‘Off the Contour’ #3 – Cold Turkey Rice & Mangos in Mexico ++’

‘Off the Contour’ #3 – Cold Turkey Rice & Mangos in Mexico ++’

Ing. Jorge Alaya Menendez is the pioneer of Rice cultivation on the Yucatan Peninsula and the largest rice grower in Mexico. Near the picturesque village of Palisades on the Usumacinta River (the largest river in Mexico) Valley he and his son Jorge Alaya Filijrana and family manage over 10,000ha (‘Pancho Villa’ & ‘Laguna Blanca’) of now organic rice, highly diverse wetlands & savannahs & water buffalo. Jorge Snr. started off with 500ha twenty years or so ago and has grown his farm along with substantial water reticulation infrastructure to manage the extraordinary annual flood flows in this region.

This region of the peninsula is fringed by the ubiquitous Karst landscapes on which the famous Mayan civilisation was founded. The region receives between 1000-1800mm a year over a few months and then is dry for the remainder of the year apart from the occasional shower. The Usumacinta River valley is largely (and fortunately!) undeveloped though it has a long history of both legal and illegal piracy, with various mobs from the colonial Europeans to the modern day exploitationalists of minerals and logs. On a bush plane flight (Jorge pilots his own 1974 plane) across to Palisades to visit Jorge’s extended family we flew over Fidel Castro’s guerrilla training camp (used prior to his invasion of Cuba) and airstrip now consumed by the jungle of this pretty rampant area.

Jorge Snr. wished to have us start the process to enable the regions’ agriculture and communities manage the future especially as concerns ‘Peak Everything’ and what changes in landscape management and community engagment/structure might help develop the transitory adaptive and mitigative strategies such that they develop the future they want to be involved with as opposed to what is applied, forced and appropriated by those outside of this beautiful, yet still relatively impoverished part of the world.

Of course the challenge that confronts me, apparently one of the few ‘Broadacre Permaculturalists’ of the world is that in many ways, as Toby Hemenway put it, ‘Broadacre Permaculture’ is an oxymoron. And whilst I agree with Toby, I also understand as a pragmatist that without broadacre agriculture many people would run out of food very quickly. It is a system that is largely dependant on fossil carbon, is unrealistically large, has enormous distribution and waste issues, is very polluting and yet it feeds many people on this planet. Obviously food shocks in past caused by war especially have encouraged or rather forced people to practice garden agriculture, but this has largely been a temporary phenomena when the ‘status quo’ is returned. Of greatest issue in my opinion and observation these two things.

1. That agriculture is perhaps the most pervasive and damaging land-use performed by any species in the time of the planet
2. That regenerative agricultural land-use has the great potential to be restore much of ‘nature’s infrastructure’ (Kennedy 2010) and in doing so ‘fix global warming’ (Yeomans 2007)

Another part of this consultancy was a visit to civil construction engineer and close friend of Jorge Senior, Ing. Almendro Toledo’s 2000ha ‘Cayul’, the 4000ha ‘Santa Rosa’, properties near the famous Santa Rosa Mayan Ruins, about an hour from Campeche, plus ‘Oxcal’, a 2000ha holding that was recently laser leveled/canalled about 15km up the plain (and 10m above) from ‘Laguna Blanca’. This landscape is made up of small, densely forested low relief limestone hills and broad, flat plains and basically no creeks as the classic karst landscape is highly permeable, such that even after a 100mm+ rainfall over 4 hours there is very little puddling and next to no run off: it all permeates down to the limestone aquifer some 10-20m below.

Almendro has cleared the plains of this property using a machine he sourced from Viet Nam that was used by the US military during their time there to clear jungle. Therefore the property has a mosaic of these very biodiverse hills in a somewhat lobular layout with the cropped plains in between.

Almendro grows about 540ha of conventional (small spray irrigated) Mangos (about 100.000 trees) and 700ha of crops (300 flood irrigated) and 400ha dryland), mostly maize & soya (both GM). A US management firm currently manages the entire system, though this is to be reviewed following our consultancy, especially since Almendro is keen to also take his land in the RegenAG direction.

One of the main reasons for my being invited to this consultancy at Almendro’s was to develop a Keyline-based water-harvesting plan on ‘Santa Rosa’ & ‘Cayul’. Higher level analysis, followed with that on the ground soon revealed that building Keyline type water harvesting structures were not appropriate on this site, so permeable are the soils in their current state. To store water in dams is also difficult as the clays are not suitable and there is no run off to service them. So we go back to the real intention of Keyline: build soil carbon and store rainwater where it falls. The costs of overcoming this is simply too much to justify when abundant and relatively shallow groundwater exists in this case and with the volumes of irrigation water currently required is so great that storages would need to be massive. After the wettest year for many years there are no flowing creeks in this area and no signs anywhere of runoff.

Then of course there is the issue with extraction of the groundwater and the energy and infrastructure it demands. This is currently connected to the electricity grid that is in this part of the world is supplied using natural gas. Obviously this is not part of the future and yet the electrical motors and pumps doing the pumping are quite efficient, relatively easy to service and maintain and so we determined to keep them ‘alive’.

Some of our key recommendations for Almendro were as follows:

1. Mango’s:
1. Establish a range of cover crops (particularly Arachis pintoi)under the trees and use higher density and planned grazing using the farm’s sheep in the interrow.
2. Adjust the pruning regime 3. Continue with Soil Food Web analysis and commence applications of the recommendations
4. Commence BioFertiliser and Forest Micro-organisms production/multiplication and applications
5. Cease use of all artificial fertilisers and crop protection chemicals
6. Use Keyline SuperPlow in the interrow every alternate row at the commencement of the growing season

2. Cropping Areas

1. Continue with Soil Food Web analysis and commence applications of the recommendations
2. Commence BioFertiliser and Forest Micro-organisms production/multiplication and applications
3. Cease use of all artificial fertilisers and crop protection chemicals
4. Use Keyline SuperPlow in the interrow at the commencement of the growing season and the process of sowing the respective crops
5. Commence feasibility study at ‘Oxcan’ with the following treatments:
* Treatment 1
-Keyline SuperPlowing
-BioFertiliser & Soil Food Web Applications
-Pasture Sowing
* Treatment 2
-As for Treatment 1 but no Pasture Sowing
* Treatment 3
-Control – Cut hay only
* Analysis
-Soil Analysis (by SAGARPA) @ start & finish of season – Mineral, Soil Organic Carbon (<1.3m)

  • Energy Crops
    1. Calculate the volume of feedstock required to power pumps and various diesel powered machinery using oils processed on-farm from Elaeis guineensis Glycine maxalong with ethanol produced using Saccharum spp. Together with the feasibility of establishing a plant to process these plant products and ultimately produce biodiesel, and include potentially the products of neighbouring farms to do the same.
    2. Establish plantings of Elaeis guineensis with an understory of Jatropha curcas along road verges as a productive amenity species which requires the ready access to harvest that these areas provide.
    3. Whilst waiting for Elaeis guineensis production allocate a portion of Glycine max crops to produce fuel oil.


Like many conventional farmers and as a trained Agronomic Engineer, Jorge Snr. has farmed using the full array of agricultural technology up to now. Son Jorge has been farming his 200ha family parcel organically for some years now and led his father to work with Eugenio Gras & Jairo Restrepo of MasHumus as part of his conversion to regenerative agriculture. After a 12 month trial on 200ha Jorge Snr. is convinced that the MasHumus techniques of farm-produced BioFertiliser is the only way to go and it will reduce his costs (including not using ag chemicals) by around 80% with only a 10-20% loss of yield in the 1st year.

The family has also developed a private rice mill that can process over 20,000 tonnes of rice per year. They are keen to market their rice to the Mexican market and in doing so enable consumers here access to a premium nutrient dense product at a price that matches or is below the heavily subsidised US rice that is ‘marketed’ in Mexico every year, and in doing so undercuts the locally produced rice. Going ‘cold turkey’ on what I call ‘Pharming’ saves significant costs and our consultancy will only continue to keep the price of their rice low whilst enabling Jorge to achieve his company and community foundation goals which certainly fit with what I call Regenerative Agriculture.

The main part of this consultancy, conducted by Eugenio Gras (MX) & Darren J Doherty (AU) with Jorge is to develop the farm so that it will:

  1. Design Placement of a series of dams & aqueducts to deliver water by gravity storing mostly floodwaters
  2. Develop lock and valve system along aqueducts to allow shared access along with other landholders
  3. Design education program for Holistic Management training of ‘Laguna Blanca’, ‘Pancho Villa’ & Rice Mill owners, management and staff
  4. Design education program for Regrarians program for prospective residents of new villages
  5. Energy:
    1. Whole energy strategy for ‘Laguna Blanca’, ‘Pancho Villa’ & Rice Mill
      1. Biomass
      2. Biofuels
      3. Co-generation i.e. pyrolysis, syngas, electricity
      4. Hydro
      5. Hydraulic rams
  6. Forestry & Tree Crops:
    1. Biofuels
    2. Diversification & food security
    3. Amenity plantings using multi-purpose species
    4. Integration into channel, dam wall & slope, roadside & cropping areas
  7. Biodiversity:
    1. ID prime areas
    2. ID criteria for classification
    3. Research options for accreditation
    4. Corridor planning
  8. Machinery:
    1. SuperPlow
    2. Tree & crop mounders
      1. Rotovator
      2. Disc
    3. Non-chemical weeders
    4. ‘Rodale’ roller
    5. Front hitch assembly (3PL – for ‘Rodale’ roller)
    6. Compost tea unit
  9. Nutrient Management
    1. Biofertiliser facilities/expansion
    2. Composting facilities
    3. Rock minerals processing
  10. Research options for Equity/Profit Sharing, Enterprise Participation, Land Trusts and Foundation/Non-Profit structures
  11. Designs:
    1. Plan views
    2. Cross sections
    3. Schematics/Flow diagrams
  12. Pasture:
    1. HM plan to include cropping phases
    2. Stock supply arrangements
    3. Stock handling facilities
    4. HM planning to place pasture planning ahead of cropping
  13. Payments for Ecosystem Services
    1. Establish baselines
    2. ID Markets – associate with EIMA, NSS, Sierra Gorda, SAGARPA, SEMARNAT, Universities, PhD’s
    3. Aggregation structures for local and regional farmers
  14. Financial Planning:
    1. Broad discussion and planning
    2. HM based approach – part of Kirk’s work
    3. Involve SAGARPA & FIRA
    4. PES
    5. Return of Profits
  15. Research & Development (R&D)
    1. Raised Beds, PES, Rice Weeding, SuperPlow Use, Rotations
    2. Create standards for field based research to minimise risk I.e. Testing on 5% of field
    3. Apply field based scientific standards to research plots (involve SAGARPA, Universities, PhD’s in this)

It is very uncommon for Mexican landowners to live on their farms. Part of this is cultural, as it is common in Spain and Italy for farmers to not live on their parcels, but rather that they live in the frequent small villages that are fringed by the agricultural parcels that these folk transport to daily.

Another important factor in all of this is the so-called ‘Narco Wars’, which since 2006 have really escalated such that there are parts of Mexico that you just don’t go with cities such as Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juarez having higher levels of violence than Baghdad, Iraq during the height of the conflict there. Official figures of murders are over 15000 and word on the street is that this may be higher than 30000 per annum. My close friend and colleague Eugenio Gras told me that when he hosted David Holmgren here in 2006, David noted that the social collapse is likely to rise as fossil fuel independence dwindles. Mexico became a net importer of oil in 2007/8 and the result, according to David’s assessment is increasing in its severity.

Locally most of the blame for the narco wars is leveled against the US, who are the consumer of the bulk of the narcotics and suppliers of the ever increasingly sophisticated arsenal of weaponry that the cashed up narcos have at their disposal, so much so that they are much better technologically equipped than the paramilitarised police and other armed forces against whom they are often pitched. One could suggest that this is a similar ‘business model’ similar to that practiced in the 1980’s etc with various Latin American regimes where guns and drugs and incredible violence play out with horrific consequences. Whatever the result in Latin America, US narcotic users and weapons manufacturers are absolutely complicit in the very sorry state of affairs.

Back on the farm this whole business also contributes to the reasoning why ‘Patron’ landholders do not reside in on their farms, and travel to and from their heavily fortified urban domiciles in daylight hours only. Kidnapping of landholders is not uncommon as they are relatively easy targets for gaining cash for organized crime in this country. In some states of Mexico it is ‘safer’ than others according to the levels of corruption and who is controlling what. According to some it is often asked of local ‘Dons’ to get the local police in line, so involved are they in these events. This is a place that is at once so amazingly diverse, productive and beautiful in people and landscapes, and yet has this despicable undercurrent of activity that is truly gut wrenching.

Our advice, with respect to the constant threat of kidnapping has been to look at the causes of this rather than just repel against the effects. Certainly there are causes that are outside of the immediate circles of influence of the landholders but then there are others that are right there to be handled. One of those is the nature and culture of the relationships held between the landholders and their workers and the communities around them. This is by no means easy for many of the entrenched attitudes and paradigms are thoroughly entrenched. An example of this was asked just the other day in which I was asked by a Mexican landholder if indigenous Australians were ‘…good workers…’ I have had this same veiled question (and others more pointed!) asked by white South African, Zimbabwean and US farm owners over my time as well, fuelled by their belief system that suggests that the colonized are ‘lazy bludgers’, though that you ‘might get a good one’ from time to time!

Dealing with this kind of attitude is difficult, especially when you are a guest in someone’s house and country, though I can’t stand by and let this kind of thing fly when it grates against by stomach to hear and witness any kind of racial vilification. What to do then? By demonstration is the best means and this is bore witness by people like Jorge Snr. (who are in the absolute minority) where he friendlily fraternizes with his workers, is demonstrably embedded in the lives, lives modestly with them on his farm, as opposed to being aloof and adversarial, smiles instead of snarls and in general follows the Permaculture principle of positivism and primary activism.

The cultural dynamics of this region are similar to those of other parts of Mexico in which landholders European-descent operate in a state of ‘baronial feudalism’ (Holmgren 2002), in which these sometimes very vast estates are owned by the ruling classes and are primarily operated by indigenous Mexican employees. As a person raised in a family where the patriarch (my maternal grandfather Frank B. Dole) stated that ‘to profit was to steal’ and that ‘he was to the left of Trotsky’ this form of patronage is rather challenging, but then many things in this world are the more you understand and travel. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ come to mind, as do issues of cross-cultural appropriation etc. However once the boundaries of civility are crossed I am not backwards in coming forward with alternatives to the dominant paradigm, lest I would also ‘sit pretty’ on conventional agriculture, the most pervasive and damaging human activity, in fact of any species at any time in the Gaia’s history. Certainly a regenerative agriculture cannot continue to function without a regenerative culture and this system of ownership is clearly not regenerative.

Certainly there is still a long way to go and Jorge is very interested in bringing people back to what is ultimately their territory and we are working this through using the Holistic Goal process and other methods developed within the Holistic Management (HM) movement. The colonial epoch has caused many peoples dislocation from their homelands which further contributes to the ethical issue that all people deserve basic access to clean air, water and soil + shelter, food and energy over which they have appropriate domain and ideally within the limits of growth. This will involve engaging in a range of sessions with the owner, managers, workers etc. such that they can develop the Holistic Goal for this operation as they are the decision makers for this project and their individual statements to the key components of Holistic Goal formation, ‘Quality of Life’, ‘Forms of Production’ & ‘Future Resource Base’ becomes the collective statement against which decisions regarding this enterprises’ operations are questioned. The HM Model for Decision Making will also be applied such that this paradigm changing process of human decision making is hopefully transformed, and at the very least openly questioned. We have to do something!

Much of this has to do with applying a much more inclusive and participatory approach to decision making, as well as changing the make up of land ownership/stewardship, along with enterprise equity & participation plus community engagement in education and support. Certainly there are a range of options on the table in this case and we are starting the process of ‘top down thinking with bottom up action’ and beginning the conversation mindful of the current sensitivities, whilst pondering the challenges that lie ahead in transitioning a society with declining fossil carbon.

Over our 8 day trip here we have been able to solve all of the issues of primary concern as the land (and production systems) is by comparison to its people relatively straight forward and are now working on the detail to move to development, which by record, intent & attitude Jorge, Almendro and families and community are more than capable to achieve and what’s more are very keen to invest their capital & future in.

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