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.
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Jesuits were on a global roll. In China, the emperor prized them for their knowledge of astronomy, western science and mathematics; the Jesuits were trusted advisors to the court. In France, Spain and Germany the kings prized them for their supreme education and administrative acuity; the Jesuits monopolized the role of royal confessor. In Baja California Sur (BCS), the native Pericue and Guaycura Indians couldn’t quite figure out what to prize the padres for. Often, it was mutual.
Spain’s Ambitions and the Jesuit Theocracy
The Jesuits who established the first successful mission in Baja California in Loreto in 1697 were the latest in a long line of Europeans who had attempted to subdue and convert the peoples of the land they called California for the Spanish crown, starting with Hernan Cortez in 1535. Why such great effort with respect to Baja? The modern Jesuit historian Ernest J. Burrus puts it this way, “The extraordinary interest derived not so much from what Baja California was – an extensive and unproductive peninsula, almost completely uninhabited and uninhabitable – as for what it was believed to be – a land rich in pearls and precious metals, bordering on the straights of Anian…linking the Atlantic with the Pacific, shortening by thousands of miles the distance between Europe and the New World as well as the Far East.”
The Anian Straits were, it turns out, a mythical boundary between North America and Asia, and Baja was a peninsula, not an island as cartographers of the day held. But Spain’s interests were quite real, and one of the crown’s key drivers with respect to Baja was the desire to protect its Manila Galleon, a trading ship that traveled between Acapulco and the Philippines, bringing luxury goods from China and other parts of the East to Spain. The galleons were threatened by English and Dutch ships that were plying the waters of the Baja peninsula, using the harbors and bays of the southern tip of the peninsula as a base from which to plunder the Spanish ships as they attempted to transverse the Pacific. Moreover, the return voyage from Manila to Acapulco took 6 to 7 months, too long to maintain stores of potable water and fresh food. By the time the Manila Galleon was sailing past Baja, most of the crew and passengers were in the last stages of scurvy and beriberi; Acapulco was simply too far. They needed a place to go ashore to eat fresh food and recuperate. A safe harbor on the Baja peninsula was the only way to stave off death – and keep Spain supplied with the luxurious items from the Orient it coveted.
But Spain had no money to send a military force to secure the peninsula, and the Jesuits, keen to convert the Indians of California to Catholicism, saw an opportunity. Lead by the Italians Juan
Todos Santos Mission
María de Salvatierra and Eusebio Francisco Kino, the Jesuits struck a bargain: if the crown would give the Jesuits permission to settle in the peninsula and convert the Indians, they would pay for the whole thing themselves. In return for funding the enterprise, the Jesuits would manage all aspects of local government themselves, religious, military, civil and economic. The crown agreed, with the result that the group that was finally able to secure the Baja peninsula for Spain was, as Crosby notes, “the least impressive of armies.” When the Jesuit galley the Santa Elvira anchored off the coast in the Gulf of California on October 19, 1697, the crew it landed to conquer the shore included an Italian missionary, a Spanish soldier, a Portuguese ranch foreman, a Sicilian seaman, a creole muleteer, a Maltese artilleryman, a Peruvian sailor, a Yaqui warrior, a Mayo herder and an Indian boy. And with that multicultural force, the history of California was changed forever.
The Geography of Hope
The Baja peninsula is a piece of continental crust that was torn from mainland Mexico by violent, sustained, tectonic forces six million years ago. As naturalist Exequiel Ezcurra explains in The Camino Real and the Baja California Peninsula, “The folds and crests that have formed as a result of this intense tectonic activity are the principal cases for the uneven topography of Baja California, causes which in turn drive the local climate.” The Jesuits, despite their advanced level of education, were “Misled by their ignorance of the peninsula’s natural environment and their inexperience with peninsular people,” says Crosby. It was a steep learning curve.
From their base in Loreto the padres set out to establish a series of missions from which they could save souls, and initially chose areas where the Indians appeared to congregate. Their experiences in mainland Mexico had led the padres to believe that the California Indians would have strong emotional ties to certain locations, and they completely failed to grasp that the terrain of Baja meant that the Indians practiced their semi-nomadic, seasonal hunting and gathering regimen over a wide geographical area, with no particular attachment to any one place. The Indians depended for their survival on a deep knowledge of tinajas, or bedrock cachements, that held rain for a substantial period of time after a rainfall. The Jesuits were unaccustomed to operating in a land with no rivers and no consistent annual rainfall. They gradually gained a better understanding of the land and its peoples, but, as Crosby notes, “The Jesuits initially failed to realize that supporting a mission’s people on irrigated agriculture required many times the volume of water that the same group used in their traditional lifestyle. Their education was expensive. Of nine missions founded in the first 24 years of the conquest, one was abandoned and 5 had to be moved to better sites.” It was not a stellar start.
The business of saving souls proved equally complex. In the northerly central areas around Loreto, they found the Cochimi Indians somewhat welcoming. But further south, the Guaycura and Pericue Indians were proving much tougher customers. In the early 1700s there were probably about 5,000 Guaycura in the area between Magdalena Bay and Todos Santos, and 3,000 Pericue in the area south of Todos Santos to the Cape. They were not friendly, even with each other. The Guaycura roamed their territory in small groups who spoke different dialects and constantly battled with each other, the Cochimi and the Pericue. For their part, the Pericue spoke a common language and battled less among themselves, but they were accustomed to a great deal of independence, a character trait which did not square well with the Jesuit desire to lure them into mission life. Indian distrust of the padres was likely fueled by the English and Dutch pirates who stalked the Manila Galleons from their bases in BCS, and who, as Crosby notes, “had reasons to instill in the local people their own fear of any representative of Spanish authority.” And the Jesuits had made the bargain to be the sole representative of that authority in all matters
El Camino Real
Poor welcome notwithstanding, the Jesuits pressed on with their plans to build and maintain a camino real. The term “Camino Real” or “Royal Road” has its roots in medieval Spain and referred to roads that were built and maintained at the behest of the king. In colonial Mexico, the phrase was used to refer to roads that connected major settlements, and in California, the phrase came to mean the system of communication that facilitated the constant flow of people and provisions that were required for the colonization of the Baja peninsula. Generally, there was very little that seemed royal about the roads that the padres built with the labor of their Spanish soldiers and neophyte Indians. In many cases road building meant simply moving large obstacles out of the existing Indian footpaths that provided the most direct route from one site to another. But they did succeed in building impressively straight roads over tough terrain, and El Camino Real eventually connected the mission in San Jose del Cabo to the mission in San Francisco, California, covering almost 1,400 miles and over 50 missions built by Jesuits, Dominicans and Franciscans. More than any other, it is the route the ties together the histories of the United States and Mexico.
But at no time in their 71 years in the Baja peninsula did the actual number of European Jesuit padres on the ground total more than 17 men. It proved to be a dangerously low number. In the first third of the 1700s the Jesuits remained a most unimpressive army, and as they built their roads and missions in the hostile south to secure a safe port for the Manila Galleon, the Spanish crown refused to pay for more soldiers to protect them. And the natives were definitely restless. Raging epidemics of measles and smallpox had decimated the Guaycura and Pericue populations, reducing their populations by half in a single generation. Years passed in which the Jesuits and their converts did little more than tend the sick, bury the dead and attempt to procure food from the mainland; years of drought and plagues of locusts had severely limited their ability to support a settled community through agriculture on mission lands.
Against this backdrop, in 1733 the Jesuits of the southern missions, led by Padre Nicolás Tamaral, began an effort to eradicate polygamy amongst the Pericue. With their missionary zeal and Eurocentric outlook, the Jesuits had been working for years to quell the ancestral customs of the Indians, but the attack on polygamy appears to have been the tipping point for the Pericue. As Crosby states, “The subject of women was particularly sensitive among the Pericue at that time. Diseases, most notably syphilis, were disproportionately reducing the female population. Neophytes in the south were deeply disturbed by a growing lack of mates.” Amongst all the Indians of the Baja peninsula, women were the chief procurers of food, so the more wives a man had the higher his status; important men like chiefs and shamans had several. In a pointed challenge to local leaders, Padre Tamaral made explicit efforts to attract young women as neophytes. It was missionary vs medicine man, and the unprotected missionaries were vulnerable while the traumatized Pericue were deadly focused; they were able to unite the warring factions of the southern Baja Indians against what they saw as an alien invader who had unleashed ravaging disease against their people and wanton destruction against their culture. The pirates likely fueled their rage.
On October 1, 1734 the body of Padre Nicolás Tamaral of the San Jose del Cabo mission was found clubbed, mutilated and burned. The same thing happened to padres and their servants at the missions in La Paz and Santiago. The revolt grew, the Pericue consolidated their hold on the tip of the peninsula, and when the Manila Galleon landed at the Cabo port established by the Jesuits in January 1735, the Pericue killed all 13 men in the longboat that had been sent ahead to seek help from the mission.
It was the beginning of the end for both the Jesuits and the Indians in BCS. Salvatierra and Kino’s dream of a theocracy was lost, as was California’s isolation as others came in to settle the land. By the time the Jesuits were expelled from California in 1768, the Guaycura and Pericue were linguistically and culturally extinct – perhaps their genes live on in the world and their souls reside in heaven. The Jesuits were suspected of harboring hordes of gold, silver and pearls that they were not sharing with the king, but when the inspector came from Spain after their expulsion, he was shocked at the poverty of the missions. The Jesuits had barely survived, and producing food to keep the missions and their neophytes alive in the harsh Baja landscape was almost all they had time for.
It was not an accident that the first people to come ashore with Padre Salvatierra at Loreto in 1697 included a ranch foreman, a muleteer, and a herder. These Jesuit recruits were chosen for their skills in building a community based around agriculture and ranching. When the Jesuits were expelled from California, many of these “soldiers” and their families stayed on and became the backbone of the vaquero, or cowboy culture that replaced that of the native Indians, a culture that – unshackled from the poorly chosen mission sites – still thrives in Baja to this day. In fact, this culture was exported north along El Camino Real, and the Baja vaqueros are now honored in the western USA as the cultural ancestors of the American cowboy. To celebrate El Camino Real and its role in the cultural connection of the peoples of the Baja peninsula and the US state of (Alta) California, several organizations are working to have the entire 1,400-mile corridor declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What Ezcurra calls “the savage and seductive landscape of Baja California” has lured many to its shores, and changed the fates of all. The Pericue, who quite possibly sailed to Baja from Polynesia, survived on the peninsula for roughly 12,000 years. The Jesuits only 71. Human survival along El Camino Real can still prove tenuous, and it is perhaps for this reason that the writer and naturalist Wallace Stegner refers to the wild landscape of Baja as the “geography of hope.” Writes Ezcurra, “Baja California, more than any other place on earth, deserves this description: the peninsula is a vast corridor of hope, a world where untamed nature may still be able to survive in all its splendor. Or, as Octavio Paz wrote, it is a place where, “the world still has beaches, and a boat awaits you, always.” And that is a royal road indeed.
Sources: Interviews with Harry W. Crosby, David Richardson and Trudi Angell. Several books including Antigua California: Mission and Colony on the Peninsular Frontier, 1697-1768 by Harry W. Crosby; Jesuit Relations, Baja California 1716-1762 by Ernest J. Burrus, S.J.; The Camino Real and the Missions of the Baja California Peninsula/El Camino Real y Las Misiones de la Peninsula de Baja California by Miguel Leon-Portillo, California’s El Camino Real and its HistoricBells by Max Kurillo; and Californio Portraits: Baja California’s Vanishing Culture by Harry W. Crosby.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. That may be the fate of the mortal coil, but humans have never had much truck with letting flesh have the final word. “Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. These are the lasting materials of any civilization,” says Donna Billick, the founder of Billick Rock Art in Davis, California and Todos Artes in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. “Rock art is the only uninterrupted communication throughout human history of who we are culturally. It is a statement of who we are in our time as well as the transmission of ourselves through time. When you look back across the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, China, Mesoamerica, you will find ceramics and mosaics embedded in the culture, still informing us today in vibrant and dynamic detail about those ancient lives lived.”
In fact, ceramics – clay hardened by heat – are so durable that NASA incorporates the material into present-day spacecraft engineering. The space agency actually has a page on its website devoted to “Superhero Ceramics!” noting that ceramics are “stronger than aluminum, fireproof and able to withstand meteoroids.” Among many other uses, the entire lower surface of a space shuttle orbiter is covered with ceramic tiles as part of the spacecraft’s thermal protection system. But there is another material that is equally compelling to NASA and that is “pound-for-pound more effective for shielding against cosmic radiation than aluminum.” Plastic. In fact, the same material used to make household trash bags, polyethylene, can be chemically modified into a material that has three times the tensile strength of aluminum and is 2.6 times lighter.
That type of durability is highly desirable for space travel, particularly for any humans interested in traveling to Mars who would have to endure high levels of radiation for up to 30 months. But the very durability that makes your plastic trash bag seem like Superman’s cape in space, makes it a more of a Lex Luther-grade menace when it simply envelopes your trash in a landfill on earth. It can take up to 1,000 years to decompose, and in the process it can release toxic pollutants into the air, ground and water that threaten our very existence on the planet. It is probably safe to say that we would all rather have our first trip to Mars be by personal choice then by mandated evacuation order.
Donna, who has a degree in genetics in addition to art, started the Art & Science Fusion Program during her tenure as a professor at the University of California Davis. It is therefore not surprising that she and her Todos Artes “quaranteam” of artists, surfers and environmentalists Isabel “Issy” Von Zastrow and Will Worden, saw their two worlds happily collide around the durable properties of ceramics and plastic. It all started with the ecobrick. Explains Will, “An ecobrick is a plastic container like a Coke bottle or a garafon (large water container) stuffed to the brim with non-biodegradable plastic waste. This makes a very strong, reusable and long-lasting building material that can be used to make many things including furniture, garden walls, and sculptures. Issy and I were working on ecobricks for our new home, when we happened to observe Donna giving a ceramic mosaic workshop. The lightbulb kind of collectively went off for all of us, and we all saw a great way to mitigate the extremely negative impact of plastic waste’s durability, with the culturally positive impact of ceramic’s durability. When we take the ecobricks and encase them in concrete and ceramic mosaics, it makes a beautiful and enduring piece of art. From the basic building block of an ecobrick, you can make lamps, tables, chairs, really all kinds of beautiful, functional pieces.”
When Donna got out of graduate school in the mid-1970s, the governor of California at the time, Jerry Brown, mandated that 2% of the budget for all public buildings be devoted to art. For Donna, this was the answer to her father’s daily question during her childhood, “so what is your big idea?”, and she’s spent the last 42 years producing large scale art for public spaces. But having her art enjoyed by everyone, not just a few private collectors or gallery owners, is only part of Donna’s Big Idea. “Community build is really where it’s at. Jerry Brown saw public art as a key component of an enlightened, vibrant and thriving society. And when the community itself participates in making a piece of art, it creates a sense of collective ownership and pride in the art that is simply not possible any other way.” Donna, a founding member of the Community Built Association, brought community build to Todos Santos through Todos Artes and her annual Heaven on Earth workshop. Two of her ceramic mosaic pieces built by Todos Santos community members, the Aztec Calendar just off the Todos Santos town plaza, and the Los Todos Santeños wall along the well-traveled route of lower Topete, are now some of the most-photographed, most-loved, and iconic images of the town.
Issy outlines how the ecobricks can fit into a long-term community build program for our tourism-driven area. “There is a difference between impact and influence. One way that the communities of Baja California Sur can influence the impact of tourism on our towns is to invite all travelers to contribute to the ecobricks. Each hotel, restaurant and Airbnb rental can have an old garafon in a central area and invite travelers to stuff it with their plastic waste. When the garafon is full, either we at Todos Artes will come pick it up to turn it into functional art, or we can share with the proprietors how to do it themselves. We invite visitors into our communities to experience the area’s great natural beauty, and this is a great way for them to help ensure that the place will be just as beautiful the next time they visit. They can influence the impact they have on the community in a lasting, beautiful way.”
There is a group called The Long Now Foundation that is in the process of building the 10,000 Year Clock – a clock it expects to keep time for 10,000 years – with the help of ceramic bearings of course. The clock is a monument to long-term thinking and Alexander Rose, the executive director of the project notes, “It is not the engineering [of the clock] but the civilization around it which we hope to shape as one that cares for both the present and the future. We hope that by building such things…they challenge us to become better ancestors.” The Todos Artes team sees ecobricks in much the same light. Says Donna, “The ecobricks are a great way to increase the environmental literacy of our community, to engage the current generation in a completely fun way in the preservation of the stunning nature all around us for future generations.”
Perhaps when the 10,000 Year Clock strikes its last hour all those centuries into the future, and the archaeologists are writing their books on the ancient artifacts of the 2020s in Baja California Sur, they’ll be struck by the care that society took to turn one of its most enduring problems – plastic waste – into some of its most enduring works of art. Rock, stone, mosaics, ceramics. With ecobricks we’ll be transmitting who we were culturally to all the generations to come. We’ll be proving ourselves good ancestors. And, if all goes according to plan, those receiving the message will still have the option to live on a vibrant, thriving and enlightened Earth.