Jesus Leon Santos – 2008 Goldman Prize Winner

The Goldman Prize is the world’s largest prize for environmental activism. Rhonda and Richard Goldman established the award and the winners each receive US$150,000.

In 2008 there were seven winners of that year’s Goldman Environmental Prize. They were chosen from different parts of the world. The Goldman prize winner for North America is Jesus Leon Santos, who led a land renewal and economic development program in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In the early 1980’s Jesus Leon Santos began helping people organize to reforest the area to stop erosion. After winning the 2008 Goldman Environmental Prize Mr. Santos said: “It’s time we recognize that traditional agricultural methods can make strong contributions to biodiversity conservation. We should encourage it and value it as a way to produce healthy foods that help conserve and care for the environment.”

At this time, in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico, Jesus Leon Santos leads a land renewal and economic development program employing ancient indigenous agricultural practices to transform the barren, highly eroded land area into rich, arable land.

Studies indicate that climate change trends such as erosion, flooding, desertification and changing weather patterns will gravely affect small farmers and consequently the worldwide food supply. In the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states according to a United Nations study, the region has one of the highest rates of soil erosion in the world.

At his Goldman Prize speech Mr. Santos said: “Twenty-five years ago, we in the Upper Mixteca recognized that we were living through a severe ecological crisis that was creating poverty, malnutrition, and migration. Today, we have to recognize that all the inhabitants of this planet are living in a similar crisis.”

“We,” Santos continued, “recognize that indigenous peoples have historically been the creators and guardians of biological and genetic wealth, holding sacred our native seeds of wheat, beans, and tomatoes…the same ones that have enriched the entire world’s food culture. We recognize that we must now reclaim this important role for the good of humanity.”

After adopting chemical-intensive varieties of corn seed in the 1980’s, many small farmers in the Mixteca region found that yields were dropping and the soil was becoming depleted. As a result of the NAFTA and U.S. corn subsidies, maize prices dropped and many farmers could no longer afford the price of fertilizers and pesticides required by the new varieties.

“To take on this responsibility, we have to confront various economic and political challenges. The opening of markets through free trade agreements has provoked low prices for our products and the disappearance of government support to the countryside,” Santos explained.

“This policy,” Santos said, “brought about an immeasurable increase in the cost of production. In turn, this led to rural poverty that has led to massive migration and threatens to make our indigenous peoples and compassions disappear. In the same way, the introduction of modified seeds and other methods of controlling seed distribution plus the control of the world’s agricultural and food markets threatens this genetic wealth that we, as indigenous peoples, care for as the world’s heritage.”

Working together with his organization and the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM), more than a million native-variety trees have been planted; hundreds of miles of ditches to retain water and prevent soil from eroding have been built; and traditional Mixteca indigenous practices to restore the regional eco-system have been adopted.

At this time, people from the Mixteca area are planting up to 200,000 native trees a year with help from Jesus Leon Santos and CEDICAM. The trees prevent erosion; aid filtration of water into the ground; provide carbon capture and green areas; contribute organic material to the soil and provide more sustainable, cleaner burning wood for residents who cook on open fires.

At his Goldman Prize speech, Mr. Santos said: “We at CEDICAM hope that this respect for Mother Earth that we are recuperating among indigenous peoples can serve as an example to all of the inhabitants of the planet in this time of environmental crisis. We,” he continued, “…also hope that the struggle our Mixteca people have endured with their sweat and commitment can give us all the confi- dence that with our strength, this Earth will have the capacity to recuperate and continue to give life to all of its inhabitants today and in future generations.”

CEDICAM is teaching communities sustainable use of firewood and the use of wood-saving stoves. This alleviates the workload of women who, in the past, had to travel farther to collect wood.

Jesus Leon Santos is working with communities to retrieve pre-Hispanic traditions that use barriers to prevent hillside erosion. Efforts are paying off as barren hillsides turn green again, aquifers are recharged, and the high rate of migration slows as indigenous farming families find they are able to make a living at home.

In order to promote sustainable agricultural practices, Jesus Leon Santos began a program helping farmer’s convert to natural compost fertilizers and to use native seed varieties. Today most farmers in the region use native seed.

Santos also started a program to promote local foods and traditional indigenous diet. He did this in opposition to the influx of processed foods accelerated by free trade and changes in the culture due to immigration. But many small farmers believed that using chemicals was the modern way and by returning to traditional practices they would be seen as ignorant.

Currently, Jesus Leon Santos and CEDICAM are working with more than 1,500 small farmers in 12 communities. This success has led to interest from other regions and countries. Santos has shared his experience in water conservation, anti-erosion techniques and sustainable agriculture at forums throughout Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has also lectured at various universities in the U.S.