Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in the gardening and classroom sessions of the Huerto Agroecológico Vida y Victoria project (Agro-ecological Life and Victory Garden) in Juanacatlán, a very poor and dangerously polluted pueblo about an hour’s drive from Guadalajara.
Juanacatlán is situated on the banks of the sulfurously toxic, 433 km (269 mile) long Santiago River (Río Santiago), which is considered one of the most polluted waterways in the Americas. Although the dramatic falls of the Río Santiago that cascade over a steep bluff at the junction of Juanacatlán and El Salto were once called the Niagara Falls of México, attracting visitors from the US and Canada to swim, bathe and fish, Fusion magazine has now dubbed the Santiago “the river of death,” while Vice magazine reported in August 2016, that the Santiago is a “toxic hell” that has caused 628 deaths, 72 in 2015 alone.
The Río Santiago is so lethally toxic that in February, 2008, an eight year old boy, Miguel Angel Lopez Rocha, who fell into the river died from arsenic poisoning 19 days after being rescued. The condition of this river is an act of violence against the people not only of Juanacatlán, but of México and the world. It should alarm and offend anyone who knows about it.
I was invited to the Vida y Victoria garden by the project founder, MD and clinical nutritionist Miyuki Takahasi, a wonderfully positive woman with her own fascinating family history as a Japanese-Mexican. Miyuki has been working in Juanacatlán for more than 7 years. The first 5 years were spent as a treating clinical nutritionist, where Miyuki saw hundreds of cases of pollution-caused illnesses and cancers first hand, often paying for her patients’ lab toxicology analyses out of her own pocket to document the links between the river’s pollution and their health problems.
Both the national and local governments refuse to regulate the heavy industries and agri-business operations that are poisoning the river, in spite of clear evidence of the profound health risks to local populations living in the watershed. In the face of this indifference, Miyuki is working to forge alliances with non-profit groups such as Greenpeace to raise awareness and bring political pressure for regulatory enforcement. In the interim, she realized that one way to fight back was by educating the local people about nutrition, micro and macro-ecology and environmentally sustainable organic gardening.
The result is the Huerto Agroecológico Vida y Victoria project, which has partnered with the local Juanacatlán High School to educate students and local residents in nutrition, natural healing, organic gardening and ecology. The project works a donated one hectare parcel of land (2.47 acres) where students grow a wide variety of vegetables, flowers, fruits and medicinal herbs for their own Living Pharmacy. Plants that repel pests are also strategically planted throughout the garden. Students and locals are taught first how to eat a healthy diet; second how to grow their own healthy food; and third how to generate revenue from the community garden by selling flowers and fresh organic produce.
The entire project is a labor of love without any real funding. Miyuki relies instead on the many friendships and alliances she has made after years of working in the community.
In addition to working in the garden, students receive formal training and lectures from Miyuki in nutrition, organic farming and ecology. Separate classes on natural cures and remedies are taught by native expert Felicitas Gutiérrez, known by students as “Feli,” as part of the Living Pharmacy. Students are tested and asked to make presentations on topics ranging from nutrition to cultivation of organic crops to preventive natural medicine. The day I attended, a young woman gave an excellent presentation to her fellow students and community participants on the interrelatedness of micro and macro-ecosystems.
By educating local residents and students and raising their awareness of the damaging effects of contaminated food and water, Miyuki is creating a
counterweight to governmental and corporate indifference. Knowledge is a form of empowerment, and as the Vida y Victoria garden project grows, it is offering a hopeful light for the future. It gives locals the knowledge they need to participate effectively in the ongoing fight to stop the poisoning of their river and its entire watershed ecosystem.
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