Revitalizing Indigenous Ecosystems by A Growing Culture

Local Futures
10 min readJun 12, 2023

Oaxaca, one of the most biodiverse and culturally rich states in Mexico has, over the last two decades, rapidly exploded into a booming tourist destination. Visitors find themselves lost in the beauty of its diverse cultures, artisan crafts, vibrant cuisine, and its most famous beverage — mezcal. Tequila and mezcal have witnessed a remarkable surge in popularity in recent years, with many Hollywood icons like The Rock, George Clooney, and Bryan Cranston, as well as reality stars like the Kardashians, eagerly joining the rush to capitalize on this “green rush”. As a result, mezcal production in Mexico has increased by over 700% in the past decade, with Oaxaca standing as the leading producer, responsible for over 85% of state-certified mezcal. But beneath the potent flavors, earthy undertones, and delicate sweetness of this cherished Mexican spirit are two stories that often go untold. The first is a story of the harmful impacts of industrial mezcal production on Indigenous communities and the ecosystems they nurture. The second is a story of remarkable grassroots resistance in the face of an industry determined to commodify local practices and cultures. These stories start in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is home to 8,405 vascular plants, 190 mammals, 736 birds, and 16 Indigenous groups. However, conservative estimates reveal that in the past three decades, Oaxaca has lost over 14% of its biodiverse forest s — a number that is only expected to increase due to ongoing pressures.

Today, the Indigenous peoples and ecosystems of Oaxaca face a multitude of threats, including: the relentless invasion of industrial agriculture, leading to the loss of land and biodiversity; unsustainable deforestation resulting in severe flooding as the soils fail to retain water; mining projects targeting valuable resources like lithium, gold, and silver that pollute and deplete water sources without the consent of local populations and without reparations; wildfires exacerbated by climate change; and the promotion of agave plantations to feed the soaring demand for mezcal liquor.

This unprecedented demand, driven by the global north and private sector, has exacerbated the situation by enforcing widespread monocultures, intensifying agrochemical use, and devastating regional biodiversity. As this industrial wave sweeps across Oaxaca, the voices of many farmers who have cherished their traditional milpa (intercropped maize) fields and upheld Indigenous agricultural practices are being drowned out. Many are left with no choice but to abandon their ancestral practices, and surrender to the allure of single-agave variety monoculture plantations.

In response to these challenges, a collective of rural communities in Mixteca, Oaxaca, formed Proyecto Rosenda, a fully grassroots, community-funded effort that aims to reforest and revitalize the ecosystems through sustainable practices rooted in Indigenous knowledge. To date, Proyecto Rosenda has planted over 20,000 trees — including native trees to reforest local ecosystems, and fruit trees and edible species to feed communities — all in deep collaboration with community nurseries and families who tend the forests.

But their work extends beyond reforestation. Proyecto Rosenda is also creating community infrastructure for tree nurseries, composting and water catchment, and is expanding the project as a platform for establishing food sovereignty and economic power for the communities involved. At the heart of their efforts lies the spirit of “Tequio”, a system of community building and reciprocity, where all members of the community have to contribute to its vitality and the well-being of the ecosystem.

Proyecto Rosenda believes that Indigenous practices of forest management and community governance holds the key to mitigating and preventing the most pressing issues in the food system today. Their accomplishments speak volumes, as they have successfully reclaimed ancestral water springs and utilized Indigenous techniques to prevent water run-off. Through their work, Proyecto Rosenda is fostering a change in mindset among community members, helping them recognize the deep value of communal knowledge in safeguarding their land, culture, and livelihoods.

In A Growing Culture’s recent Peasant and Indigenous Press Forum, we were fortunate to interview Neftali Duran of Proyecto Rosenda. Born and raised in Oaxaca, Neftali migrated to the U.S. like so many before him, to work in the food system. He has leveraged his decades of experience stewarding participatory and ground-up solutions to climate change and Indigenous sovereignty. Here are excerpts from our many conversations with Neftali leading up to, and during the forum. We hope you learn from them as much as we did.

Your roots are in Oaxaca. Can you share a bit about what has led to the ecosystem loss that we’re currently seeing in Oaxaca?

We have to really go back in time to all the extraction that’s been happening since 1620, when the Spanish colonizers arrived in Oaxaca. One of the first things they did is clear cut fields for grazing animals. Following this, there was a major push for mining and other extractive industrial exploits. When the Spanish were pushed out in the 1800s, they left the environment severely depleted.

Once you put that into context, you understand that the land has been suffering from extraction for a few hundred years. Without any system to replenish the land of its native trees or grasses, it’s just gone unchecked. Now, if you visit the valley of Oaxaca, you’ll see that there’s not a lot of forest around. That’s not normal. There should be a lot more trees, and a lot more native grasses. And that has led to a lot of issues like droughts and floods and other issues you see in the valley. So our project is really focusing on not only restoring the ecosystem, but also creating consciousness and solidarity amongst our communities to think about a future where we will need water, and we will need to be able to eat from the land.

We see the huge gold rush to capitalize on mezcal — from cocktail bars in every corner of the world, to celebrities rushing to launch their own mezcal label. Mezcal production has grown a staggering 700% in the last 10 years. What can you tell us about how it has impacted Indigenous farmers and local agriculture?

The mezcal industry is just a symptom of late-stage colonial capitalism. It’s currently finding itself in a little bit of a gold rush, focusing on only one plant in the region of Oaxaca. I don’t want to demonize the plant, because plants are our relatives. I also don’t want to demonize the craft, because Indigenous people have been distilling mezcal for more than 8,000 years. Tourism is one of the most extractive ways of colonialism nowadays, and pushes communities to use a lot more water and natural resources in order to serve people from other parts of the world.

When you plant mostly agave in the field, and cut everything else, you’re really creating an imbalance of the land. On top of that, you’re using pesticides and fertilizers, and fundamentally changing the landscape. You’re using techniques that don’t revitalize the land. You’re using tractors, chemicals, and other inputs, and it really damages the soil in the long term. We’ve seen that over and over and we still don’t learn.

The mezcal industry is unsustainable not only because it’s a plant that takes many years, sometimes even decades to mature, but also because companies are resorting to extractive irrigation practices, like deep drilling in areas that are scarce in water, which exerts excessive pressure on the land. Water is supposed to be regulated by a national institute, and you’re supposed to get permits to do deep drilling, but that’s not often the case for the bigger companies.

The gold rush is taking people away from planting foodstuffs to planting something that will eventually be an alcohol. Yes, it gives people an income in the short run, but at what cost?

You mentioned that the art of making mezcal is ancient, rooted in culture and community. How has the commodification of mezcal impacted the local cultural connection to the agave plant?

Mezcal has been distilled in Mexico for over 8,000 years. There’s both a spiritual and social connection to mezcal that is shared within our communities. Once it is commodified, it loses its cultural roots and meaning.

Today, there are fortunes being made from mezcal, mostly by people from the United States — people that are not from Oaxaca. It’s a great injustice to the environment and to the land, but it’s also an economic injustice to the families who carry the knowledge of this craft for so long.

In this era of greenwashing, we have seen carbon credit schemes explode where reforestation projects are simply monoculture tree farms. But Indigenous communities know that just trees alone do not make a healthy forest. There is a vast reservoir of Indigenous knowledge rooted in relating to and caring for our ecosystems. Like how your project solves problems with industrial run-off. Can you describe a few examples of reforesting techniques from your community which help create a thriving ecosystem?

Our really small project is digging deep into Indigenous knowledge. Nowadays people call it permaculture, agroecology, but it’s really local indigenous knowledge. We’re digging deep locally with our own communities to reverse the hundreds of years of abuse to the land and to the environment.

We started this project in 2020, and it was born out of the need for water that we saw in the valleys. If you live in certain colonies or neighborhoods in Oaxaca, you may get water only once a week, or once every other week. It depends on the sun, where you are. This project was intended to not only do reforestation, but also think of food sovereignty in the long run — how we can replenish the soil, conserve water, and ensure that people have access to food.

Our approaches are very practical. They may look like finding the local bamboo and planting a lot more to prevent runoff, or planting more local grasses, or balancing out the reforestation efforts by planting some fruit trees along with indigenous and native trees to make the local food economy stronger. In the future, we’re hoping to start introducing a lot more cacti that help with both water conservation and also serve as a source of food.

You also helped form the I Collective (a national group of Indigenous food activists and chefs who nourish Indigenous food movements), you have mentored food justice activists, you stay devoted to so many community-driven initiatives. I understand in Oaxacan communities there is a concept called “tequio”. Can you explain the concept of tequio and how it guides the work at Proyecto Rosenda?

The tequio is a system of mutual aid and reciprocal labor. It’s not really common in non-Indigenous communities. The simple concept is that we all have a civic duty to our communities. And if we think of ourselves as part of the local ecosystem — not that we own the local ecosystem, but are a part of it — we have a responsibility to work with mother nature to make sure we don’t harm ourselves by overharvesting, deforestation, or doing anything else that harms the environment.

Through the spirit of tequio, Indigenous families may assist each other, for example, at the time of planting and harvesting their milpa. The tequio also provides labor for community projects such as cleaning and repairing village streets, building houses, and constructing and maintaining irrigation ditches. This system is so important that if Indigenous families do not fulfill their responsibilities, they may lose their rights to their land and their ability to return home.

The concept of “mutual aid” has recently gained popularity. I think about tequio as the original, non-commodified version of mutual aid — tracing back deeper than we can remember. It’s really about being a good relative to all living beings — both human and non-human, with whatever instruments we have at hand outside capitalist extraction.

Your project, without much institutional support, has planted over 20,000 trees. That includes indigenous and native trees, as well as trees that can help communities meet their food needs. What are the biggest challenges in working to expand your project to meet its larger goal of food sovereignty?

We are trying to experiment with some innovative concepts, which means that we are trying to work on the edges of the non-profit industrial complex, while also living under capitalism. As I explained with the concept of tequio, mutual aid goes back to all of our communities for a long time. We are trying to appeal to people, to help us take this project far, without grants or any governmental support. That allows our self-determination.

We’re really appealing to regular people. They go to Oaxaca, they drink mezcal, they wear our textiles. Especially all those who are benefiting economically from Oaxaca — selling our art, selling mezcal, and all the aesthetics about Oaxaca — we’re appealing to them either for reparations or self-taxation, whatever you want to call it, to make sure that projects like ours continue in the future.

A lot of people who hear your words might be moved to change their relationship with mezcal. Often, we tend to turn to conscious consumerism as a way to do that. What would you say to someone who wants to know how to recognize and purchase ethically produced mezcal?

There is no ethical sourcing under capitalism. However, if you’re going to drink mezcal, I recommend that you at least buy from brands that are owned by Indigenous families or families from Oaxaca. There are many more, but a few Indigenous-run companies that you can source from are: Mezcal Tosba Oaxaca, Mezcal Macurichos, Mezcal Dixeebe, Real Minero, Mezcal Lalocura, La Venia, Dos Pasiones, Mezcal Rincón de Dios, Mezcal El Rey Zapoteco, Mezcal Rey Campero.

You mentioned that the goal of Proyecto Rosenda is self-determination. What does that mean for you?

Self-determination for me would be when young people from my community don’t have to immigrate to the U.S., and we have enough food and water and healthy soil to live the way that our ancestors have been living for millennia, in our region.

How you can support Proyecto Rosenda

Proyecto Rosenda invites and encourages support from anyone who has been inspired by their story, visited Oaxaca, appreciated or consumed Oaxacan art, crafts, and textiles, or has benefited financially from the mezcal industry. There are various meaningful ways in which you can show your support:

  1. You can donate directly to Arbolution Oaxaca, Proyecto Rosenda’s grassroots reforestation initiative deeply rooted in community and the concept of tequio. As the project relies solely on grassroots funding without any institutional support, donations play a crucial role in supporting and expanding their ongoing efforts.
  2. Proyecto Rosenda is seeking permaculture and tree experts who are willing to travel, learn alongside the team, and share their expertise in specific areas such as fruit tree pruning, eco-building, and composting. Write to [email protected] to get involved.
  3. Stay updated on Proyecto Rosenda’s endeavors in Oaxaca by visiting and following their Instagram page. By staying informed, you can help amplify their efforts and raise awareness among your own networks, and help them expand their reach and impact.

This post originally appeared in Offshoot, the newsletter of A Growing Culture. Photo of agave by Alice Kotlyarenko on Unsplash. Photo of Neftali Duran by Robear Alcantar.

Originally published at https://www.localfutures.org on June 12, 2023.

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Local Futures

Local Futures works to renew ecological, social and spiritual well-being by promoting a systemic shift towards economic localization.