Posted November 10, 2006: In 1986, someone
in Missouri gave Norberto and Lisa Cortes a stack of old Organic
Gardening magazines. It’s just the kind of thing you
do for missionaries who are giving themselves to a community.
Norberto saw to his astonishment that The Rodale Institute
was doing variety trials and seed improvement on amaranth,
an ancient Meso-American seed crop that European religious
zeal had virtually succeeded in wiping out.
He went back to Toluca, a community of the Mazahua indigenous
group where the couple now has a mission based in the ex-hacienda
of Tepetitlan, a former agrarian estate. The dry, central
highlands area is about 65 miles (about 2.5 hours) west of
Mexico City in the state of Mexico.
The Mazahua people have been socially and economically marginalized
for centuries, and many people from the villages near Mission
leave for Mexico City or attempt to immigrate to the US to
find jobs that will allow them to support their families.
Lisa Cortes said she believes some 1,700 people have immigrated
to the US from the region in recent years, including 800 from
a single town who now live in Yonkers, New York.
Corn losing viability
Corn farming is still subsidized by state governments, Norberto
said, because governors vie to keep their states as the “top
producers” by supporting chemical and fertilizer inputs.
Soil is degrading, yields are declining and prices continue
to fall as the NAFTA trade agreement lets subsidized US corn
pour onto the Mexican market. Local farmers are intensely
loyal to raising corn as a defining part of their lives, despite
the lack of profitability.
To encourage younger farmers to diversify into new crops
with more economic promise, the mission program models an
organic farming system of crop rotation using compost and
cover crops, including fava (faba) beans. Norberto obtained
amaranth seed in the Mexican state of Chiapas some years back,
and continues to seek ways of making it an attractive crop
to local farmer entrepreneurs.
A current value-added product is popped amaranth made into
snack cakes that look a lot like rice cakes. They include
local honey and sunflower seeds to make a highly nutritious
food, as amaranth is a high-protein, gluten-free pseudo-grain,
in a technical sense. There are some 60 species of amaranth—a
relative of common pigweed, so well known to US farmers—with
some grown for their highly nutritious leaves in tropical
here for nutritional details.
Amaranth was all but wiped out by violent efforts to prevent
its growth, due to its ritual religious use. It was mixed
with the blood of human sacrifices by the Aztec people when
Spaniards first discovered their rituals. The crop survived
only in remote villages until modern efforts to commercialize
it as an alternate crop that can be easily naturalized back
into its genetic zone of origin.
Norberto continues to believe that amaranth, grown in a proper
crop rotation, will be a key to the agricultural regeneration
of the local countryside. He works as he can on marketing
amaranth products to build economic options for his neighbors.
In addition to human-scale organic agriculture, Mission Mazahua
works toward “wholistic transformation” through
micro-enterprise, basic education, language development, social
and spiritual instruction. The mission seeks to create ways
for students to build livelihoods in their communities through
vocational training in an array of crafts including sculpture,
ceramics and technically appropriate systems for sustainable
production of rabbits and mushrooms.
“The whole creation is waiting to be redeemed,”
he quotes from the book of Romans when he gives his biblical
reason for a commitment to organic agriculture. “I take
those words seriously,” he said, in seeking transformation
of Creation and people where he is.