GRUPO ECOLOGICO'S MARIO DAVID PEDRAZA:
A Life Dedicated to “Soil Culture” in the Sierra Gorda
REGENERATIVE QUALITIES OF GRUPO ECOLOGICO SIERRA GORDA
In Right Relationship / Honors Community & Place / Innovative & Adaptable
In Right Relationship / Honors Community & Place / Innovative & Adaptable
Mario David Pedraza moved with his parents, Roberto Antonio Pedraza and Martha “Pati” Ruiz Corzo, and his brother, Roberto, from Queretaro City, Mexico, to the rugged mountainous region of the Sierra Gorda in northern Queretaro State when he was five years old. He was, at the time, receiving cortisone and oxygen treatment for chronic asthma, and the doctors had told Pati that Mario would be unlikely ever to be able to play sports. The move to the countryside was, he reports, “the biggest gift I have ever received,” and he has never had a moment’s desire to return to city life.
After spending a few years training horses on the family’s ranch on Pinal de Amoles in his early adulthood, beginning in 2000 Mario turned his energy and talents to Group Ecologico, the now world-renowned not-for-profit Pati and Roberto founded in 1987 to restore the ecosystems of the Sierra Gorda. In its earliest years, the efforts of Grupo Ecologico were focused primarily on reforestation. “They did excellent work, they planted millions of trees,” Mario explains, “but we also knew we needed a way to involve the agriculture and cattle farming community in our restoration efforts as well.”
In order to motivate those people of Sierra Gorda who earn their living from the land to participate in the healing of the Sierra Gorda, Mario has dedicated himself to demonstrating the holistic value of "soil stewardship" to the region's farmers and ranchers.
In the early years of this initiative, Mario adhered closely to what he calls “the old Mexican manual,” Sierra Gorda's work during this period was focused primarily on building storm barriers to prevent erosion. “To this day those barriers are still working well,” he notes, “but I knew there was a lot more that we could do for the soils.” An autodidact by nature, Mario began inviting outside international experts in permaculture to the Sierra Gorda, including Jairo Restrepo Rivera, Eugenio Gras, Ignacio Simon, and Darren Doherty. These renowned permaculturalists shared the principles of microbiology and soil remineralization as well as techniques like chromatography, a cheap, simple, and accurate way to assess soil improvement over time without laboratory testing. Mario quickly began adapting the knowledge acquired to the Sierra’s unique conditions and culture. For example, Grupo Ecologico has adapted Keyline Design — a permaculture technique that is usually implemented on large tracts of land to prevent soil erosion— to the smaller-scale farms of the Sierra Gorda. “We teach with very simple tools -- a piece of wood and a level -- how to form the contours for cultivation,” Mario explains. ”It really works even with the small producers. We also teach farmers how to capture native microorganisms, breed them, and put them back into the soil.”
Under Mario’s guidance, Grupo Ecologico has also acquired skills in holistic management, a regenerative decision-making framework for grasslands management developed by the Zimbabwean biologist and game ranger Allan Savory. Savory had observed that when large herds of wild herbivores grazed freely they actually enhanced the biodiversity and soil health of the land. He created strategies for managing domestic livestock mimicking this natural grazing method. "Holistic management is quite different from the conventional approach to cattle farming," Mario explains, "where cattle are permitted to overgraze, eroding the soils, and ultimately creating unprofitable deserts." As it heals the landscape and the soil, holistic management also acts as a powerful carbon sequestration agent.
Grupo Ecologico received its training in holistic management from Ivan Aurelio Aguirre, a certified educator of the Savory Institute’s Sonora, Mexico, Hub. Grupo Ecologico has been working closely with the Savory Institute since 2010, and is now one of three Savory hubs in Mexico, along with those in Sonora and Chihuahua. Five local practitioners have now been trained by the Savory Institute in holistic management and are sharing their knowledge with a growing community of Sierra Gorda farmers and cattle ranchers.
“We work with small communities and small farmers who often don’t know how to read and write,” Mario explains. “Right now we have thirteen farms using both holistic management and permaculture techniques, and about 150 agriculture parcels(about 10,000 hectares) are now implementing all the principals." A typical small farm implementing holistic management might have 50 to 100 head of cattle.
“Using the principles of holistic management, we see the cattle as a tool to improve the ecosystem process,” says Mario. “But our practice must at the same time respond to the holistic context of every farm or producer."
Mario explains that from a holistic management perspective it is impossible to separate agriculture from cattle breeding. “Both are about ‘the culture of the soil,’” he says. “Here, in the past, we have never taken care of the soil. Our mission now is to create our own standard for doing that. After all, we come from the soil, we are part of the soil, and we have to nurture it to have food and all the other service that comes from it."
"We have to stop thinking of ourselves as corn or cow producers," he says, "we are soil producers. If you have a healthy soil you have everything. This is what really motivates us.”
As part of its soil restoration project Group Ecologico works with many young men who have returned to family farms from the States, where they had pursued an elusive American Dream. “Now they are coming back here and trying to survive on a small piece of land,” says Mario. “There are so many of them and we will have a real mess if they work with the old techniques. We need to have new responses and alternatives for them, and that is what we are trying to create here now. We are sharing the knowledge with all kinds of people — young, old, students — and we always say to them, ‘if you are going to receive new knowledge you must also share your knowledge with others.’”
Among this diverse group of students of the soil are women farmers, many of whom work their land alone because husbands, fathers, and brothers have left for work north of the border. “ There are 80 lady farmers learning to produce vegetables where before it was not part of the culture,” says Mario.
“They are trading their vegetables and it is a source of great pride. Now you are hearing them talking about ‘dead soil’ and ‘living soil,’ and the little animals from the soil that decompose manure. They are learning a lot and growing as farmers and as persons.”
Visitors from all over the Sierra Gorda and the country have descended on Mario’s own farm, where he lives with his wife, Martha, and their infant daughter, Marta Emilia, to observe the results of his holistic grazing practices and the fecundity of his biointensive orchards and vegetable gardens. Within one year, Mario reports, the effects of soil improvement had become evident — the plants were bigger and more colorful, water was more abundant and cleaner.
“What we share is a very inexpensive knowledge,” he asserts. “It is very expensive to buy agrichemicals. On the other hand, if you teach farmers how to ferment manure and use microbiology it costs very little. As soon as they put it in practice and see how it works they are convinced."
Developing pilot sites is the best way to demonstrate the value of holistic management, Mario says. "You begin with five farmers and from the results the others get interested and in turn they are partners.”
Grupo Ecologico also monitors soil health scientifically, measuring for carbon capture utilizing holistic biologic monitoring of soil carbon contents with the Soil Carbon Coalition methodology. Mario reports that the Mexican not-for-profit Gonzalo Rio Arronte has provided funding for Grupo Ecologico’s soil reclamation work for the past few years. To secure funding for the future, Grupo Ecologico recently presented a proposal to Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) to train an additional 45 holistic management educators in several states of central Mexico. “We are still waiting to hear if our plan is going to be funded,” Mario reports.
Meanwhile the environmental agency of Queretaro State is partnering with Grupo Ecologico to develop a framework for a new ecosystem services compensation mechanism that would be funded by offset fees paid by those who develop agricultural or forest land. Mario and his team are working on the protocols for this scheme. He reports that Grupo Ecologico stands ready to partner with big ranchers as well as with those farming on a half-hectare.
“We will work with all of them who are willing to implement the complete manual to regenerate soil and fight global warming,” he says. “We are working against time.”
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