Permaculture for Climate Change Resilience in Mexico

The community of San Jose de Gracia gathers by their newly restored rainwater reservoir to plant 1,000 native trees. (All photos courtesy Victoria Collier)

Victoria Collier and Ben Ptashnik
02/02/2023

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, MEXICO – ​​In 2023, climate change is no longer a theoretical threat. Around the world extreme weather causes devastation, while temperatures shatter records with alarming regularity. In Mexico, drought and desertification already claim hundreds of square miles of farmland every year. Both disasters will increase due to climate change, creating millions of climate refugees in the coming decades.

It is heartening to learn that solutions exist to mitigate this overwhelming crisis, and some can be implemented rapidly with community support.  

At Tikkun Eco Center we are developing a model rainwater harvesting and reforestation project that can significantly impact climate change resiliency in San Miguel de Allende, and perhaps eventually throughout Mexico. We have had great success with our first project and have just launched a fundraising campaign to help us scale it up to the regional level – what is really needed to protect San Miguel from suffering a severe water and food security crisis.

San Miguel de Allende is a beautiful World Heritage city located in the semi-arid highlands of central Mexico. Voted Best Small City in the World five times, tourism and development are booming here. But in the background, climate change is already exacerbating a crisis of aquifer depletion that seriously threatens the sustainability of our region, known as the Upper Río Laja watershed. 

As export agribusiness drains 85% of our groundwater, local wells are drying up. Deeper well waters are often poisoned with concentrated levels of naturally occurring arsenic and fluoride. Surrounding rural villages already suffer the health effects of this contamination, along with severe water rationing. This pushes campesino families to migrate to urban areas or risk the dangerous journey across the U.S. border. 

Around the world, large-scale permaculture projects are healing and transforming rural communities in similar dire conditions. In India, Africa and Australia, water-capturing earthworks and reforestation are reversing ecological degradation of watersheds and allowing rivers, streams and springs to be reborn. In tens of thousands of villages, surface water tables are replenished, and small-scale family farming eliminates the need for desperate climate-driven migration.

Guanajuato and surrounding states are among the top sources of immigration to the United States. Guanajuato ranks No. 3 in terms of percentage of homes with an immigrant in the US, and also in terms of the “degree of migratory intensity.” 

Rainwater Harvesting: The Tikkun Experience

In the past ten years at Tikkun we have moved aggressively to meet the challenges of climate change by building our own permaculture rainwater catchment systems and reforesting our land. In 2022, we used our experience to restore the historic rainwater reservoir in our rural village of San Jose de Gracia, which has been suffering water rationing for years.

Like many countries, Mexico receives most of its rainfall during the short summer monsoon season. However, monsoons can be destructive, washing away soil from denuded lands, bringing floods and landslides. The torrential water must be slowed by canals and terracing, allowed to penetrate soils stabilized by deep native grass roots, cactus and trees, then captured in reservoirs for drinking and irrigation during drought.

But across Mexico, and here in San Miguel, vitally important rainwater reservoirs have suffered neglect for decades. This is due in part to a shift in government support away from small-scale farm infrastructure, in favor of industrial export agriculture. These critical village reservoirs that once served thousands of families are now filled with silt and soil, and their dams have broken. They are no longer able to hold water year-round. 

Before and After

The dry mud flat of the San Jose de Gracia reservoir, May 2022, beginning excavation. Before and after photos from the first restored reservoir.
San Jose de Gracia reservoir, September 2022, full restored and filled with monsoon rains.

Restoring the defunct reservoir in our village took just one month and expanded our community’s capacity for capturing rainwater by 80% to over twenty-five million liters. We extracted over 1,400 truckloads of rich soil, returning 25% to the surrounding farms from where it had originally eroded, adding fertility to the land.

Tree planting day at the reservoir!

With the rest of the soil, we initiated a project to stabilize the land above the reservoir and create a beautiful community ecological park. The San Miguel Department of Ecology stepped up to donate 1,000 native trees. Over 60 people, both local villagers and expats, volunteered to plant them, including the elderly and children. 

San Miguel expats help plant 1,000 trees donated by the Department of Ecology.

With the water from the reservoir, we can irrigate the trees and ensure their survival. This project also provided a positive ecological use for the invasive water hyacinth currently choking the Rio Laja and the Presa Allende, the city’s major reservoir. Working with the Department of Ecologia, we used truckloads of the hyacinth for compost and mulching the tree saplings, lowering their water needs by 50%. The trees are all flourishing today.

The municipality has agreed to build a playground and soccer field for the community children. Tikkun donated tilapia from our fish ponds to stock the reservoir, and is building a kiosk by the water for village meetings.

Victoria, posing in front of the new reservoir, gets photobombed by local horses.

Currently we are building a solar pumping station to bring water from the reservoir up to the village. We will be working with another local NGO, Caminos de Agua, to purify it for drinking.

The restored reservoir will allow local families to retain or reestablish small farms and commit to animal husbandry and milk production for local dairies. It will also allow Tikkun to expand our program of installing home food gardens for rural families who previously lacked reliable water for irrigation. 

Home garden installation, setting up drip irrigation and planting starts.
A young home garden recipient helps out on planting day.
Over 1,400 truckloads of rich soil were removed from the abandoned reservoir, returning 25% to the surrounding farms from where it had originally eroded, adding fertility to the land. The rest was used to stabilize the reservoir and create a beautiful eco park.

Scaling it up to the regional level

The city of San Miguel has since recognized our project as a model for other communities. The Department of Ecologia has donated 50,000 native trees toward the goal of restoring at least 20 more reservoirs in the next three years.

The reservoirs will save hundreds of millions of liters of fresh, pollution-free rainwater to survive droughts in the coming climate crisis, while creating new green zones for ecological and community health. With enough trees planted, a region can actually increase rainfall and push back desertification.

Healing and restoration is possible. Climate change is more than a terrifying crisis, it is an opportunity to restore planetary ecosystems and create healthier, more balanced societies. The time to implement solutions to the climate crisis is now, not later when catastrophes are so severe that societal breakdown prevents meaningful action. With the will and the resources, we can act now to prevent tremendous suffering. 

Tikkun needs support to restore these 20 reservoirs and plant 50,000 trees. Please visit www.tikkunsanmiguel.mx to learn more. 

A young tree planter being wheeled home after a long day of work.

 

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