In 2010, Himalayan Institute Humanitarian Projects started a new project in the foothills of the Sierra Norte in the state of Puebla, Mexico. From its conception, the project aimed to provide organic agricultural training along with health and wellness education to the people of Sierra Norte-a population deeply affected by malnutrition and obesity as a result of lack of varied diet and chemically based farming practices. Since 2010, our project has transformed into one of our first ventures to be completely taken over by local organizations and the people of the state of Puebla. This accomplishment reminds us of how important it is to develop leaders of local communities and the impact that community organizers can have on their people. These leaders carry on the mission of educating the community on just how crucial organic farming and nutritional lifestyle choices can be to our overall health and wellbeing.
One of our main collaborators and facilitators at the genesis of this project was a man named Geovanni Beristain-a local auto industry manager, entrepreneur, and humanitarian. From start to finish, Geovanni was a resource of knowledge, passion, implementation, and immense positivity; he was essential to the successful cultivation and integration of this program in the Sierra Norte. Last week, Geovanni spoke with us to provide insight on how the project has progressed, what new goals and programs are being created, and how our work has affected the people of Puebla. In his own words, Geovanni expressed how he felt truly at home during his full-time involvement with HI; how to this day people, remember with great fondness and appreciation the Himalayan Institute’s positive effect on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Currently, Geovanni works in the auto engineering industry in Mexico and says that, as much as he loves his new work “that moment of my life…working with HI was really awesome…I was doing something for the people…I was trying to give something from me…and what I learned from HI…that I could share with the people…I could see that we can actually help to move people forward…that we can create something good for the future…everyone, they remember us with happiness.”
The impetus for this project came out of HI’s recognition of the health crisis in rural Mexico. With a lack of organic farming techniques being taught throughout the country, and government subsidies of cheap chemicals provided to farmers to grow chemically processed crops, ideas of natural or organic crops being able to be produced in peoples’ backyards or small farms was far from the people of Puebla’s minds. However, we knew that a change in agricultural practices could have a clear and positive effect on overall health and nutrition. Together with HI directorship, Geovanni Beristain led our initiative to bring organic farming training to the people of Sierra Norte.
We began by opening up a small community center where locals could come and take agricultural courses for a very minimal fee. A local farmer in town facilitated the scope of this venture by lending HI Mexico a small amount of farm land on which we could provide practical technical training courses: local farmers were not just learning in the classroom, but going out onto actual land to practice new techniques. We trained farmers in small, home garden farming, urban farming techniques, ladder agriculture, and cultivating difficult to fertilize land. Small groups of people came at first, but the idea was to have these people be able to go back to their community and pass these new ideas and trainings along to their fellow farmers. An average family size was about 4 people-thus if each member of every family shares what they’ve learned with another family or even just one other person, the number of people we could reach would grow exponentially. The dedication of these original trainees was clear and immense- the town in which we worked Jonotla was nestled in the mountains and inaccessible by most roads, but people traveled to come learn nonetheless.
In the beginning, the greatest resistance came from older farmers, who expressed their current knowledge of such techniques, feeling they did not need to learn new methods of growing crops. This resistance was enhanced by the fact that many farmers in rural Mexico receive either free or incredibly reduced-price chemicals with which to grow their crops from the government. Another misconception within these farmer’s minds was that organic farming is much more expensive. However, the investment is not actually monetary but in the farmer’s time and cultivation of their land in order to be able to successfully produce organically farmed crops (there are more steps needed to prepare the land, along with time needed to invest in how to properly conduct organic farming practices by attending trainings). For much of the older population of the Sierra Norte, the trade off of healthier natural products for more time invested in cultivating land was not worth their time. So, we began to look towards the youth population of the Sierra Norte, and here we found great enthusiasm and success!
Geovanni initially reached out to the local state university in Puebla to partner with the head of the university to provide students with information of this new training program happening in Sierra Norte through HI. Many of these students showed great interest in learning the traditional techniques used by their parents or grandparents in organic farming that were not necessarily passed down to them over time because of government incentives. These young people had a greater desire to work with the land in ways that would preserve the land; cultivating practices that would create sustainability, a better carbon footprint, and healthy, natural food products-they were conscious of the positive impact these aspects of farming could have on their lives and their environment (there was great passion and curiosity to discover self-sustaining ways of living).
So, in coordination with Jonotla’s mayor, Puebla State University-after 3 hard years of recruiting and developing teaching manuals-the number of trainees grew until we eventually we were working with over 40 local families on our training plot to discover all that organic farming truly had to offer. This program’s foundation sprung forth from the dedication of these young people and their strong belief that everything begins with the land: working in harmony with nature helps to develop and grow our ecosystems, which positively effects the health of our air, water, and ultimately the food we consume-a healthy earth equals a healthy life for all of humanity, not just the nature upon which we live and depend.
At the culmination of finally getting our project to have a direct impact on the community, another inspired individual-Arizsandy Calderon- reached out to us and took on a local management role alongside Geovanni. Arizandy later connected Himalayan Institute Mexico to another local Mexican organization he respected which works specifically with mothers and children in order to better educate them on health, lifestyle choices, and nutrition. Arizsandy initially helped us to connect and partner with this organization in order to expand our reach outside of Jonotla, further into the surrounding towns within the Sierra Norte region. However, this relationship would soon turn into something much greater than we had ever expected!
Once we realized our partnership was not only successful but that they were truly helping us to expand the comprehensive and expansive nature of our mission, we knew that our work was truly ready to be fully taken over by the Mexican people and work towards spreading and teaching the benefits and techniques of organic farming, natural foods, and healthy living. Today, our original 40 families who trained at HI Mexico have helped over 200 more families in the region begin their own practices and continue on the techniques they learned under these HI ambassadors. Outside of Jonotla, over 500 more families have gone through organic farmer training and have begun to bring those teachings back to their home communities. We have seen just in the past 4 years alone the continuation of our initial program along with the exponential development of farmers, both young and old, taking up the responsibility of providing healthy, sustainable food sources for their friends and families.
With the commitment of people like Geovanni, Arizsandy, and many other devoted local supporters we were able to carry out this project with continued and now lasting success. Our time in Mexico is proof that empowering local communities works to uplift the natural circumstances of many diverse groups of people. Innovation in resourcefulness, partnering with curious and driven individuals, and investing in local youth communities allows us to expand the positive impact we have on each other. There is no way to invest in a place if you do not invest in its people first. The people of Puebla and in Sierra Norte are a reminder that no matter how small the effort we make in a specific place, education, dedication, and trusting relationships will always take us very, very far.