Volume 13, Number 2 April 25, 2010
Water and Will: Limits to Growth
By Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min Muhammad
During the Saviours’ Day weekend of 2010 Mother Tynetta Muhammad invited me to come on the Mxodus tour to some small villages on the west coast of Mexico. It seems that there is a small enclave of Mexicans of African descent who could be helped by some of my agricultural expertise. I said that I would love to come, however I must first get a clear picture of what the farmers there were already doing and what were the environmental and agronomic constraints for that area. Farming techniques and equipment that may work well in one environment may not work in another environment. I had to take a lesson from my own book “The Science and Business of Farming vs. The Art and Hobby of Gardening”. In this book I emphasize how you must look at the farm as a “system” and must fully grasp the environment that the farm system must operate under. Successful farming is a matter of balancing forces of nature and human society to obtain a sustainable system. Just because a plant will grow or an animal can live does not mean that an economically viable system can be produced in which the majority of the population is satisfied and the land, water and air is not destroyed.
We arrived in the Huehuetan in the Costa Chica area of Mexico on Friday, April 16th, and I immediately noticed how dry and hilly the land was. The vegetation was dry and a dull green. The animals were thin and emaciated. This was in April where things were getting very green back home in Georgia, but here I wondered about the rain.
The next day I asked local farmers through an interpreter what were their major problems. Immediately they said they needed water and their soils lacked fertility. I noticed that there were a number of capped off wells at homes in the little village. The farmers said that the wells dried up about 15 years ago. The water table has dropped but there is water from 5 to 30 meters underground. It would cost about $6,000 to dig a well, but they had little financial resources.
I also asked them about the rain. They said that they were in the dry season which goes from October to May. However, even during the rainy season 60 to 75% of the total rainfall comes in just two months, July and August. When these rains come they fall in torrents which washes away the remaining topsoil on the hilly slopes.
We compared notes on how to grow different crops like corn, beans and watermelons at our farm in Georgia compared to their farms in and around Huehuetan. Indeed where we might use a bottom plow to turn under weeds in preparation for planting, harrow and smooth the soil, then plant with our tractor driven planters, they just waited for the first rains and pushed the seeds in the wet ground with their finger. At first one my say, well you see they need to come up to the modern times and learn how to grow scientifically. Fortunately, there was a scientist who gave a presentation at this annual “Black People’s Conference” in which we participated. Mr. Fermin Marinez Hernandez from the Universidad Automa Chapingo specializing in appropriate technology emphasized that because of the hot climate and thin soils American styled farming depending on heavy tractors and the turning up of the soil would destroy the fragile soils in this area. A farmer would want to disturb the thin topsoil as little as possible, because when he exposes lower levels of the soil to the sun, the excessive heat will burn up the organic matter and nutrients in the soil. Therefore the local farmers’ method of sticking a seed in the ground after a rain, waiting for the plant to emerge, then pushing more dirt to the plant as it grows is the “scientific method” to use under their climatic and agronomic conditions.
I thank Allah for sending Mr. Hernandez to us so that I could learn from a scientific point of view what was happening and what might be needed in this poor area. Again Mr. Hernandez emphasized the need for the farmers to augment their water supply by either digging wells, building cisterns or restructuring the roof system on their houses to catch water and divert it to home cisterns. A cistern is a receptacle to catch and store rainwater. They can be built above ground or below grown. It can be as small as a 10,000 liter (2,642 gal.) plastic container for home use. The islands of Bermuda and the US Virgin Islands can be looked at as examples of the extensive use of using roofs as rainwater harvesting devices and cisterns for storage.
For irrigation purposes farmers can get together and build much larger rainwater storage systems that would capture the excessive rains in July and August to have it available for plants and animals throughout the dry season. However, there is another important element that Mr. Hernandez pointed out that must be factored into any problem solving equation and that is the human element. People must first see the need, find possible solutions and then be ready to change and make the necessary investments to install the systems needed.
As I stated earlier, the wells in the Huehuetan area dried up about 15 years ago. The contrasts between the rainy and dry seasons have gotten wider. The people in the area may have hoped and prayed for the climate to go back to a more favorable balance, however sooner or later they must decide to either wait or make a move. Added to their extreme poverty is the unstable political environment where they do not trust the banking system or the government. If they were to organize a cooperative, where would they store the money; who could they trust; how could they protect themselves? These are all very real non-agronomic issues that must be dealt with before a viable solution can be actualized.
I mentioned to the participants at the conference how in their past history of Mexico they had examples of how the people got together on a collective basis to solve major problems of survival. We were blessed to have at the conference Mr. Alberto Ruz who was the son of a famous archaeologist in Mexico who unearthed many pyramids and ancient pyramid complexes in the Yucatan. I asked him if there was a relationship between water and the pyramids, because I have written in my books starting in 1988 that the pyramids in Ancient Egypt were part of a water irrigation and purification system. He said that next to each pyramid was a “cenote”. A cenote is sinkhole with exposed rocky edges containing grownwater. Mr. Ruz said that some of the underground streams attached to these cenotes can be followed beneath the rock until they reached the Gulf of Mexico. The water is fresh at the top but becomes saltier as you go deeper and get closer to the sea.
So now the mystery of why the Mayan civilization once flourished then declined can be explained by observing what has happened at Huehuetan. The Mayan people centered their agricultural and religious centers around “fresh water”, cenotes. Evidently, over time the water was over utilized which either caused it to disappear altogether, as in Huehuetan or become rendered useless due to salt water intrusion.
One of the purposes of the “Black Peoples Conference” was to instill a sense of identity and pride among the people of African descent in this area of Mexico so that they can reach within themselves, organize themselves and solve problems for themselves. The farmers in the area seem to have a sense of what they need to do and have started to form some type of organization to solve their problems. Again I thank Mother Tynetta Muhammad for inviting me on this journey. I have learned more from the people there than I have taught them. We hope to continue to work with them, inspire them and then use them as an example of what is missing in the Black communities of America, the “will” to survive.