Avocado crops deplete water resources in Mexico

Angahuan, a town of 6,000 people in the Mexican state of Michoacán, has several generations of indigenous P’urhépecha women who practice traditional medicine. Juana and Cuchita are part of this group of a dozen healershealers known for their use of herbal medicine and commonly called tsinajperi (“Those who make life grow”) in the P’urhépecha language. They are also highly sought after for their skills in midwifery and the traditional Mesoamerican massage technique called In the oven.

medicinal plants like governor (also called creosote, trident grass), Brown (graveolens route), prodigious (Brickellia cavanillesii), Y nurita (saturates macrostem) are central to their cosmology and are grown on a small scale in their various courtyard gardens called equarho. It is a traditional agroforestry system that combines timber trees, fruit trees, medicinal plants, vegetables and flowers in a group that grows well together, with each plant benefiting from the shade and moisture provided by the dry climate. It’s like a little pharmacy always available, located just outside the kitchen, with herbs used in remedies for digestive problems, insomnia or pain.

The P’urhépecha are one of the 68 indigenous groups in Mexico, and traditional medicine is one of the main pillars of their culture, in which agroforestry plays an important role. But this heritage is now in jeopardy from water shortages caused by climate change-driven drought and from agribusiness: avocados are a lucrative export (80 percent of Michoacán’s crop goes to grocery stores in USA) and its plantations dominate the landscape for much of the 25 miles (40 kilometers) between Angahuan and the neighboring city of Uruapan.

“The P’urhépecha women have a fundamental role in the wealth of preservation of indigenous territories: they are the custodians of plant wisdom that is used for medicine, ritual and food,” says Rosendo Caro, director of the Commission Forestry of the State of Michoacán (COFOM). “His legacy is in danger due to the development of avocado in the region. This business consumes the water that was previously used for the ekuarho, deteriorates the soil with agrochemicals and has long-term consequences on water resources.”

Where is the water?

Juana’s patio garden contains several important P’urhépecha medicinal herbs, such as governor, epazote (Ambrosioid dysphania), Vicks plant (Plectranthus hadiensis), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), and white horehound (Marrubium vulgaris). These are interspersed with edible plants such as opuntia cacti and cabbage, which are used to prepare meals such as atapakua mole Y pozole.

“The ekuarho is a pre-Hispanic agroforestry system typical of the P’urhépecha population,” says biologist María del Carmen Godínez. “In the beginning, it was developed in the forest: people planted corn with squash, chili and beans, taking advantage of forest products such as wood, medicinal plants or mushrooms. Then, after the conquest, they took it to the population centers. Now, it’s easier to find in backyards than in the woods. However, while the p’urhépecha communities increased in population, the ekuarho were increasingly reduced due to the fragmentation of property”.

In Angahuan, the ekuarho continues to be the center of daily life for curanderas. Here they grow medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables, pine trees for building materials, and flowers for everyday enjoyment. The women also enjoy the shade of the patio gardens, sharing family moments or working on embroidery under the scorching sun.

But before the rainy season, the ground here is dry as sand. “It is difficult to continue working as traditional healers with the scarcity of water that has increased over the last five years,” says Juana. She wears the traditional p’urhépecha costume with a long pleated skirt, apron and embroidered shirt covered by blue and black striped shawls.

“In the dry season, we don’t have many plants and sometimes they dry up. You have to wait for the first rains for everything to sprout, ”he says. A peach tree recently died of thirst in the patio, so her husband Nacho transformed it into a table. But every morning, when the first rays of the sun filter into the garden, she waters her plants with a basin.

“I only use a little because we have to avoid waste,” he explains. “We have running water only every three days for just one hour, normally from 8 to 9 am I use recycled water [and still] we need to buy gallons in stores to prepare ointments and essential oils.”

A fourth generation legacy

Learning traditional medicine from her grandmother, Victoria, is one of Juana’s cherished childhood memories. “We used to pick black cherries and herbs in the forest. But now, fewer trees surround us due to the development of orchards and the sawmill trade,” she says. After Juana grew up, she pursued professional training in Uruapan to help her community as a healer.

“When I was young, all the women were herb collectors,” says Juana’s mother, Maria Teresa, 67. “At that time, we didn’t have a medical center in town, this was the only option for us.”

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