Sunday, April 21, 2013

Spring Rain comes to Living Roots

One of the most significant cultural developments I have seen this Season in the area around Loreto has been the progress the Living Roots organization has made and the impact that it is having on the ranchero community surrounding San Javier.  I have written about Raises Vivas and it’s dynamic Director, McKenzie Campbell, earlier this season ( and so I was interested when I heard about a fund raising event for their benefit being held in the home of Jesse and Dirk, who live within (but not part of) the Loreto Bay development.

It was a perfect calm day, with warm sun and blue skies when about 50 supporters, mainly from Loreto Bay and the surrounding Nopolo neighborhood, gathered to make a contribution to Living Roots and learn more about what they have accomplished and what their goals are for the future.  Laid out in the beautiful back yard of out host’s home were some light snacks and cold drinks, as well as samples for sale of some of the Living Roots products including leatherwork and embroidery as well as some ranchero made delicacies like Dulce de Leche (a delicious caramel like topping).

 During this event McKenzie made a very interesting presentation about the beginnings and progress of the organization she has been involved in building over the past few years and, rather than try to summarize her words, I asked her permission to reproduce her text here for you all to read for yourselves:

“Living Roots began in the 2010 as a Social Enterprise with the purpose of working with Baja’s ranchero families to adapt and thrive in a quickly modernizing world.  The Living Roots model is not about hand-outs, or traditional charity.  We believe in empowering ranchers and helping provide the tools to determine their own futures and success.

The picture of who these Baja’s rancheros are may be best painted by the first ranching family I met in the Sierra la Giganta.  In 2008, my husband Dave and I, walked into the mountains scouting a new course area for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) which we were both involved in.  We were in search of the cowboy legend, Dario Higuera, who Trudi Angel, owner of Saddling South had told us we had to meet.

 After several long days of walking along the Camino Real on mesa tops and over sharp volcanic rock, we finally arrived at Rancho El Jarillal, where Dario Higuera and his family live.  We were nearly out of food, dirty, stinky and thirsty.  Despite our showing up out of the middle of nowhere, Dario and his family welcomed us in with open arms.  They sat us down in the shade, served coffee, goat cheese and squash sweets. 

 It was a Sunday, and while we ate and took a bath, Dario put on his hat and saddled up his burro to guide us the several kilometers up the arroyo that represent his life story.  He had spent several years growing up in an over hung cave next to a big tinaja, water hole surrounded by rock art.

Then he went to boarding school in San Javier for three years, broke horses for living, herded cows down to the docks in Loreto, and eventually started to make a life for himself and his family raising goats and cows, selling cheese as well as developing his skills as a master leather craftsman.    To me, the Higueras represent the essence of the Baja ranchero culture; they are welcoming, generous, proud, self-reliant, and incredibly devoted to their land and to their family.

The following year, with NOLS, I brought the first group of American students on an expedition through the sierra, where we met other such genuine families living their lives intertwined with the land, which we all appreciated and admired.  However, it was during our drive out of the mountains at the end of that first course, when we first saw the bulldozers breaking way for the new paved road into San Javier, that it struck me what a critical time this is for rancheros like Dario.

While modernization such as the new road, the arrival of electricity, and within the last month, cell phone coverage, offers incredible opportunity, it also poses significant threats to their traditional lifestyle. This is especially true for a culture that has historically been quite isolated, has relatively little education, and for centuries has been predominantly self-reliant.  Never having needed to participate in the broader economy, and often times, not having ventured far from their ranches, these rancheros don’t know how to benefit from, or even recognize these new opportunities.  They have expressed fear at being left behind as the modern-world quickly overtakes them.

It was this realization that prompted me to go back to school to get an MBA in Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise and form a team that started Living Roots to help empower the rancheros to map out their own future on their own terms.  Community empowerment is a lovely, lofty goal - which in practice is a long and challenging road.  First we had to really listen to what the community of San Javier and surrounding ranches wanted for their futures.  In the summer of 2010 they asked for assistance to achieve three major goals:

·         Direct access to markets for their products

·         Protecting and rejuvenating unique traditional skills

·         Locally managing tourism

The first step in helping them actualize this vision was fostering local leadership and we formed a Leadership Team of seven members, one from each of the ranch communities that surround San Javier, to energize, organize, and make important decisions for their community.  Their first challenge was to learn how to trust each other, outline objectives and work toward them, and most important, openly communicate with each other through the inevitable “small community” challenges they faced.

 Next we created a Brand, “Living Roots”.  The San Javier Leadership team, which essentially represents a regional marketing association, decided the criteria the Raices Vivas (Living Roots) Brand is to represent.  They determined that to participate, products needed to be hand-made, by people who have origins in sierra communities and should be based on traditional skills.  With this brand promoting authenticity, Living Roots began to help rancheros improve product quality and discover new markets for traditional products such as olive oil, leatherwork, preserves and embroidery.

 With Living Roots help, the San Javier community built and opened the long awaited dream of an information center, which provides the rancheros as well as San Javier residents a space to directly sell products, organize tourism, exhibit their culture and lifestyle and serve as a central information and community hub.  Each ranch community contributed to the building, which was constructed in the traditional way with adobe walls, a stone floor and a thatch roof.

 The university in La Paz will provide a computer and library to make available resources such as best agricultural practices and literature that has been previously written about sierra families and the ranchero history.  For the past several months we have been working hand in hand with the leadership team and the two representatives in charge, Jesus Martinez and Trinidad Castro, to teach them inventory management, accounting, pricing and other business management techniques.

The group’s hope for the future is to incorporate as a Community Enterprise, similar to a cooperative.  Living Roots is walking them through this process toward autonomy, providing the tools to ensure the committee is sustainable from an organizational and economic standpoint, and that they are prepared to run and grow the business independently.

 Key to the enduring longevity of the ranchero culture is keeping young people excited about it.  We have done this in two ways.  First we went to the schools and asked what the kids what like to learn from local masters.  Their answers were across the board: how to plant, how to ride horses, how sew, and learn leather work and embroidery skills.  This sparked a program called Sierra Heritage Workshops where resident experts in their field come into the school to teach traditional skills.

Also this spring, we began our Jóvenes Documentalistas, or Young Documentarians program which is helping preserve valuable cultural history by training teenagers to use multi-media techniques to record and share the life-stories of their grandparents and local legends.  A couple of weeks ago, with a group of secondary school students, ages 12 to 17, we once again walked the long trail to Rancho El Jarillal, to talk Dario Higuera and his family.  But this time their niece and nephew and several other friends from surrounding ranches, got to prod them with questions about their lives, learn how to make their own leather belts and were able to document it all, to display soon at the Cultural Center.

 Our next goal is to establish Community-Driven Tourism.  We have begun to create the community organization needed to run a medicinal plant and interpretive trail through San Javier, past the mission and into the orchard.  Ensuring that this is truly community driven means more meetings and capacity building just to get to the step of making a brochure and finally putting in signs and infrastructure.

 This year we were fortunate to break a three year severe drought, but who knows what next year will bring.  In preparation for this unknown future, the ranchers have identified their most critical need as food security.  For them, this translates into planting more gardens, ideally organic, and increasing income apart from their traditional livestock.  As our next major objective, we would like to help rancheros begin to plan for the day the next drought hits, through organic gardening, income savings and water conservation plans.

 We chose to begin working in San Javier both because of its historical importance, as being the oldest continuously cultivated orchard in the Californias, and also because the community is on the brink of major change.  As they take on more and more ownership, and are increasingly able to move ahead independently, Living Roots is beginning to think about what other sierra communities we will begin to work more closely with in the future, such as Martha and Juan Pablo’s family just north of here, or Chema’s family in the Sierra San Francisco.

All of this would not have been possible without the Loreto community and Loreto Bay. You have supported us and given your encouragement to the committee in San Javier by seeking Raices Vivas branded products, visiting the Cultural Center and being “guinea pigs” on medicinal plant tours.  Your contributions in 2011 helped develop local leadership and the marketing association, your contributions last year went directly into building and opening the Cultural Center and Marketplace.  Today we are asking you to take the next step in your commitment to supporting locally envisioned and driven development by becoming a sustaining member of Living Roots.  

As we were trying to come up with a name for this special group of supporters who pledge their commitment to the long term process of community empowerment and Cultural longevity, I asked Chuy, who is now president of Raices Vivas in San Javier, what this group should be called.  He recommended calling you “Cabanuelos”, which is the spring rain that helps maintain life in the hills throughout the dry months of summer.  Your contribution today will go to strengthening San Javier’s ability to local manage tourism, help rancheros grow organic gardens and prepare them for the next drought.  To do this, we are seeking contributions of $30,000 for the next year, and we are already a third of the way to that goal.   Thank you for your support and investment in a vibrant future for ranching families.”

For those of you not fortunate enough to have enjoyed this presentation first hand, you too can become a supporter of Raises Vivas, possibly even a Cabanuelos, by visiting their website where you can learn more about their fascinating story and the exciting works they are supporting in the ranchero community.  Giving something back to enrich the historic culture of this special place by helping to grow “Living Roots” is one of the privileges of “Living Loreto”.