TIERRA, LIBERTAD . . . AND COOPS! in Hidalgo, Mexico

Elizabeth Bowman
Tuesday, June 1, 2004

These days it takes more than “Tierra y Libertad” — Land and Freedom, the rallying cry of the Mexican revolution – for third world campesinos to get by with subsistence agriculture and raising a few animals. It takes planning, government funding and cooperatives. GEO editors Bob Stone and Betsy Bowman visited a small network of coops in the state of Hidalgo in central Mexico in Nov. 2003 and again in June, 2004.

Thanks to a change in the Mexican law of cooperatives in 2001, local organizations can get government monies directly from the Dept. of Agriculture. Luis Martinez and Patricio Bravo, the two local organizers, have already established and formally registered four cooperatives in the area around Luis’ home town of Alfajayucan and fifteen coops around Patricio’s home town of Chilcuautla. Luis says there are applications pending for eight more coops in his area and four more in Patricio’s area. They have also organized a second degree coop, the Empresa Integradora para el Desarrollo Rural or Integrated Company for Rural Development; they call it simply the “Integradora.” This coop provides technical assistance such as legal and accounting help as well as marketing assistance.

Once the coops are legally registered, they can then apply for government funds for specific cooperative projects. The government funds 70% of the project and the “cooperativistas” fund the other 30%. All but three of these coops are for agricultural or livestock coops; the remaining three are for buying tractors. Farm labor is still all done by hand or with the help of a few animals. Most of the coops we visited were in the early stages of their development. Two projects are to build a second hot house and grow tomatoes. To market tomatoes, they need a certain volume of tomatoes, more than can be grown in just one hot house. One of these hot houses got irrigation water by a set of three photo voltaic panels which pumped water uphill to a big holding tank. The World Bank provided funds for the solar powered water pumps. We sat on the front porch eating delicious tomatoes between the machine which turns kernels of corn into flour and the machine which turns the flour into dough for tortillas. From the porch we had a breath taking view of the valley and mountains beyond and the homes of the other members of the extended family who live there. Another project to grow chile peppers was just a cleared field with tall metal trustles in the ground ready for the plastic covering to make the hot house. These campesinos have gotten the approval for 70% government funding for their project, but they don’t have the 30% cash they need. If they could just get low interest loans for rather modest amounts of money – from $2,000 to $15,000 – they would quickly move from the 19th century to the 21st century.

The state of Hidalgo is the home of the Otomi Indians, the descendants of those who built Teotihuacan in the second half of the first millenium. Teotihuacan, outside of Mexico City, is one of Mexico’s largest and most famous pre-Columbian sites. The Otomi, like fully one half of the planet’s populaton, have survived until today with subsistence agriculture and a few animals. They live outside the money economy. But increasingly the money economy is coming to them. For example, they need cash for their children’s education. Even though education is “free” in Mexico, the parents often have to buy uniforms, books, paper and pencils; they also must transport their children some distance to get to school. And also there simply aren’t enough schools; often high school education is far enough away that students have to be boarding students. This is usually too expensive for their parents. So the purpose of the coops is to produce a crop that can be marketed commercially to earn cash to complement the subsistence lifestyle of these indigeneous people.

The crops they grow are high profit ones such as Zeta mushrooms, tomatoes, chile peppers, peaches and olives. They are raising goats to make goat cheese. The young people hope to start a rabbit coop. So far they have gotten a building for it, but not yet the funding they need. A major concern of the communities is to provide a livelihood for the young people so they won’t be tempted to go to the United States to work. Higher up in the mountains is a women’s coop which makes a nutritious spread from the Maguey cactus called “miel de Maguey,” or Maguey honey. The Otomi people have one hundred different varieties of cactus.

The coop growing Zeta mushrooms in Nov. when we visited them had just lost an entire crop due to a very unusual freeze. We visited the sterilized room where the keep the sterilized straw and mulch hives into which the mushroom fungus germinates for 30 to 45 days. We visited the plastic tent-like building they had built and the rows of shelves where the mushroom hives used to sit and grow mushrooms. In addition to getting more fungus to start a new crop of Zeta mushrooms germinating in their straw and mulch hives, they also need a dark room for the first few weeks of growth, for the gestation period. Dona Paula, the President of the coops and the most out-going of the group, explained to us how they worked in groups of 2 or 3 doing different jobs. They discussed ideas and problems together to find solutions. They much prefer working as a group than working alone. She also explained that though she can’t read or write, she knows how to work in a group and make a success of their endeavor.

We were very touched by this group. As I wondered to myself, “Well really, how much money would they need to get more mushroom fungus, get a heating and cooling system and get production going?” The answer is they need a low interest loan for about $1,800. They have applied to the Mexican government for about $7,000. If they can raise $1,800, they can get the government monies and be back in businesss. The teenagers need a low interest loan of only $2,000 to get their coop going. Loans for modest amounts of money can make all the difference to them.

To those of us who are used to a first world standard of living, these peasant farmers appear very “poor.” Most don’t have electricity or running water. But they are not hungry and they work for themselves. They are not subject to a factory or plantation boss. And the smiles on their faces and the spark in their eyes told us that they were hopeful for the future. They were working together to meet their needs by themselves. They just need a little help from their friends, the world’s cooperators.