From February 21 to March 1, 2020, about 20 people, mainly from Mexico and North America, gathered at the Via Organica Ranch near San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato, Mexico for an Ecosystem Restoration Camp. During the 10-day camp we learned about many of the regenerative agriculture systems in place on this 11-hectare ranch and engaged in hands-on activities ranging from composting, to animal care, to planting vegetables and fruit trees, to building insect hotels, making adobe mud-bricks, and processing agave to make fermented fodder. One of my key takeaways was a deeper understanding of ecosystem services as the foundation for planetary health and vitality.
Ecosystems are communities formed by the relationships between living organisms (plants, microbes, fungi, animals, and humans) and non-living organisms (water, air, and minerals). Life on earth in all its diversity, beauty, and inter-being-ness is possible only through healthy ecosystems, which means nature is able to maintain a dynamic balance and state of ecological integrity. Human beings are both part of ecosystems and benefit from ecosystems in many ways. Those benefits are known as ecosystem services.
Ecosystems primarily provide life supporting services like soil formation, water, carbon, and nutrient cycles, clean air, habitat, genetic resources (seeds), and biodiversity as well as regulating services including climate and temperature regulation, erosion control, flood prevention, water purification, disease management, pollination, and waste decomposition. These are the base of healthy ecosystems, but they have been degenerated by human activity and need to be our highest priority to maintain, enhance, and restore. It takes some humility to acknowledge and remember their value, which is not measured in our commodified capitalist system. But in fact, without these services life can not thrive on the planet.
As a practical experience during the Ecosystem Restoration Camp we went to see and learn about a watershed project with a nearby local community. The land is a heavily degraded, eroded, and over-grazed hillside with minimal vegetation and huge gullies. The aim is to restore the primary ecosystem services (specifically water and soil) first and foremost as in the current state planting efforts would not be successful. To do this, the community first put up a fence in order to stop any further damage from animal grazing. Then they used rocks to build channels, dams, and structures to slow down the water flow, capture rainfall, and stop erosion. These two interventions give the ecosystem some much-needed breathing space and time for natural restoration to take place. The first results are reduced erosion, water catchment in a pond, sediment collection, soil building, and a little increase in vegetation growth.
Another secondary layer of ecosystem services is providing “products” like food, fresh water, medicines, wood, fibre, construction materials, and energy obtained through harvesting in wild zones or agricultural cultivation. This is what agro-economy is focused on: maximising production for human consumption but without any regards to the capacity and health of ecosystems. In contrast, regenerative agriculture works to enhance ecosystems and to maintain (or restore) the value of primary services, while also obtaining diverse yields (secondary services). An excellent example from Via Organica is its agave project, which combines growing agave plants intercropped with nitrogen-fixing trees such as mesquite (and cactus species), plus holistic rotational grazing of livestock. The result is a production system that helps to regenerate degraded, semi-arid lands.
The agave project brings primary ecosystem services like helping to form soil, sequester carbon (drawing down atmospheric carbon and storing it in the soil), cycle water and nutrients, provide habitat, control erosion, produce oxygen, and regulate the climate. Moreover, this high-biomass, high-forage system produces food (mesquite powder, cactus, agua miel, and mezcal from agave) for humans as well as fermented feed for animals. During the restoration camp we learned how to plant agave on contour lines, cut and harvest the huge leaves, mill them with a machine, enrich the nutrient profile with mesquite powder, and anaerobically ferment the mixture by storing it in buckets for 30 days to make animal fodder that can be given to goats, sheep, cows, or chicken.
A third group of ecosystem services is focused on anthropogenic functions and non-material benefits from nature including cultural identity and heritage, community, education, nature connection, spiritual health, personal growth, recreation, beauty, play, and fun. These ecosystem services are not always present in people’s awareness, but they’re essential for our personal, social, and cultural well-being. Cultural traditions like food, building, art, and rituals emerge from the relationship of people to the land they live with. It is clear that healthy, resilient communities require healthy ecosystems as their foundation for life.
Via Organica’s farm school is a beautiful example of working with the land to provide these tertiary ecosystem services to people through farm tours, workshops for kids, programs for agriculture students, and ecosystem restoration camp experiences like the one in February. During the camp we enjoyed the beauty of the gardens, nature walks, starlit skies, evening bonfires, making ceremonial tortillas and tamales, eating delicious Mexican food prepared in the farm restaurant, talks by experts and educational workshops, and a sense of community amongst the group of participants caring for planet earth.
In the process, we gained more awareness and appreciation of all three layers of ecosystem services and how regenerative agriculture projects like Via Organica take care of, restore, and celebrate them in their own unique place and culture. Furthermore, I could see how destruction and regeneration are not static states but dynamic processes and two halves in the circle of life. In nature, life-enhancing and life-destroying forces balance each other – all living beings die, and their death is the source of life for others.
Another insight from the restoration camp was that we are not really the ones restoring landscapes; instead we learn to understand and work with nature’s inherent self-healing powers to support life to thrive (again). This leads to a more humble, compassionate, and inter-connected understanding of our relationship with and as part of nature. As humans we can make small, wise interventions at the right time to enable and speed up natural restoration. We are an integral part of ecosystems and our role is to be conscious participants, earth stewards, and planetary healers contributing to greater vitality, abundance, and beauty of life evolving and expressing itself on the planet. Join the ecosystem restoration movement!