born in 1966, much of the region had been damaged by huge goat farms, first introduced to the area by the Spanish colonizers, and, later, tequila processing plants, among other industries. This area, according to Santos, ''was a desert, with no water, nor plants, nor trees, nor anything.''

Further damage was done to the area by the adoption of modern farming procedures that required large amounts of chemical fertilizers. The growing of chemical-intensive varieties of corn in the 1980s depleted the soil even more and Mixteca farmers found their yields dropping as well. On top of these difficulties, the farmers suffered even more economic hardships as local maize prices fell as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement. With cheaper corn coming from the north, their local prices were pushed down and the farmers could no longer afford the new fertilizer and pesticides that the new varieties demanded. The migration out of the area increased as well, along with the amount of land falling into disuse and more erosion. The loss of arable topsoil and other nutrients led, according to the Goldman press release, to erosion of about 83 percent of all the land in Mixteca, with 1.235 million acres considered severely eroded.

Meanwhile, government officials kept pushing the newer techniques. Santos however, knew enough to look back to his Mixteca ancestors for answers to questions about how to prevent the loss of soil and water, as well as how to detoxify the area and the diet of the community. He started with trees that have been grown in the area for centuries.

In the early 1980s, Santos and a group of local Mixtec farmers banded together to form CEDICAM, a democratic organization devoted to reforesting the area and stopping the erosion. They started with the planting of local varieties of trees, mainly the native ocote pines.

''The trees prevent erosion, aid water filtration into the ground, provide carbon capture and green areas, contribute organic material to the soil and provide more sustainable, cleaner-burning wood to residents who cook on open fires, '' stated the Goldman release.

As more farmers heard about their neighbor's successes with the trees, more orders came in and within a few years CEDICAM started a nursery. Not long afterwards, several community-run nurseries bloomed. A few decades later, by 2007, local farmers were planting up to 200,000 trees a year. CEDICAM is now also teaching communities more sustainable ways of using firewood and wood-saving stoves, helping to protect the local environment as well as reducing the workload of local women who had to travel some distance to collect firewood.

The tree plantings were part of the anti-erosion strategy, but Santos realized they needed to do more. He found ancient terraced agricultural systems in his area and saw another part of the answer. Santos and his allies helped communities rebuild these ancient terraces, which impede erosion and enhance production. Santos pioneered the building of contour ditches, retention walls and terraces to catch rainfall and prevent erosion.

Along with native trees and traditional farming methods, Santos has reintroduced local seed varieties and natural compost fertilizers to his neighbors. He is also involved in promoting local foods and a traditional indigenous diet.

In a brief phone interview with Indian Country Today, Santos said that with the Goldman Prize money CEDICAM will expand its tree-growing and rainwater retention programs for the 400 families now collaborating with his organization. Santos also explained that CEDICAM had just built a community school to help disseminate the information it has been gathering and will continue with its education outreach to many different regions in Mexico. He also noted that while the Mexican government has not provided any assistance to their projects, now it is sending experts to their region to look at what they are doing. At the end of the phone conversation, Santos wanted to send the following message to ICT's many American Indian readers.

''It gives me great pleasure to talk to you,'' he said. ''The indigenous people have so much to share with this planet. We are an important part of this earth. We have been the guardians, and it is an important role with which we must continue. ... We cannot let this responsibility fall into other hands. We must not let the corporations take these resources because this is the legacy for all people, not just a few.''