Under conventional economic logic, Mr. León is uncompetitive. His yields are just a fraction of what mechanized agriculture churns out from the vast expanses of the Great Plains.
But to him, that is beside the point.
The Mixteca highlands here in the state of Oaxaca are burdened with some of the most barren earth in Mexico, the work of more than five centuries of erosion that began even before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers, their goats and their cattle. The scuffed hillsides look as though some ancient giant had hacked at them, opening gashes in the white and yellow rock.
Over the past two decades, Mr. León and other farmers have worked to reforest and reclaim this parched land, hoping to find a way for people to stay and work their farms instead of leaving for jobs in cities and in the United States.
“We migrate because we don’t think there are options,” Mr. León said. “The important thing is to give options for a better life.”
Viewed against the backdrop of rising food prices in a global marketplace, Mr. León’s fight to keep farmers from abandoning their land is much more than a refusal to give up a millennial way of life.
As Mexico imports more corn from the United States, the country’s reliance on outside supplies is drawing protests among nationalists, farmers’ groups and leftist critics of Mexico’s free trade economy. Earlier this year, as the last tariffs to corn imports were lifted under the North American Free Trade Agreement, farmers’ groups marched against the accord in Mexico, asking for more aid.
Mr. León and the farmers’ group he helped found, the Center for Integral Campesino Development of the Mixteca, or Cedicam, have reached into the past to revive pre-Hispanic practices. To arrest erosion, Cedicam has planted trees, mostly native ocote pines, a million in the past five years, raised in the group’s own nurseries.
Working communally, the villagers built stone walls to terrace the hillside, and they dug long ditches along the slopes to halt the wash of rainwater that dragged the soil from the mountains. Trapped in canals, the water seeps down to recharge the water table and restore dried-up springs.
As the land has begun to produce again, Mr. León has reintroduced the traditional milpa, a plot where corn, climbing beans and squash grow together. The pre-Hispanic farming practice fixes nutrients in the soil and creates natural barriers to pests and disease.
Along the way, the farmers have modernized the ancient techniques. Mr. León has encouraged farmers to use natural compost as fertilizer, introduced crop rotation, and improved on traditional seed selection.
Mr. León plows with oxen by choice. A tractor would pack down the soil too firmly.
In the eight villages in the region where Cedicam has worked, yields have risen about three or fourfold, to about 100 to 150 bushels an acre, Mr. Leon said. Unlike the monocultures of mechanized farming, these practices help preserve genetic diversity.
Mr. León’s work is a local response to the dislocation created by open markets in the countryside. “The people here are saying that we have to find a way to produce our food and meet our basic needs and that we can do it in a way that is sustainable,” said Phil Dahl-Bredine, a Maryknoll lay workers and onetime farmer who has worked with Cedicam for seven years and written a book about the region.
The key to determining the project’s success, and that of similar projects in these highlands, will be if it can produce enough to sustain families during the bad years, said James D. Reynolds, an expert on desertification at Duke University who visited Cedicam last month. The land of the Mixteca region is so degraded that “the overall potential is not that high,” he said.
Over the past two decades, the Mexican government has steadily dismantled most support for poor farmers, arguing that they are inefficient. About two-thirds of all Mexican corn farmers, some two million people, are small-scale producers, farming less than 12 acres, but they harvest less than a quarter of the country’s production.
Rising demand for animal feed has spurred soaring imports of subsidized corn from the United States. Mexico now buys about 40 percent of its corn from the United States.
Increased subsistence farming is not the answer to the global food crisis. But people skeptical about the idea that free trade is the best way to reduce hunger point to small-scale projects like Cedicam’s as alternatives to industrialized farming, which is based on costly energy use, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“The Green Revolution displaced our local resources,” said Mr. León, referring to modern agricultural practices with hybrid crops and chemical fertilizers. “Our dependence on the outside, that led to our ruin.”
Mixtec farmers typically grow enough corn to feed their families and sell the excess in local markets. But the price they get has been distorted by subsidized American imports and the dominance of just a handful of large buyers. It does not cover the increase in the cost of fertilizer, which has more than doubled in the past year.
“We have to think about a different form of production,” said Mr. León, who won the prestigious Goldman Prize for grassroots environmentalists last month. “Conventional methods are not possible in a globalized market.”
Mr. León, 42, combines a hard-headed analysis of crop yields with a reverence for the land. “It is my passion to live in this place,” he said, as he waved at a stand of pines he had planted. “When I was little, it was practically impossible to hear the birds singing” because there were no trees, he said. “Now you can hear their song all day.”
But the Indians here are still so poor that many continue to leave. Indeed, Mr. León is the only one of nine siblings who farms.
Aware of that, Cedicam has started greenhouses so farmers can grow vegetables to sell