Home Restaurant Indigenous Agroforestry Dying of Thirst Amid a Sea of Avocados in Mexico

Indigenous Agroforestry Dying of Thirst Amid a Sea of Avocados in Mexico


“Cuchita is the fourth-generation herb collector of our family,” says Juana Bravo, 45, pointing to a photo of her niece. “Look here: She was picking medicinal plants in the mountains when she was only one and a half years old.” Maria de Jesus, called Cuchita, now 9, still shares that same passion with her aunt. Today, after school, she joins Juana to prepare an antiseptic salve with medicinal herbs collected from the patio garden right outside their door.

Angahuan, a town of 6,000 inhabitants in the Mexican state of Michoacán, has several generations of Indigenous P’urhépecha women practicing traditional medicine. Juana and Cuchita are part of this group of a dozen curanderas, healers known for their use of herbal medicine and commonly called tsinajperi (“the ones that make life grow”) in the P’urhépecha language. They’re also highly sought out for their skills in midwifery and the traditional Mesoamerican massage technique called sobada.

Medicinal plants like gobernadora (also called creosote, Larrea tridentata), ruda (Ruta graveolens), prodigiosa (Brickellia cavanillesii), and nurite (Satureja macrostema) are central to their cosmology and are cropped on a small scale in their diverse patio gardens called ekuarho. It’s a traditional agroforestry system that combines timber trees, fruit trees, medicinal plants, vegetables, and flowers in a group that grows well together, with each plant benefiting from the shade and moisture they’re afforded in the dry climate. It’s like a tiny pharmacy always on hand, located just outside the kitchen, with herbs used in remedies for digestive problems, insomnia, or pain.

Juana Bravo, an Indigenous P’urhépecha healer, collects herbs from her ekuarho agroforestry garden to prepare a salve and medicinal tea in Angahuan, Michoachán, Mexico. (Photo credit: Monica Pelliccia)

The P’urhépecha are one of the 68 Indigenous groups of Mexico, and traditional medicine is one of the main pillars of their culture, in which agroforestry plays a big part. But this heritage is now endangered by water shortages caused by climate change-driven drought and by agribusiness: Avocados are a lucrative export—80 percent of Michoacan’s crop is shipped to U.S. grocery stores—and their plantations dominate the landscape for much of the 40 kilometers (25 miles) between Angahuan and the neighboring city of Uruapan.

“P’urhépecha women have a fundamental role in the richness of Indigenous territories’ preservation: They are the custodians of the plant wisdom used for medicine, ritual, and food,” says Rosendo Caro, director of the Forestry Commission of Michoacán State (COFOM). “Their legacy is endangered by avocado development in the region. This business consumes the water previously used for the ekuarho, deteriorates soils with agrochemicals, and has long-term consequences on water resources.”

Where’s the water?

Juana’s patio garden contains several important P’urhépecha medicinal herbs such as governadora, epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides), Vicks plant (Plectranthus hadiensis), poleo (Mentha pulegium) and white horehound (Marrubium vulgare). These are interplanted with edible plants like opuntia cactus and cabbage, which are used to prepare meals like atapakua mole and pozole.

Juana Bravo, an Indigenous P’urhépecha healer, collects herbs from her ekuarho agroforestry garden to prepare a salve and medicinal tea in Angahuan, Michoachán, Mexico. (Photo credit: Monica Pelliccia)

Juana Bravo, an Indigenous P’urhépecha healer, collects herbs from her ekuarho agroforestry garden to prepare a salve and medicinal tea in Angahuan, Michoachán, Mexico. (Photo credit: Monica Pelliccia)

“The ekuarho is a pre-Hispanic agroforestry system typical of the P’urhépecha population,” says biologist Maria del Carmen Godínez. “In the beginning, it was developed in the woods: People were sowing maize with pumpkins, chili, and beans, taking advantage of forest products such as timber, medicinal plants, or mushrooms. Then, after the conquest, they brought it to the population centers. Now, it is easier to find in backyards than in the woods. However, while P’urhépecha communities increased in population, the ekuarho became fewer and smaller due to property fragmentation.”

In Angahuan, the ekuarho is still the center of the curanderas’ daily life. Here they grow medicinal plants, fruits, and vegetables, pines for construction materials, and flowers for everyday enjoyment. The women also enjoy the patio gardens’ shade, sharing family moments, or working on embroidery out of the boiling sun.

But before the rainy season, the soil here is dry like sand. “It is difficult to continue to work as traditional healers with the water scarcity that has increased during the last five years,” Juana says. She wears the traditional P’urhépecha dress with a long, pleated skirt, apron, and an embroidered shirt covered by blue-and-black-striped shawls.

“In the drought season, we do not have many plants, and sometimes they dry up. We have to wait for the first rains to make everything sprout,” she says. A peach tree recently died of thirst on the patio, so her husband Nacho transformed it into a table. But every morning as the first rays of the sun filter into the garden, she waters her plants with a basin.

“I use only a bit because we have to avoid waste,” she explains. “We have running water only every three days for just an hour, normally from 8 to 9 a.m. I use recycled water [and still] we need to buy gallons in shops to prepare salves and essential oils.”

“Naná” Gracia checks the ripeness of a peach in her ekuarho, a traditional agroforestry plot outside her home composed of fruit trees, medicinal herbs, vegetables, herbs and flowers. (Photo credit: by Monica Pelliccia)

“Naná” Gracia checks the ripeness of a peach in her ekuarho, a traditional agroforestry plot outside her home composed of fruit trees, medicinal herbs, vegetables, herbs and flowers. (Photo credit: by Monica Pelliccia)

A Fourth-Generation Legacy

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

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

Currently, there are fewer curanderas in Angahuan, but they are joined in their efforts by women such as “Naná” Gracia Bravo, 57, a third-generation midwife and mother of five. Her house is a few steps from Juana’s, among street food stands and stores selling diverse products, from ice cream to jewels. From early morning until night, vendors announce quick-stop meals like pozole.

Walking the dusty streets, almost everyone knows Gracia. “Do you want a soft drink?” a couple of men say to her while passing in front of the shops. “It is always like that,” Gracia says with a smile. “I have been doing this job for 40 years. When I walk in the street, sometimes people stop me and offer me a soft drink because I was supporting their mothers during childbirth.”





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