by Isabel Quiroz
The state of Michoacán, located in western Mexico, is one of the most beautiful places in the country, with its vast mountain range, unique colonial towns, coast line and warm people. It is also one of the largest producers and exporters of methamphetamines to United States. In recent years the result of drug-related violence has caused an increase in insecurity, impunity and violence.
The rupture of the social fabric is a high priority issue in México. The communities with greater vulnerability are those with higher rates of marginalization and violence. To improve the social landscape and lower the rates of violence it is necessary to establish a holistic strategy of social integration that allows us to strengthen neighborhood ties and at the same time to develop the individual.
From 2014 to 2015 I was part of a team that created community gardens with federal resources in two municipalities of Michoacán. The purpose of these gardens was to build community by developing a healthy environment. We selected the neighborhoods with the highest rates of violence and identified the steps necessary to meet our goals. The first step we took was to organize a meeting to explain our objectives: we intended to create a vegetable garden, host training workshops, provide free materials to participants and also build all the infrastructure needed for the project. The initial response was not positive—only a few individuals attended our first meetings and those who did were not excited about the project. They did not know us or believe in us.
In the municipality of Morelia the land that we were assigned to make the garden was an abandoned park, normally only attended by people who wanted to drink alcohol or do drugs. Little by little we cleaned the park. We took out dozens of trash bags, cut the thorns and grass, swept the sidewalks, painted the buildings. As we slowly improved the site we gradually began to see kids playing with their parents in the park again. It took about three months and a lot of small actions like this to build the trust with the neighbors and community members. Our constant presence was finally being seen.
We trained and worked with the communities for approximately six months. In that time we were able to work in the garden and provide technical training that mobilized the participants’ capacities. During the workshops we would include topics such as human rights, gender violence, and building equity. Eventually we realized we had become part of that community and each member was brilliant and strong in their own unique way. Every person was able to recognize and value the other beyond the garden. The network we helped to create was alive and growing.
Agriculture is inclusive. It promotes healthy interactions through sharing knowledge and experience. It strengthens social bonds, creates dialogue and builds conflict resolution skills, and helps communities share success and learn together with the failures. It gives a strong sense of belonging.
The conditions of Michoacán are harsh. The breakdown of the social fabric, the conditions of violence in the home, the extreme violence from local gangs were all very real to us while working on this project. Fixing the violence problem is challenging—it requires every piece of the puzzle to be active, to be creative. It requires a lot of political will, and a lot of human resources. I’ve seen the peace that can be created when a person puts a hand in the soil and wants to work with nature.
All the people that were involved in the project went through a transformation, but it was very difficult. We were lucky to find wonderful people on the way that wanted to garden with us. Today the gardens are still producing food and acting as a reminder that it is possible to rediscover a new path, one that is deserving of beauty and one that can nourish our bodies and souls.