Sustainable Ranching and the Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo
The new Museo de Vaqueros del las Californias in El Triunfo – The Cowboy Museum – is an intimate, yet gorgeously expansive look at the 300 years of families, traditions, skills and tools that bind the Californias of Mexico and the United States in ways that no war or border can erase. It is a celebration of the great vaquero / cowboy culture that was born in Baja California, moved north with the cattle to Alta California, and still thrives today throughout the western United States.
The museum exhibits are punctuated with the fantastically beautiful paintings of La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro, who created ten paintings and two murals to help tell the vaquero’s story, as well as stunning photos of present-day vaquero life by renowned Baja California Sur photographer Miguel Angel de la Cueva. As with its sister museum in El Triunfo, Museo Ruta de la Plata / the Silver Route Museum, one of the museum’s most compelling exhibits is the oral history section, in which members of local ranching families share their stories, histories and anecdotes.
But perhaps one of the most interesting themes running throughout the museum in small plaques and chalk drawing prints is that of sustainability. Interwoven with exhibits of criollo pigs and cattle brought from the Iberian Peninsula, is the explanation of Transhumance, livestock practices with minimal environmental impact that the Spanish brought with them to the New World that involved the environmentally sustainable practice of seasonal livestock migration. This practice is now a cornerstone of regenerative cattle ranching, and you don’t have to go far from the museum to see it in action. Christy Walton’s innovacionesAlumbra, an alliance of sustainable businesses in Baja California Sur, is the owner not only of the Cowboy Museum, but also of Rancho Cacachilas – about an hour’s drive from the Cowboy Museum – where modern day cowboys are fast at work restoring the land.
Florent Gomis, a Frenchman who came to Baja to study the Ecology of Desert Climates, is the Director of Sustainability at Rancho Cacachilas, and Transhumance is at the heart of his efforts. “In Baja California Sur as elsewhere in the ranching world, livestock has been blamed for the destruction of the land. In reality, the cattle aren’t the problem, it’s the management of the cattle.” Florent explains further. “Before there were vaqueros, herds of herbivores were motivated by predators to keep moving from place to place and that movement kept the land from being overgrazed. What we are working to achieve here at Rancho Cacachilas is the restoration of the impact that wild herds of herbivores once had on the land. These wild herds would continually move location, giving lands time to recover from their impact before their return. Here at Rancho Cacachilas we manage animals in groups and keep them moving, letting the land they had previously occupied rest for at least a year.”
While cattle are typically decried as destructive, Florent sees them as part of a restorative, creative process. “We really view the cattle as gardeners. When they move to a new grazing area, their hooves break the hard-packed dirt, allowing water and minerals to infiltrate the land. The cattle’s dung and urine are full soil-revitalizing carbon and nutrients, and as the cattle graze they trample these riches into the ground, resulting in the regeneration of the land. In a relatively short period of time we have seen these eroded, barren lands become covered in vegetation.”
The benefits of Transhumance don’t stop there. “One of the really cool things about this process of regenerating the soil is that it also regenerates the rain cycle” explains Florent. “Lots of vegetation on the land has a cooling effect on the atmosphere, causing clouds to precipitate on the land. So from what was once this vast cycle of death – overgrazing, monoculture, fertilizers and pesticides – you get this great cycle of life. The cows create nutritious soil so chemicals are not needed, the soil retains water and supports vegetation, the vegetation improves the soil, attracts more rain and feeds the cows, and the rain replenishes the whole, holistic system.” Florent notes that at Rancho Cacachilas, the same amount of land that could previously support only one cow, will soon support four. Moreover, with the increased vegetation for the cattle to eat, the ranch’s need for nutritional supplements for the cattle has dropped dramatically, resulting in substantial savings.
Rancho Cacachilas aims to be its own kind of Cowboy Museum. They’ve taken the lessons from the past, applied them to the present, and plan to share what they’re learning about managing cattle in the specific conditions of Baja California Sur with ranchers throughout the peninsula. The past comes alive at the beautiful new Cowboy Museum in El Triunfo. The past is alive down the road at Rancho Cacachilas.
When Christian Liñan decided to open his third restaurant in La Paz in 2017, he resolved to work only with 100% traceable, sustainably-caught local seafood. That made his seafood supply chain logistics pretty simple: he bought totoaba from Earth Ocean Farms in La Paz and oysters from Sol Azul in San Ignacio. That was it. “I have at least 15 different recipes for totoaba” he notes.
A combination of the pandemic and interminable neighborhood renovation forced the closure of that restaurant, but Christian’s commitment to traceable, sustainably-caught seafood has spanned decades and was not snuffed by a mere change of circumstance. His talent was recognized by COMEPESCA, the Mexican Council for the Promotion of Fisheries and Aquaculture Products, and as of January 2023 Christian is the Baja representative of COMEPESCA’s wildly successful program Pesca Con Futuro / Fishing with a Future. Explains Christian, “Pesca Con Futuro started in the Yucatan peninsula in 2017 and became a highly successful, high profile coalition of chefs, fishermen, producers, marketers and distributors, all committed to responsible, sustainable, in-season consumption. They all agreed to abide by the rules that promote biodiversity of species in Mexico and avoid overexploitation, thereby guaranteeing the future of fishing and aquaculture in Mexico. The 120 eminent Mexican chefs in the Yucatan peninsula who committed to Pesca Con Futuro have had such a huge impact as they are able to transmit the concept of responsible consumption and sustainable fishing and aquaculture directly to consumers via their menus and cuisine. It is truly impressive to see what they have achieved.”
COMEPESCA didn’t tap Christian to be the Baja representative of Pesca Con Futuro just because he’s a chef with an interest in sustainability. Nor did they choose him just because of his degree in Marine Sciences from CIBNOR in La Paz. One of the key reasons they chose him is because he has witnessed firsthand the importance of engaging the full chain of players in protecting marine species. In 2009, fresh out of CIBNOR, Christian joined Noroeste Sustentable (NOS) in the upper Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez). At that time the fisheries of the upper Gulf had thousands of pangas, each of which was catching roughly three tons of fish daily, mainly with gillnets. There was no management system or operating agreement among the fisheries or with the distributors, with the result that all those thousands of tons of fish were just being dumped on the market and collapsing prices. Fishers were taking home only 6 to 10 pesos per kilo of fish and fish stocks were being rapidly depleted. It is therefore not surprising that some fishers were tempted to traffic in the highly lucrative totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba is an iconic, endemic marine fish species of the upper Gulf. Its swim bladder is highly prized in some parts of Asia for both its purported medicinal properties and as a status symbol. As totoaba swim bladders can sell for as much as USD 80,000 per kilo, they became known as the “cocaine of the sea” and attracted the same cartels in Mexico and China that traffic in such illicit substances.
Violence came to the upper Gulf, and to say that it was a complex and dangerous work environment is a severe understatement. And humans were not the only mammals that suffered from the totoaba swim bladder trade. The totoaba shares its habitat with the Vaquita porpoise, the smallest dolphin in the world. The illegal gillnets used to trap the totoaba caught and killed huge numbers of Vaquita, which rapidly became critically endangered.
It was in this environment that Christian and NOS started the Fish Less and Gain More campaign. Through incredibly hard work in the communities they were able to create an agreement among the fisheries to catch and sell fewer tons of fish, with the result that prices rose from 6-10 pesos per kilo to 20 pesos per kilo. To protect the Vaquita, they also enforced the ban on gillnets, as well as the ban on fishing in the Vaquita’s habitat. It was all going extremely well, until it wasn’t. “Unfortunately there was really no way to enforce the agreement across all the fishing communities of the upper Gulf, with the result that some areas simply ignored the agreement and ultimately after two years prices collapsed again. Gillnetting in the Vaquita habitat resumed. The NGO and donors that had supported the program decided to close it. I was so sad and frustrated.”
Which is exactly why the Pesca Con Futuro program excites him so much – all the key players in the seafood supply chain are engaged, not just the fishermen. With chefs on the front line creating demand among consumers for eco-friendly caught, traceable seafood, the fishers, distributors and marketers realize that they have to get in line with market expectations. But, notes Christian, “It is almost impossible for fisheries to get sustainable certification.” That is why Pesca Con Futuro is a champion of the Fishery Improvement Project, FIP. “The FIP is a group of organizations and people who work collaboratively to achieve the sustainability of a fishery in the shortest possible time” notes Christian. “It is a clear and simple way to share good practices and teach about traceability. Organizations that participate in credible FIPs are considered reliable sources of supply and allies of sustainable products.” The list of FIP projects in Mexico can be found at: https://fisheryprogress.org/
Christian continues, “Sustainability is the responsibility of each of us who make up the consumption, production and supply chain, a task that must be permanent. At Pesca Con Futuro we link the different actors in the value chain, making various support tools available to them to achieve informed and responsible purchases of sustainable seafood.”
Christian believes that sustainability’s time has come for the seafood market. “In the 1990s consumers were all demanding “light” products. In the 2000s it was organic produce, and now in the 2020s the public is really turning its focus to sustainability. Pesca Con Futuro is here to both increase that awareness, and to make sure that in Mexico in general and Baja California in particular that sustainable seafood practices are widespread and sustainably-caught, 100% traceable seafood is widely available to the public.”
What about that totoaba he was cooking with at his restaurant in 2017? It represents the future he hopes to see for all of Baja. Pablo Konietzko, vice president of COMEPESCA and the founder of Earth Ocean Farms, a state-of-the-art facility in La Paz which raises the totoaba explains. “In 2012 we got special permits from SEMARNAT, the agency in charge of protecting marine species, to fish for totoaba breeding stock in the upper Gulf of California. Since we brought in those first fish we have kept meticulous records such that we can fully trace the bloodline of every fish from the hatchery to the table. It is impossible for someone to imitate our fish or pass off wild totoaba as EOF-raised.” Not only is Pablo raising totoaba for the seafood market, he is helping the totoaba to recover in the wild. Notes Pablo, “For the past 7 years we have held totoaba restocking events in Bahia Concepcion in the Gulf of California, near Mulege. We have successfully released over 175,000 juveniles into the sea, and we will continue the program each year.”
Christian could not be more thrilled to be working with Pesca Con Futuro in Baja. “It is truly an honor and a privilege to do this” he says. But the work falls to each of us. Next time you order seafood at a restaurant, ask if it was sustainably caught, and if it can be traced. Only in this way can you be sure that your favorite seafood will continue to be on the menu not only for you, but for the generations to come.
Reclaiming the Soil: Regenerative Farming in Baja California Sur
50-year old Felipe Fisher is a successful Baja California Sur farmer who still works the 1.5 hectare-ranch in San Jose Viejo that his great grandparents established in 1901. He started working with his father on the ranch when he was 15 and they, together with the 132 farmers that comprise Productores Organicos del Cabo cooperative, have built a successful business exporting organic basil and cherry tomatoes to places as far-flung as Singapore, Japan, the United States and United Arab Emirates. “But it’s not just the organic farmers who are exporting,” explains Felipe about a startling Baja reality, “Most of the fruit and vegetables that you buy in Costco, WalMart and the large grocery chains in Baja Sur actually come from Sinaloa or other parts of Mexico.”
This head-spinning fact caught the attention of Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA) when it conducted an assessment of agriculture and the local food system during the pandemic. Conducted in collaboration with the International Community Foundation, the survey confirmed what Felipe and the rest of the Baja Sur farming community long knew to be true: almost all of the fruit and vegetables grown in Baja California Sur are exported, and almost all the produce we buy locally in Baja Sur is imported from Guadalajara, Tijuana and Sinaloa.
“Why is the global food system the way it is?” queries Kelsey Bearden, ASA’s Coordinator for Agroecology and Local Economy. “At one point it made economic sense to grow things here and ship them elsewhere, but the pandemic demonstrated in harsh terms that these distribution and supply chains are not as stable as was once thought. In fact, our assessment showed that Baja is extremely vulnerable from a food security perspective. We find ourselves with a rapidly growing population right when our food supply system is being vastly disrupted.”
Kelsey and her team are making haste slowly to diffuse this ticking timebomb. Their goal is to facilitate changes in the way farming has been done in Baja Sur since the 1950s, to realign a system that is reliant not only on exports, but also on imported chemicals for soil productivity. To foster change, they are building a network of support for farmers who are interested both in selling locally and improving the health of their soil to obviate the need for agrochemicals. A pilot project was conducted in La Paz municipality in 2021-2022 which revealed that not only is there a lot of interest from the farmers, but also from those whom they serve including food distributors and chefs. They are encouraged, but there are challenges.
“Baja land is as bad as it gets anywhere” observes Jan Federico William Loeffler Bird, a Mexican-American regenerative farming expert who was born and raised on the Baja peninsula, and is part of ASA’s support network for local farmers seeking change. “So much of the land here has been stripped of all nutrients by full-on chemical, industrial, monoculture farming. Our local soil needs to be rebuilt, regenerated to regain fertility. Soil fertility is the critical foundation of everything: water, biodiversity, community health and well-being.”
Jan recently completed a two-year regenerative farming pilot project on 4,000 square meters of land in Pescadero. One measure of soil fertility is the percentage of organic matter that it contains, and most of the world’s productive agricultural soils have between 3% and 6% organic matter. When the level is below 3% it is much more difficult to have good yields without using fertilizers and pesticides. Farming regeneratively for just two years between February 2020 and July 2022, Jan and his team were able to double the organic matter in the soil from 0.74% to 1.48%, a dramatic improvement. And since 50% of soil organic matter is organic carbon, it turns out that by improving the soil quality Jan’s project also sequestered 18.33 metric tons of CO2, “which is the emissions equivalent of burning 2,062 gallons of gasoline” he notes.
Community health is a key goal in regenerative farming. Dr. Andrei Aguilar is a pathologist who sees a lot of cancer among community members in Baja Sur, much of which he believes is closely tied to the widespread use of agrochemicals throughout Mexico. He wants to stop that cycle in Baja. “Here in Baja we really need to be a part of producing what we are eating” says Andrei. Andrei always loved the ranch owned and operated by his grandfather, then father, and now owns 10 hectares of it near the airport of La Paz. He and his wife Gabriela Huerta have fully embraced the regenerative farming techniques taught by Jan and other members of the ASA network. Says Gabriela, “It is amazing that we cannot find good quality, chemical-free produce in a place like La Paz. Our vision for our family and friends is a wholly self-sufficient ranch where we can grow our own food.”
Revitalizing soil comes down to mimicking nature’s processes. “When left to its own devices, nature always covers soil with living plants to generate soil health” says Jan. Andrei and Gabriela, like Jan, therefore started their project with “cover crops” like sunflowers, mesquite trees and fruit-bearing trees like guayabas, bananas, and figs. (Jan also includes corn, sorghum, oats, mustard, mung beans and more). Cover crops, which are dispersed among cash crops, “contribute to soil fertility by improving soil structure with their root systems, recycling nutrients, and accumulating organic matter” says Jan. Just a few months after their cover crops were in place Andrei and Gabriela introduced other crops including lettuce, cucumbers, pumpkins and many others. A large variety of plant species helps defend against pests and diseases while improving the soil structure, which in turn improves the soil’s ability to retain water.
“The magic appears at the end when you have a pumpkin with no chemicals,” says Gabriela. “It appears when your cucumbers this year are so much better than the year before. But you have to have a vision and you have to be patient. You have to know that your goal is to be producing healthy, chemical-free food for your family and community and that it may take 2-3 years to get there. What we’re doing with Jan and the ASA is revolutionary for Baja.”
Revolutionary? Definitely. But is it profitable? “Yes, on many levels” states Jan. “The economics of regenerative farming are clear and compelling. You have greater output based on fewer inputs. Regenerative agriculture is roughly 2 to 4 times more productive than traditional agriculture, meaning that much more food can be grown per acre, and at a lower cost.” Forbes magazine agrees. In a January 2020 article, Forbes cited the results of a Ecdysis Foundation study on how regenerative systems affect yields, pests and profitability. “…farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional plots. This increase in profitability was the result of two main factors: input costs and end markets [as] regenerative farmers received higher premiums for their crops….But the benefits go beyond fertilizer costs. Increasing soil organic matter also increased the diversity of insects found in the soil. Insect diversity has been shown to decrease harmful pest abundance… leading to stronger crops.” Kelsey of ASA also points out that foregoing agrochemicals takes out the huge fossil fuel expenditures associated with mining, manufacturing and transporting the chemicals.
Kelsey outlines some of the challenges ahead, “It’s not just about the farmers and growing the food, it’s about where the food is going, how it gets there and how it’s prepared once it gets there. We are working hard to understand the local food system, who moves the food around, what consumer requirements are and what is the capacity of the local farmers to meet local demand.”
One of ASA’s goals is to generate and facilitate shorter and more equitable supply chains to connect local food to local buyers. ASA is exploring different models for the region, including more direct sales between farmers and buyers interested in local and regeneratively produced food, as well as models that strengthen the logistics of regional sales and distribution.
Ross Vail and his sons Logan and Diego are the owners and operators of Sueño Tropical, the first and largest organic producer in Baja Sur. Their deep experience and knowledge base is another strong link in the ASA farmer support network. “We’ve been working on a food hub concept with ASA over the last two years” notes Logan. “Here at Sueño Tropical we have the set up to pack, process, store and distribute under OSHA standards the products of local farmers using regenerative techniques.” Ross adds, “Our goal is to have enough local, regeneratively-farmed products to meet the demand of all the hotels, restaurants and grocery stores of Baja Sur so that we are truly a local farm to table economy. This will take quite an effort to achieve, but it’s a challenge we embrace.”
Felipe Fisher is totally onboard with the goals of the ASA. “While we built our business on exports, we would rather be producing and selling locally, and providing healthier produce for the people of Baja Sur. There are already several local high-end stores and restaurants interested in our products.”
“I am so proud and happy about what we achieved in Pescadero” adds Jan. “Of course, there is still so much to do, but I’m super excited about this next phase. I’m building out bigger farms and expanding my regenerative farming operation to feed more of the local community.”
The change in outlook and attitude is already taking root with the next generation. Andrei and Gabriela’s daughters, now 3 and 6 years old, both fervently want to be agronomists when they grow up. Andrei and Gabriela will just be happy if their children can live in a Baja Sur community where locally grown, chemical-free produce is the norm, not the exception.
If you would like more information on how to get involved with the ASA as a farmer, buyer, or other interested party, please email the organization at or contact them via WhatsApp a +52-624-125-3283. Be a part of the change!
Todos Santos Eco Adventures and the Festivals of Todos Santos
No less an authority on the human condition than the Dalai Lama has proclaimed, “I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy.” Helping to ensure that everyone in our community can fulfill that purpose, our three local masterminds of happiness – Rouss Ramirez, Sylvia Perel and Perla Garnica – are working to unleash a veritable avalanche of joy upon our pueblomagico. Check out this stellar calendar of bliss-inducing festivals that will start our season:
1. Day of the Dead Festival. Oct 30-Nov 2. 6th Anniversary. Rouss Ramirez 2. Todos Santos Film Festival. Nov 3-8. 18th Anniversary. Sylvia Perel 3. GastroVino Food & Wine Festival. Nov 11-13. 10th Anniversary. Perla Garnica
Todos Santos Eco Adventures, in conjunction with Alianza Cero Basura, is extremely proud to be partnering with these festivals, which bring their unique creative forces to bear in bringing about not just an isolated event, but fundamental, long-term community happiness. The festivals have long been committed to funding programs in education and healthcare to assist those in our community for whom such opportunities are not readily available. Now they are working to improve the way our community thinks about and deals with trash.
The Dalai Lama finished his thought on happiness by adding, “In my own limited experience I have found that the more we care for the happiness of others, the greater is our own sense of well-being.” So come out and enjoy these festivals, support your community, and know that your happiness will be spread throughout, helping to create a better future for us all.
Rouss Ramirez and the Day of the Dead Festival.
Rouss and her store Besame Mucho Bazaar have been strong financial supporters of Alianza Cero Basura since the beginning, and this year Rouss is taking her commitment to zero waste principles one step further: all contestants in the main Catrin/Catrina contest of her Day of the Dead Festival must use repurposed materials to create their costumes! So take a fresh look at those yogurt containers, soup cans, wine bottles, potato chip bags and chewing gum wrappers and let your imagination run wild! All costume components will head to the recycling center afterwards. Rouss started the Day of the Dead Festival in 2017 with the founding of her nonprofit Amamos Nuestro Pueblo, AC (We Love Our Town AC). through which she supports children, the elderly and vulnerable people with serious illnesses in our community. Rouss has invested over 3 million pesos in her program.
Sylvia Perel and the Todos Santos Film Festival.
Since starting the Todos Santos Film Festival in 2004 Sylvia has become known for escorting famous movie stars and directors through Todos Santos. But her real passion has always been engaging local children in film making through her nonprofit, the AC Escuela de Cine Leonardo Perel (Leonardo Perel Film School), and teaching the power of film to address environmental issues. In 2019 she made Desplastificate the topic of her Cineminuto film competition, and students from across Baja California Sur submitted movies illustrating the importance of eliminating single-use plastics in our state. Next, she almost single-handedly produced Alice in the Land of the Whales, an environmental love letter to Baja California Sur, with local children both behind and in front of the camera. Other environmentally-themed films created by Sylvia’s local students include Open Sky, The Little Prince in Todos Santos and Trapiches de Todos Santos. This year the topic of her Cineminuto film competition is “Our Ocean, Our Treasure”, and again students from across the state are being invited to submit films on the importance of caring for the health of our oceans. The grand prize is a Go Pro 10. The Hollywood Foreign Press gave Sylvia a special award in 2018 for her festival’s focus on community and education.
Perla Garnica and the GastroVino Baja Food and Wine Festival.
Perla created the GastroVino Festival in 2012 to celebrate Mexican wines and great local restaurants, and it has been a joyous affair every year since. To spread that happiness, the festival has always acted as a fundraiser for local nonprofits. Since 2012 it has donated USD $64,000 to key programs for the community including the Palapa Society and the Padrino Children’s Foundation. In 2019 Perla made the festival a single-use plastic free event, and this year Alianza Cero Basura, in conjunction with Water Ways Baja, will be providing water stations at the festival to ensure that no one feels compelled to bring in single-use plastic water bottles. Perla and the organizations she works with – Ricardo Amigo Real Estate and Plaza Amigos – have been key financial supporters of Alianza Cero Basura since the beginning, and installed the first public water bottle refill station for our community at Plaza Amigos.
It takes a fair degree of faith in the goodness of your fellow man to hitchhike… with a mule. But that is exactly what Trudi Angell and her daughter Olivia did as part of La Mula Mil, their 1,000 mile mule trip up the Baja Peninsula. One of their mules had taken a respite with friends along the way, and when it came time for him to rejoin the rest of the expedition – now many miles away – Trudi and Olivia just set out along the road with him. Women and mule were picked up by a rancher with a partially empty horse trailer in a matter of minutes, and safely delivered to their camp. Says Trudi, “This was indicative of the type of reception we got from ranch families throughout the entire expedition. They were above and beyond hospitable and helpful. Wonderful meals for us, care for the mules, information on trails – they were generous to a fault with all these things.”
Doña Luz and Don Cata
Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) who has worked with Baja California rancheros for over 30 years, is not at all surprised. “The Baja ranchero culture of hospitality is directly connected to the old Bedouin custom that demanded the utmost in hospitality, requiring you to give aid and succor to anyone who asked for it for at least 3 days, even if that someone was your mortal enemy. Of course, you were free to kill him after that, but for those 3 days he was an honored guest in your home.” Bedouins?
Fermín explains. “When Padre Kino first arrived with the Jesuits in Baja California in 1683, pirates were a menace to this new territory of Spain. Padre Kino sold the Spanish king on the idea of Jesuits settling the land and using their own money and means to keep it free of pirates. In return, the Jesuits would have the right to rule without interference from a Spanish-run civil government. The king agreed and the Jesuits set about recruiting soldiers that bore little resemblance to their European counterparts. They didn’t choose people based on their fighting or weaponry skills, but rather people who knew how to raise cattle and plant crops. They didn’t choose typical soldiers looking for new world get-rich-quick schemes, but people seeking a living from the land with a focus on family. The Jesuits chose people whom they considered honorable, trustworthy and capable to protect and settle Baja California Sur.” In short, they chose the people whose descendants make it possible for women to successfully hitchhike around the peninsula with a mule. We’re getting to the Bedouins.
Miguel Martinez. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots
Fermín continued, “When the Jesuits arrived in Baja California the indigenous peoples here were hunter-gatherers, skills not suited to building a permanent society. So the Jesuits looked for people who had the ranching and farming skills that could support their missions. These people came from two main sources: 1) people from the agricultural province of Andalusia in Spain, which had been heavily settled by Moors, Arabs and Middle Easterners during the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries, and 2) descendants of the Moors, Arabs and Jews who had been kicked out of Spain during the 15th century Christian reconquest of the country, and had settled in the new world. Not only did these “soldiers” carry the Bedouin tradition of hospitality and honor, they brought Middle Eastern foods to the Baja Peninsula that still flourish to this day including olives, grapes, lentils, date palms and alfalfa.” Teddi Montes, a member of La Mula Mil expedition, took DNA samples from rancheros throughout the trip and her preliminary results show that these middle eastern bloodlines are still found throughout the peninsula, i.e., the Bedouins – along with their hospitality – are alive and well in Baja California!
Ranchero Rule in BCS
The Jesuits ended up being entirely too successful for their own good with their BCS economic model, and they were unceremoniously kicked out of Baja in 1768. The king sent a new administrator who gave the Jesuit mission lands to the “soldiers” who had been working the land under the Jesuits. By this administrative fiat a whole new class of fairly egalitarian land ownership arrived in BCS, and a system of ranches owned and operated by people with excellent skills, a strong work ethic, and a tradition of honor flourished. This was in stark contrast to mainland Mexico, which was heavily settled by Spanish hidalgos, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sons of wealthy marquis who could not inherit the ancestral lands back home, but who could help themselves to substantial holdings in the new world. “Work ethic” was not a phrase commonly used when speaking of the privileged hidalgos.
By the late 1800s the Baja economy had become centered around mining, with major gold, silver and copper mines flourishing in towns like Santa Rosalia
Chema. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots
and El Triunfo. As mining prospered, so did the ranches that supplied them with food, leather goods, horses, mules, and coffee. Mainland Mexico, focused on its own affairs – including wars with the US and France – paid very little attention to Baja for the next 100 years. The result was that the BCS character cultivated by the Jesuits and strengthened by land ownership was left intact, and continued to develop almost completely independently of the rest of Mexico. While mainland Mexico society became highly stratified, Baja California remained a much more egalitarian, independent-minded place, with ranchero families a key and integral part of the peninsula’s economy.
Then mining collapsed in the 1950s, and the ranchero economy went into a tailspin. But the deathblow really came in 1975 when the Mexican government opened its previously closed economy to the outside world. Two territories were declared free ports open to foreign trade: Quintana Roo and BCS. Almost overnight the market for ranch meats, cheeses and leather goods dried up; imported goods could be bought more cheaply and easily in the cities. Ranchero culture was in peril, and made all the more precarious by a school system that requires ranch children to leave home for 9 years and live in boarding houses in towns like Todos Santos, where they steadily lose touch with their culture. As Fermín says, “They watch a lot of TV in the boarding houses, and if their culture doesn’t appear on TV, then they assume it’s not important.” Fermín, Trudi, Olivia and others are trying very hard to change that perception.
In 2008 a documentary titled Corazon Vaquero – Heart of the Cowboy – won the Paso Robles Film Festival California Roots award. Created by Garry and Cody McClintock and Eve Ewing with Trudi, Fermín and others to showcase the beauty of BCS ranchero culture, the film is centered largely around a family at Rancho San Gregorio in the Sierra de la Giganta above Loreto. In the spring of 2008 a young NOLS instructor named McKenzie Campbell found herself at that same ranch. “I learned how to do leatherwork, make cheese, all kinds of things. I was completely enamored. I then did a week-long scouting trip through the Sierra de la Giganta walking ranch to ranch, and I was completely blown away by the hospitality of the people and their values. They are focused on family, their land and working hard for themselves. They don’t need a lot to be happy. They inspired me to go back to school to get the tools to aid them in the transition to the modern world, to participate in the larger market around them.”
Carlos Ignacio (Nacho) Chiapa with La Mula Mil in Todos Santos
Two years and one MBA later, McKenzie returned to BCS and founded Living Roots, a non-profit with the mission of “Helping an endangered culture adapt and thrive in the modern world.” Focusing on San Javier, the site of one of the Jesuits’ very first missions in BCS, McKenzie set about walking the delicate line between protecting ranchero values and traditions, while connecting ranchero families directly to the marketplace. “They grasped immediately that they had a brand-able concept, but they didn’t see that some of their every day items like ropes and jackets had market value, and we were able to help them see and capture some of that value.” In 2013 Living Roots helped the rancheros establish a cultural center in San Javier that connects them directly with their public. Not only does this place serve as a market for ranch products, but it’s now the base station for many young rancheros who are being trained as guides in order to lead interpretive hikes around the area. In 2014 Living Roots and its ranchero partners also started a farmer’s and artisan’s market in Loreto that sells organic produce, fish and handicrafts. Says McKenzie, “The US and Canadian communities who live in Loreto are hungry for local produce so it’s been quite successful. It is wonderful to see it all progressing so well.”
McKenzie’s next goal for Living Roots is to start a school for young rancheros aged 15-25 where they can learn the old technologies and merge them with the new. Courses are already underway in some schools, with living legends like Dario Higuera, featured prominently in Corazon Vaquero, teaching traditional leatherwork to kids in the local schools. The most popular items to make are wallets and cell phone covers.
Into the Future
35 year-old Rogelio Rosas knows the value of learning traditional skills from his ranching elders. As a child he lived with his grandparents on the family ranch in San Dionisio in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Every day he would work alongside his grandfather, learning how to identify and use the 80 edible wild
Don Claudio teaching leatherwork. Photo by Eduardo Boné
plants that grow in BCS, including those with medicinal properties. By the time he was 10 he was helping his grandfather deliver babies and heal the sick throughout the area. When his grandfather died at the age of 116 (leaving 35 children fathered with 5 wives) Rogelio felt compelled to enroll at a seminary in Tijuana. But he didn’t find the answers he expected there, so he joined up with some missionaries and spent the next 6 years traveling throughout Baja, using the healing arts learned from his grandfather to help children around the peninsula.
Rogelio found this work rewarding, but he still wasn’t finding the answers he was seeking. So at the age of 28 he moved to La Paz to study philosophy at UABCS, the first member of his family to attend college. While there, he met McKenzie and Fermín who were in the alternative tourism arena, so he added tourism to his list of degrees. By this time Rogelio’s parents, the now-legendary Don Catarino and Doña Luz, had been living at the family ranch for many years, making a very nice living with their organic produce, leather work and other traditional skills. When Doña Luz suffered a snake bite that paralyzed half her body, Rogelio returned to the ranch where he had grown up to help her. By the time he graduated with his double degree from UABCS, he could have joined the majority of his ranching peers and gone off to seek employment in a shinier part of the economy. But he found the pull of the ranch impossible to resist, and is now working with his parents to develop their ranch as a tourist destination where visitors can learn about traditional crafts like leatherworking and cheese-making, hike to see waterfalls and rock art, learn about traditional medicinal herbs, make tortillas from scratch, and enjoy the
Don Claudio and Rogelio
history and culture of the area. This is the future that he sees that will sustain not only his family’s ranch, but those of other families throughout the region.
But like Fermín, Trudi and McKenzie, Rogelio’s real passion is to preserve the heart and soul of ranchero culture. To that end he has created a document that sets forth the principals and values of ranchero life. Working with seven other sons of ranchers who, like him, left home for a while but then returned, he is in the process of creating an association that will keep the rancheros of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains united and focused, adapting to a changing world economy as necessary to thrive, but doing so while maintaining the values and ethics of their forebears, handpicked by the Jesuits. The goal is to remain true to their Bedouin roots. You can count on their hospitality.
It was the days of the Mexican revolution and Juan Cuevas had had enough. La Paz had grown too big and too political for his tastes so he set out to find someplace with no government and no people. A Sea of Cortez fisherman by trade, Juan tried living on the beautiful and unpopulated islands of San Jose and San Francisco; these experiences prompted him to add no mosquitos and no noseeums to his list of requirements. After years of defining his search by what he didn’t want, in 1923 he finally found what he did: El Pardito, a 2.5 acre rock in the Sea of Cortez, 45 miles north of La Paz. There were no structures, no gardens, no electricity, no people, no government, no mosquitos. It was just a rock, and Juan was thrilled. He brought his wife Paula out to El Pardito and in short order they built a wooden house, brought in chickens and pigs and produced 9 children. From that day to this, a Juan Cuevas has lived, worked and loved on El Pardito.
When Juan found his dream location it was still almost two decades before Jacques Cousteau would declare the Sea of Cortez the Aquarium of World due to its great abundance of marine life. A fisherman living on a rock in the midst of such bounty smacked of genius, and Jacques Cousteau himself once paid Juan a visit on his rock. “Most fishing communities in the days of the original Juan focused on shark fishing as shark livers were the main source of Vitamin B around the world until other sources emerged during World War II. Demand was huge and the original Juan was a big part of this trade” notes Amy Hudson Weaver, a marine biologist with the conservation group Niparajá who lived on El Pardito for 8 months in 1995-1996 and continues to work closely with the family. “Juan was so successful that he was able to build a large house for the family on the Malecon in La Paz so they would have a place to stay during their periodic trips to the city.”
Wealth was not all that the Cuevas family accumulated. Notes Amy, “To successfully hunt sharks you have to know a tremendous amount about them. For example, you have to know when they are pupping so you don’t accidentally interfere with reproduction. That knowledge was handed down among the generations in the Cuevas family, and many shark biologists spend time at El Pardito because the family’s knowledge of sharks is so deep.”
Sharks are just one of myriad species for which the Cuevas family has profound knowledge. Don Croll, the former director of the School for Field Studies and current professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has been going to El Pardito for 30 years, and has known the current Juan Cuevas, the 40-year old great great grandson of the original since he was 10 years old. “Juan and his brother Felipe didn’t have much formal education on El Pardito, but their knowledge is astounding. Lots of people can identify a turtle or fish species when they’re holding it in their hands, but Juan and Felipe can identify a species from the boat from really far away, and I rely on them for this. Their marine life capture skills are equally remarkable. When the Monterrey Bay Aquarium needed someone to help them live capture manta rays for their Sea of Cortez display, I didn’t hesitate to recommend Juan and Felipe.”
By the time Don’s doctoral student, Luli Martinez, started field work for her Ph.D. on El Pardito in 2014, the great abundance of the Sea of Cortez was a thing of the past. Notes Luli, “The 1970s to 1990s saw the highest use of resources, and sea turtle, shark and other marine life populations began collapsing. When I first started hiring Juan and Felipe to assist me with my conservation research, they were very passionate about marine species but conservation was not where their hearts were at. Then something happened that really changed their perspective. They were helping Don research a manta ray nursery in the mangroves of Isla San Jose when they discovered a population of hawksbill turtles. The Eastern Pacific population of hawksbills is the most endangered hawksbill population in the world, so this was really an important discovery. Hawksbills are not killed for their meat – they’re really not that tasty – but rather for their shells, which are used to make jewelry, and their skin, which is used to make leather goods. In the course of our research on this population Juan and Felipe really took note of the individual turtles, naming them and getting inside their personalities. They developed a sense of belonging to the hawksbill turtles. Now they are not just working for me for a paycheck, we are a team together. They now physically protect the estuary and mangroves of Isla San Jose. They quit fishing in the estuary to recover the population of commercial fish species, and they are proud because the fishing ban protects the turtles too.”
Says Juan, “All of us on El Pardito used to be the enemies of conservation. But now years of working with Don, Amy, and Luli has really changed our perspective. We no longer have the luxury of the previous generations of fishermen to catch everything without a thought. We now need to give back to the ocean. We don’t use nets anymore and we’re trying to spread artisanal, hook and line fishing throughout the community. Change requires a lot of patience, diligence and effort, and we’re committed to that. Now 70% of our income comes from conservation work and only 30% from fishing.” Now, rather than catching and killing sharks for the market as the original Juan did, Juan and Felipe use their deep knowledge of sharks and mad freediving skills to tag sharks for researchers like Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunjá who is working to protect and recover shark species in the Sea of Cortez.
Stephanie Rousso, a marine ecologist who works with Juan and Felipe notes just how far the El Pardito community has come in its relationship to the sea. “El Pardito forms part of the first ever multi-species Fisheries Improvement Project (FIP) initiated by Niparajá and ProNatura to create a system of fish refuge zones for monitoring improvements in fish populations. This FIP was started in 2017 to monitor 33 main species. Participating fishers harvest these species using the more traditional, more sustainable method of hook and line. It is wonderful to see the current generation of fishers in their 30s to 40’s working to replenish the fish stocks and help revive populations overfished by previous generations.”
Says Luli, “The success of my hawksbill project is due to the El Pardito community. When I’m invited to give talks in Mexico City by groups like the WWF I take Juan and Felipe with me, and of course the audience loves them much more than me! They are now so well respected by other conservation researchers and they are increasingly in demand.”
“In demand” seems to be a theme for the Cuevas family. The original Juan might have wanted to get away from crowds, but it seems he was still a social guy. Family lore posits that he had several “wives” in different ports, all of whom produced a good number of offspring. He also developed a strong connection with the community of Las Animas in the mountains of Baja Sur. Amy shares some of the family history she picked up during her 8 months of living on El Pardito. “The Cuevas family needed these large steel hooks for hunting sharks, so they would trade shark, fish and turtle meat with the blacksmith artisans of Las Animas who produced them. When the Las Animas guys were ready to trade, they’d go to the beach closest to El Pardito, light a bonfire to signal the family, then the whole community would sail over. Great parties would ensue on the beach, and this is how El Partido got not only steel hooks, but fresh fruit, vegetables and meats. The ranches in the Sierras were also where the younger generations of Cuevas men would go to find wives. They would sail across to the mainland from El Pardito, hike into the Sierras, then stay for a couple of weeks on the ranches while they courted their sweethearts. This was a very successful strategy.”
Living on a small rock with the Cuevas family might not seem compelling to all but it appears to be irresistable to most who get the opportunity. Recalls Don, “An American couple, Jaime and Heidi Schultz, were boating near El Pardito in 1976 when they got into trouble. The Cuevas family rescued them and sheltered them on the island. The Schultz’s loved the family and El Pardito so much that they built their own house on the island, and would come down for extended periods every year.” Don, Amy and Luli all understand the pull. “The Cuevas family is my family. My kids have grown up with their kids,” says Don who still brings groups of students to the island every year. “Juan and Felipe are like my brothers” says Luli. “They are my family.” Amy is all in too. “El Pardito is one of my favorite places in the world. I love this family.”
Juan is open to seeing you too. “We are available to anyone who wants to know how to survive in the world. Today so many people live in their phones, not in the world. We have a lot of things to teach people about how to survive outside a city, so please leave your phone at home and come visit us.” The original crowd-shunning, people-embracing Juan couldn’t have issued a better invitation himself.