I'm not writing much except my pre-qual exam materials these days, but I do have some good pictures. This is the garden at the secondary school in Tzucacab, Yucatan. I've been marginally involved in this project called Solares Escolares since I came to Yucatan the first time on an exchange program in 2004. The idea was to combine an educational school garden, as exemplified by the Life Lab curriculum in California and modeled on local come gardens called solares, with a community run site for germplasm conservation. Germplasm is ecology jargon for seeds, cuttings, and breeding animals that contain genetic material and can reproduce.
The story of germplasm loss is a familiar one in all parts of the world: the old varieties, and the food traditions that went with them, seem headed for extinction. There are many species and varieties of crops and animals that are becoming rare in the homegardens of Yucatan. Many of these are native, or imported at some point but have adapted particularly well to conditions here. There are a lot of fruit trees, like the native Anona, with its big, hart shaped fruits that are full of creamy mush inside that tastes like raspberries. You eat it with a spoon. Others are animals, like the "cerdo pelón"- the hairless pig- a dark-skinned descendant of the pigs spanish conquistadors brought with them 500 years ago (the same ones that are famous in spain for becoming jamón serrano). These pigs eat mostly roots and kitchen scraps. They make a spectacular cochinita pibil, Yucatán signature dish of acheote and bitter orange flavored pork slow roasted underground. They are becoming rarer and rarer though, displaced by pink ones bred for rapid weight gain, which require a diet of expensive grains and taste like... well you know, because you can get it in any supermarket anywhere.
So the school gardens where there to become a refuge for these crops and animals, and a place where students could learn about them, as well as use the garden for hands-on science lessons. It well in some of the schools, but the project never really took off in others, one of those being this garden in Tzucacab. Why? On one had, it has a lot to do with the interests of the teachers and directors, and here directors are constantly being moved from school to school, so the garden may do great until a director is transfered away. But I think it also confronts some hard realities, including the reality that students people learn to resent farm work as a burdon of the poor. The way of learning in school is culturally much different from the way people learn to farm by observing and working alongside their parents. Even though many students are involved in both kinds of learning, the cultures of learning clashed in the school garden.
But we're trying again. Instead of a garden that is primarily a learning space, the gardens now are primarily working community spaces They are run by a council of farmers, mostly elders, as a conservation site and a way to make some extra money from selling the produce. They are still on school grounds, but students are so far less involved. I have a working hypothesis about this change: I think that maybe, in the long run, these real working spaces will offer more compelling educational experiences for students than gardens that were constructed as educational spaces.
But on to the photos. Last year in March, I lead a group of eleven UCSC undergraduate students a trip we called an "alternative spring break." It was organized by the Community Agroecology Network, and students stayed with local families in Tzucacab and worked in the mornings on establishing the school garden. A lot of this involved cleaning trash out of a corner of the school grounds, then weeding and digging beds. This year we'll do it again. Twenty-one students are signed up and we're in the process of preparing for them here.