By: Laura Monti, Senior Fellow Borderlands Restoration Network
Rising at dawn on scorching summer desert mornings, groups of Seri or Comcaac Indians of Sonora Mexico fan out through the dense mesquite bosques of the Sonoran Desert to collect ripe pods from the mesquite tree, following the ancient foodways of their ancestors.
Adding a modern twist to their traditional open fire roasting and mortar-pestle grinding, these modern desert harvesters roast the mesquite pods in a rotating toaster and then grind them using a hammer mill- producing over 100 pounds of nutritious flour during the summer of 2018.
In addition to making the traditional mesquite atole, a cool sweet cinnamon flavored beverage- the indigenous women entrepreneurs prepare a variety delicious mesquite products for their community and for sale commercially. Tortillas, mesquite empanadas filled with cactus fruit, smoothies, cookies, and pizza are sold at community festivals, and are fed to youth at school and to conservation teams working to protect mesquite and ironwood tree habitat.
These mesquite foods provide a healthy alternative to junk food and soda and help to prevent diabetes in young people, which is increasing at an alarming rate throughout the community. In addition to these community nutrition benefits, the mesquite tree provides habitat for hundreds of species and nourishes the soil. Young Comcáac conservation leaders are monitoring the coastal desert forests of mesquite-ironwood and mangrove habitat to prevent over exploitation by outsiders.
he social enterprise provides critical income for over 25 harvesters preventing hunger during the gaps in their summer fishing season. To support these community nutrition and conservation efforts, the flour is sold commercially in Sonora and in the U.S. The Comcáac health and conservation projects are co-sponsored by Borderlands Restoration Network, Prescott College Kino Bay Center for Cultural and Ecological Studies and the University of Arizona Next-Generation of Sonoran Desert Researchers. The flour can be purchased at Red Mountain Foods in Patagonia, Arizona.
Written by Caleb Weaver, Borderlands Earth Care Youth Program Manager
When I asked Nick, a Patagonia Union High School student and intern with the Borderlands Earth Care Youth (BECY) Program, about his experience this past summer, here’s what he said: “I’ve always cared deeply for the environment, especially in our local Patagonia area. Before working with BECY last summer, I had no idea how huge a positive impact someone as small as myself was capable of making. Now, thanks to the BECY experience, I have the knowledge, tools, and confidence to set out helping the environment with my everyday actions.”
This past summer was Nick’s first year on the Patagonia crew, although he heard about the program from his older brother who had graduated from BECY a couple years back. Along with daily educational activities – in Watershed Restoration, Ecosystem Restoration, and Community Restoration – Nick was paid to work on real habitat restoration projects alongside his peers. Under the heat of the intense June sun, during the pre-monsoon season some ecologists call Arizona’s “Dry Summer,” Nick and the Patagonia BECY crew worked in collaboration with youth from across the Arizona borderlands under extreme environmental conditions. Their goal: slow, spread, and sink rainwater runoff into the earth while simultaneously arresting erosion on working landscapes.
During the first week of the six-week program, the Nogales and Patagonia crews worked together to restore the upper reaches of their shared Sonoita Creek Watershed on the T4 Ranch. They searched the rocky hillsides (which formed from ancient debris flows) for appropriately-sized cobbles. These youth then placed the rock in drainages, allowing water slow and sink back into the earth. Later in the program, the Douglas and Patagonia crews worked alongside each other to stabilize and revegetate part of the 47 Ranch – building upon the skills they developed previously in the program. Meanwhile, the youth connected with Dennis and Deb Moroney, the humble ranch owners and land stewards who work diligently to keep the desert-adapted cattle and sheep they graze amongst the Mule Mountains accessible to Southern Arizona consumers.
While there were a few weeks of overlap between this summer’s three BECY programs, the work differs slightly between programs. The Douglas crew spent the majority of the summer restoring burned landscapes (namely Pinery Canyon, Reed Creek, and eroding drainage adjacent to Ash Spring) and improving spring-side habitat in the Chiricahua Mountains. The Nogales crew stabilized the watershed by building over 200 erosion-control structures from rock and wood at T4 Ranch, spending a few days visiting nearby farms, ranches, and nurseries. And the Patagonia crew bounced between locations, working on ranches, farms, and on contracted restoration projects in and around the town of Patagonia. The diversity of the Patagonia crew’s work was a great success within the program, and we hope to diversify work for the other crews next year.
As these programs are paid internships, each crew’s daily work depends upon source of funding. BECY has strong partnerships with the US Forest Service, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Partners for Fish & Wildlife – all of whom have supported habitat restoration work in specific locations. This past year, the Patagonia crew was hired by local landowners to address backyard erosion and biodiversity concerns. As BECY grows, we hope to diversify work locations, particularly for the Douglas and Nogales crews.
To learn more about BECY – including project details from this past summer, breakdown of funding sources, lessons learned, and plans for the future – check out the Final Report on the BECY webpage: www.borderlandsrestoration.org/becy. And feel free to contact me if you’d like to hire BECY next summer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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