Recognizing that rural communities offer solutions to pressing environmental problems, the Autonomous Group for Environmental Research (GAIA in Spanish), a Mexican NGO, was created in 1998 to promote decentralized and sustainable landscape management and the wellbeing of farming communities in Oaxaca.
GAIA combines traditional practices of Mexican farmers and foresters with scientific knowledge, seeking both biodiversity conservation and the bolstering of rural livelihoods. The management strategies they promote strengthen collective local governance of shared natural resources or “the commons”. For two decades, GAIA has worked with diverse communities in the watersheds of the rivers Copalita, Zimatán, and Huatulco. Their main objective is to protect the Copalita-Zimatán-Huatulco hydrological complex, whose waters sustain agriculture across Indigenous communities and the tourism industry at the Huatulco Bays.
The partnership between GAIA and local communities led to a coalition across southern Mexico states: the Community System for Biodiversity (SICOBI in Spanish), formed in 2001. SICOBI is committed to sustainable land management and the agroecological production of coffee, honey, corn, and beans. Its own brand, Pueblos y Selvas, certifies and markets the produce, primarily for solidarity and niche markets.
Soil fertility and water conservation are key elements of the agroecological practices promoted by GAIA. Through simple methodologies, GAIA provides training and technical support to a network of farmer-trainers on how to take care of soils and water. This is not a traditional top-down extension system, where a professional agronomist tells farmers what to do; it relies mainly on the capacity of peasant organizations to conduct research and disseminate agroecology practices themselves, in partnership with small farmers’ cooperatives.
AEF is supporting GAIA to expand this work in numerous communities, and build bio-input (natural fertilizer) plants which multiply microorganisms that accelerate soil recovery. The availability of bio-inputs can help accelerate scaling up agroecology, reducing the time necessary to improve soil health and increase crop yields. In addition to supporting Mexican farmers’ production capabilities, the soil-water health and landscape management approach promoted by GAIA is also key to mitigating climate change. Through their work, GAIA helps create climate-resilient ecosystems, restores the link between agrobiodiversity and wild landscapes; ensures sustainable production and consumption by smallholders; and strengthens community-led resource management.
GAIA advocates for greater recognition of the role of communities’ efforts in the maintenance and provision of ecosystem services. Along with SICOBI, it leads the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) in Oaxaca.
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