Photos by Shaun Boyte
“The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops;
the people will be secure in their land.
They will know that I am the Lord,
when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them
from the hands of those who enslaved them …
They will live in safety, and no one will make them afraid.”
– Ezekiel 34:27, 28b
“People see me planting crops or seedlings and they say, ‘Why so many plants? Why all the trees?’ Carolina stands among rows of vegetables on her hilltop farm. At her feet radishes, beans, and tomatoes push toward the sun. “It’s because we’ve destroyed something that God left for us here on earth. We’re called to help conserve this part of creation that we have.”
Carolina Contreras is a farmer. The term calls to mind sturdy Midwestern men in overalls, but the indigenous people of Oaxaca, Mexico are farmers of a different sort. In a forgotten corner of the country, leaders like Carolina are reforming their communities by healing the land and caring for their neighbors. This story is about these farmers.
October in Oaxaca: wildflowers everywhere. The city is preparing for Día de los Muertos. Women sell heavy garlands of marigolds from carts. Well-dressed skeletons wave paper mache hands from windows. In street stalls, rolls of pan de muerto steam in fragrant piles. All across Mexico people wait for their dead to return.
In the arid mountains outside the city, different preparations take place. The land keeps time with the holiday by producing flor de muerto, a spicy lavender herb, and wild marigolds. In rural communities farmers turn over the soil, plant tree seedlings, and harvest vegetables. The rhythms of the land overshadow the coming holiday. People here are not waiting for their dead to return so much as they are bringing their land to life.
Sixteen indigenous people groups call Oaxaca home—more than in any other Mexican state. Yet while indigenous culture is celebrated in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, indigenous communities are often ostracized, isolated by land, language, and traditions. Tucked high in the hills, these villages are abandoned by government support and cut off from resources like education. Families survive the same way their ancestors did: through subsistence farming. Yet after tilling the same soil for centuries their land has nothing left to give.
Of the world’s poorest people, 85% are rural farming families—people who depend on their land to survive. If the soil doesn’t produce, they go without food and income. The same is true for Oaxaca’s indigenous people. Unable to make a living on their own land, desperate communities fall into patterns of substance abuse, violence, and emigration. Families break apart as men travel al Norte—to northern Mexico or the United States. The lack of dignified work leaches hope like water fading from dry ground.
What if the narrative were different? What if these communities—long forgotten and marginalized—rediscovered purpose and dignity by tapping into the potential that lay beneath their feet? In the remote Oaxacan mountains, farmers are doing just that.
Getting to a community like La Paz requires several hours in a truck, first following a highway out of the city and then climbing into the mountains. The road winds over hills and skirts valleys, the landscape studded with agave plants and cacti. Some hillsides are covered in pine forests while others are gouged, swaths of bare land tearing through the forest where trees have been slashed and burned. Eventually the road turns to dirt. It would be easy to miss the turnoff for this community. It would be easy to forget La Paz altogether. Like other remote indigenous villages, most people already have.
But look closer, because La Paz defies expectations. Meaning “The Peace,” La Paz is an indigenous Mixtec community. True to its name, the people are serene and hospitable. Land that was barren ten years ago now grows green with young pine trees. Rising above the village is a hill called La Corona—The Crown—and perched like a gem on the crown is the home of Carolina Contreras. It takes five minutes for a truck to climb the steep incline of gravel and dirt to the top of La Corona. Carolina, petite and wearing worn sandals, walks it in half that time.
Carolina remembers the day her life changed. On an afternoon in 2007, several agroecologists visited La Paz. They spoke to the community about starting vegetable gardens, saving water in cisterns, and putting nutrients back into the soil. Most La Paz residents were hesitant. After all, they had used the same farming techniques for decades, even centuries. They lived as their ancestors did. But it was true, their land didn’t grow very much food anymore, and people were hungry. Nearly half of La Paz—fathers, brothers, and sons—had emigrated north in search of work.
Unlike many of her neighbors, Carolina saw the visit as an opportunity. A single mother, she had bent low over her land for years, trying to coax enough food and income from the soil. Farming was the only way to nourish her children and afford their education. She asked the agroecologists to teach her new techniques. “If you get the opportunity to improve your life,” she says, “why wouldn’t you do it? Doors will open, but you have to move through them.”
Carolina knew her risk had paid off when the first shoots broke the soil’s surface. With rain captured in a newly constructed cistern, she watered her young radishes, beans, and chilies. She made organic fertilizer using leaves, pepper, and soap, and raised worms for compost. When her neighbors refused to plant corn in a new parcel, Carolina dropped seeds into the untouched earth. Today, the plot surrounding La Corona is green with corn stalks.
The agroecologists who visited La Paz worked with Plant With Purpose, an organization dedicated to alleviating rural poverty. Plant With Purpose uses a holistic approach to fight some of the world’s most entrenched poverty by teaching farming families to restore their land—land that’s been depleted by years of overuse, deforestation, and outdated farming techniques. When families heal their soil, they grow more crops. With crops come more income and better nutrition. Income allows parents to afford education for the next generation and build a more secure future. Most importantly, Plant With Purpose teaches rural families that they have a role to play in caring for the land. For people who believe they don’t have anything to offer, learning that God invites them to work is radically good news.
Plant With Purpose’s model hinges on local leadership. Those who see the program’s benefits and want to share them—the risk-takers and the go-getters—are called promoters. The verb “to promote” in Spanish, promover, has multiple meanings: to encourage, to raise up, and to initiate. Carolina is, among many things, a promoter, which means she is La Paz’s resident encourager, leader, and initiator.
Being a promoter requires fearlessness, as promoters are the first to try projects: building a greenhouse, planting a different crop. When income and food depend on its success, putting resources toward trying something new is risky. But like hope, courage is contagious. Carolina’s courage acts as a stimulant to her neighbors, who have transitioned from ancient farming techniques to innovative methods. “We don’t know what the results will be,” she says. “But we have to learn, to experiment, and to try things out.”
Though she hardly tops five feet tall, Carolina is a firecracker. She’s a community leader, running the health clinic and serving as La Paz’s resident doctor and nurse. She cooks at the community kitchen, leads health workshops and farming trainings, and runs her own farm complete with a vegetable garden, trees, pigs, and chickens. She constructed a cistern to conserve water and rainfall. She reforested the hillsides surrounding her property to bring back soil fertility. She recently purchased land at the top of La Corona and built her house. Occasionally she sleeps.
From the hill overlooking La Paz, Carolina leads by example. “I have a responsibility to show a different lifestyle to my neighbors. Sometimes we don’t do things because we don’t have resources like water, but it’s not an excuse.” She waves a hand toward the blue cement cistern next to her house, which holds hundreds of liters of rainwater. “There are people in the community who see what I’m doing and they say, ‘If she’s doing that, why not me?’ So my work is a challenge and encouragement to them.”
The oldest of ten siblings, Carolina never attended high school. She dreamt of finishing her education but only her younger brothers graduated. Her father told her to get married and settle down, but, as Carolina puts it, “I wasn’t born just to stay in the house.” Though she couldn’t finish school, Carolina is determined her children will receive an education and reach adulthood with more opportunities than she did. Her daughter is in sixth grade and her son recently graduated from high school.
What is notable about Carolina, besides her fearlessness and capacity for hope, is the peace that blankets her. She is, as she says herself, tranquila. Though her efficient hands never stop moving her demeanor is wholly serene. “We have had needs, but our confidence has always been in God,” she says. “It’s always been this way, and it’s very beautiful. Whatever happens, God is with me. He is going to help me, and I am going to do my part.” And though her part is significant, she brushes any recognition away. “People think you have to be strong but it’s not like that. If God is so strong and so powerful, he can do anything. I just have to add my little grain of sand.”
La Paz is transformed thanks, in part, to Carolina’s boldness, vision, and sheer force of will. Since 2007 the community reforested a hillside with pine trees. Because of this young forest, soil fertility returned and a sustainable source of wood is available for cooking. Families built cisterns so they no longer have to walk miles to haul water from the river. Renewal is visible all over the community: better diets, more income, reduced migration, increased dignity, and hope for the future.
Carolina has taught La Paz that God formed the earth and called it good. Despite her accomplishments, she has no plans to slow down. “I have a lot of dreams, and I hope to accomplish them all. Sometimes my mom tells me, ‘Hija, you even dream when you’re awake!’” She laughs. “And I tell her, ‘Yes, but these things are worth dreaming about.’”
Drive any distance along the United States’ west coast and fields dotted with laborers will materialize. Many of these bent figures are indigenous Mixtec or Zapotec people from the highlands of Oaxaca. They travel thousands of miles north, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, braving immigration police and drug cartels, to land in unfamiliar cities like Ventura and Salinas. They spend long days stooped over leafy rows of strawberries and cucumbers, the sun scorching necks and arms, while back home their family ekes out a living on the barren land they left behind.
This was Alier’s story. As a young man he married Isabel and the two began their life together in Loma Chimedia, an indigenous Mixtec community in the pine-clad mountains of Oaxaca. But they were often hungry, only eating the beans and corn they grew on their small parcel. Forced to choose between providing for his family or living with them, Alier traveled to the city to find work, leaving his home, his new wife, and the community he loved behind. For two years he worked in the city during the week, returning home to Loma Chimedia and Isabel on weekends. In this sense Alier was lucky; he didn’t have to travel thousands of miles to northern Mexico, or cross the cartel-run border, or build a new life alone in the U.S.
After two years he moved back to Loma Chimedia for good, but he and Isabel, like their neighbors, fought to raise crops from the land. Then in 2003, Alier heard about an organization working directly with a neighboring community. This was unusual, as most government programs simply dropped off supplies or money and left, leaving a wake of unfinished projects and bad feelings. Plant With Purpose invited Alier to visit the projects they had begun nearby, and out of curiosity he agreed. When he arrived at the community he found a newly constructed water tank. “I remember seeing that tank of 20,000 liters,” he says. “My eyes opened.” As Alier looked at the cistern, he thought about the forty minutes it took him to walk to the nearby river to collect water every day. He thought about rationing the limited water for his corn and beans and saving the rest for his family’s drinking, bathing, and washing. What would his community be able to accomplish with a ready water source?
He said to himself, this is what we need. Possibilities formed in his imagination about irrigation and clean water and growing more food. Was there another option besides emigrating or going hungry? What would it be like to dig into the soil right beneath his feet and make a living in Loma Chimedia?
Alier gathered his neighbors and wrote a proposal to build a water tank with the help of Plant With Purpose. When the proposal was approved, all of Loma Chimedia worked together to build the cistern—this one with a capacity of 70,000 liters. Suddenly, Alier saw the potential for self-sufficiency in his own community. The opportunities felt endless—what else could his family do to transform their lives? He lists off the projects they started, the words tumbling out more quickly than he can keep up with: raising chickens, starting a vegetable garden, building a tomato greenhouse, and growing pomegranate and apple trees irrigated with water from the tank. In a place he thought it wasn’t possible to grow a livelihood, Alier discovered abundance right beneath his feet.
He remembers what happened next: “The idea of emigrating just dissipated.”
“We started growing ideas and for me, I had this vision of being able to develop my own community, and to grow with my people,” he says. His neighbors were incredulous at first. What did Alier mean, he was growing all those vegetables in his own garden? Was he planting in a different season? They knocked on his door and asked to see the projects with their own eyes. He invited them in and showed them how techniques like irrigation, fertilizers, and mulching increased production.
Under his straw hat, Alier has a wide smile. He seems comfortable in his skin and carries himself with an easy, humble bearing. It’s not hard to imagine him as a leader, someone everyone in the community wants to fall in step with. Back in 2003, Alier didn’t know about Plant With Purpose’s promoter program. He just knew he had a vision, and he wanted to bring his neighbors with him. “I realized that I didn’t want just me to benefit, but also my neighbors and the whole community at large,” he says. And so he began spreading his ideas, pushing Loma Chimedia to dream bigger, to imagine a life that meant not just surviving but thriving on their own land.
He organized trainings and workshops where he taught neighbors how to make the most of their resources. “God has made us to work and be productive, to be creative, and develop our talents,” he says. Part of his work meant convincing people they had talents to contribute in the first place. “As people gain confidence, they are willing to try new things and take risks.” He taught them to grow a variety of crops instead of just beans and corn; to conserve water; to make organic compost; and to reforest Loma Chimedia with tree seedlings. When the community outgrew their meeting space he initiated the creation of a community center to host workshops and visitors. The Mixtec community began to take pride in their culture and their land. Fewer people migrated north. “Many of [my neighbors] have absorbed a mentality that says they have no value, and that their language and culture have no value,” Alier says. “We are working to change that.”
He’s also passionate about educating the community’s children. “When we plant trees I tell people, ‘Let them help. Let them plant trees. Even if they break a seedling, what does it matter?’ We have been teaching children to know their value, because they are our next generation.” He and Isabel now have two young kids, who they will raise in Loma Chimedia. They have already begun teaching them the importance of rootedness—of pouring into the people who raise them and the land that sustains them.
In his greenhouse Alier crouches among the leafy fragrance of 500 tomato plants. “If we take care of our land, our security will be there. Our food. Our water.” He prunes the plants by hand, gently snapping off leaves and weaving stems up the wires that hold them upright. It’s been thirteen years since he became a promoter, and Loma Chimedia is a renewed community. “We are making that link between creation, between God’s Word, and nature. God created nature complete, with everything, and that’s part of what we all share. We are stewards of his work.”
Promoters like Alier have rescued manual farm work from its stigma. Instead of toiling as migrant laborers in fields thousands of miles away, they are building a life from their own soil, putting down roots, and calling the work beautiful. By seeing farming as a way to care for God’s earth, Alier reintroduced dignity to his community. “This experience helped us realize God’s love and that He is here,” Alier says. Here, in Loma Chimedia, where he believed it was impossible to stay. Here, where he thought life would never take root.
“We have water, we have our land, and we have our community. I don’t know about in the city, but here, nothing scares me.”
In Ezekiel 34, God promises to be Israel’s shepherd. His sheep have been left to fend for themselves and so God becomes their shepherd, caring for their needs and leading them into a new land. The picture Ezekiel paints is one of abundance: green pastures and clear rivers and trees heavy with fruit. The land of his vision looks something like Carolina’s and Alier’s communities. La Paz and Loma Chimedia have become places to dwell in peace, where, as Ezekiel writes, “no one will make them afraid.”
What God promised Israel rings true for the indigenous communities of Oaxaca: “The trees will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” The God who breaks the yoke of emigration, poverty, and shame is the God who renews all of creation, down to the seedlings pushing up through the earth.
Alier and Carolina know something that’s always been true but is easy to forget in urban, developed areas: the health of people depends on health of the land. They are nearer to the first garden than most of us, and they can train our eyes to the renewal taking place under our feet. Watch the rough hands turning over soil until the land becomes something new. Hope grows in remote places, on barren hillsides and the margins.