Close to 90% of the terrain in Oaxaca state is mountainous and rugged. Three larger mountain ranges converge in the state, forming a complicated system of smaller peaks, valleys and ravines. Driving even short distances can take time, due to roads that hug the contours of these gentle green outcroppings. It’s this complicated terrain that accounts for the indigenous diversity here, with languages and customs changing from one valley to the next. From a distance it’s impossible to notice, and hard to understand, the unseen world that exists within these mountains.
To get to the village of San Pedro Leapi is simple enough. Head southeast from Oaxaca on Highway 190 for about 2 hours, until you reach the town of El Camaron Yautepec. Turn off here and follow the road towards the mountains, through ever smaller villages and shrines to Catholic saints, until it turns to dirt. From here you’ll either need a donkey or a sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicle. In my case, we had a late model Chevrolet pickup with a burnt out headlight, half the recommended level of motor oil, and an engine that sounded like it was running on a few less cylinders than usual. Perfect then, for driving the remaining 3-4 hours deep into the Sierra Madre del Sur.
I traveled to the mountains with workers from the department of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a bit of a local celebrity due to her fight for women’s and indigenous rights. Hailing from a rural village not far from Leapi, she successfully led a 2008 campaign to change the State constitution, giving women the same political and voting rights as men. She became Chair of the Congress of Oaxaca (the first indigenous woman to hold the position) and is currently Federal Deputy for the National Action Party (PAN). Her office is one of many working to support undeveloped communities, through government funded projects meant to stimulate productivity and self sufficiency.
Beyond problems of corruption, which sap valuable monetary resources for development projects, the mere geographical location of these villages presents a major challenge to implementing services. This is a place where people still live with little to no electricity or running water, and where a treatable injury or illness can spell death.
With the sun beginning to rise, we drove deeper into the mountains towards Leapi. Figures emerged from the darkness; an old couple, a woman and her small child. We stopped and allowed them to climb into the back of the pickup. This is how a majority of people get around here, waiting for a passing truck to stop and carry them to a village several miles away. We continued down the road, with me nervously checking on our new rearward occupants, who seemed completely unfazed at being tossed around in the pickup bed. People are tough up here.
Several hours and ride shares later, we arrived in the Zapotec village of San Pedro Leapi, currently the site of 2 ongoing government supported projects. We were there to meet with a group of locals about to start a 3rd project. The government workers I was with included Juan Diaz Cruz, technical secretary to Eufrosina Cruz (also her nephew), his assistant Pedro Gonzalez Toledo, and veterinarian Cristina Tinoco. Why a veterinarian? Because the project in question would involve cows, about $17,000 USD worth. This money is not simply doled out by the government as a handout. Out of around 2000 applications for project aid in 2014, only 200 were approved. This meeting was to discuss logistics and see if the community members were up to the task of raising cows, which would eventually provide an income source through milk and meat.
The group of about 15 community members listened intently as Juan and Cristina presented information about the scope of the project, and about what would be required to raise, sustain and eventually profit from the cows. Then the names and specifications of different types of cows were discussed, like old men talking about engine displacement at a muscle car meet. Suiza, brahma, criollo, cruzas, carne, leche. I always thought cows were just cows. However choosing the right animal for the climate, altitude and geography is important. Some of the species were excluded because they wouldn’t survive, or thrive in the mountains. Finally, after lengthy discussion, the men shook hands and agreed to move forward with the project. They arranged to inspect some cows and bulls at a ranch outside of Oaxaca at a later date.
With the meeting over I took some time to speak with some of the villagers. This being their first project, they were nervous but excited about the help being provided by the government. I asked them about the quality of their life in the village, they seemed happy enough but all agreed that it’s not an easy life. Education and health care are huge concerns. There is a small primary school but most secondary schools in the mountains are simply rooms with a TV, where a teacher instructs via satellite. Attendance is not always high, and many only finish elementary education. The village has a rudimentary health clinic, but a real doctor only comes once or maybe twice a month. “We work hard here, it’s difficult,” said Angelica Miguel Miguel. “It’s too expensive to go to the city for education or medicine. If someone gets hurt, it can be very complicated.”
Next we moved on to inspect another project, a family who had been raising chickens for 2 months. To get to the chicken coop we hiked about 15 minutes down the side of the mountain, into river beds, passed simple dwellings until that unmistakable smell of chicken droppings filled our nostrils. Similar to the previously discussed cow project, the idea behind this was to promote sustainability by being able to sell the chickens for meat or eggs. Yet during the conversation between Juan and the man in charge of this project, I could tell something wasn’t up to par. I asked the man about how the project was going, before we sat down to lunch. “Well, we have a lot of chickens. It’s hard to sell them, we can only reach the villages nearby here, and most of them already have chickens in the market.”
We then proceeded to eat a few of the aforementioned chickens. His remark got me thinking about something that was only reinforced after our visit to the final project in Leapi, an office supply store. The small building perched on a hill has been successful and quite busy, producing copies and materials for many of the local schools. Yet, their sole copy machine was having issues. We loaded it into the truck to take back to Oaxaca for repairs. It would probably be some time before it was returned. I asked Juan what I had been thinking about, how many of the government projects are going well? He told me only 60-70% are successful in the end. Many run into problems like the ones we had experienced that day, things break and are costly/time consuming to repair. Sometimes internal conflicts or lack of organization cause trouble. Then there’s no getting over the problems caused by geography. You can have all the chickens and cows in the world, but only being able to get them a few villages over doesn’t mean you’ll be able to turn a profit with them. At the very least, the help from the government is better than nothing.
I mulled over these things as we packed up and began the long drive back to Oaxaca. The whole day I had this question burning in my mind that seemed simple, yet ridiculous at the same time. I had driven up there in a truck easily enough, why don’t people just leave for better opportunity? The truth is, most can’t. They work hard and scrape by with the basics of enough food and shelter, but money for anything more than that (even healthcare) is simply unimaginable. I thought back to what the volunteer from En Via had told me on the tour with them, that most people like this don’t think of poverty as something afflicting them, it’s just how life has always been. When you look around at their lives it sometimes seems rather quaint, like something people from a developed country might pay for. There is a closeness between families, the community, animals, nature, that we seem to have lost living in the fast paced modern world. It’s not the type of poverty you might imagine, where people are visibly suffering and emaciated. It’s only when you come down out of that world, into Oaxaca or Mexico city, that the injustice and inequality of it all hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s when you look at the news and the displays of wealth or indifference of Mexico’s politicians, businessmen and media elite, that you understand. The wealth disparity is huge, and in the states with the largest indigenous populations (Guerrero, Chiapas, Oaxaca) it’s even more so. It comes as no surprise then, that this is exactly where a lot of the energy and rage stirring the latest string of protests comes from. People are tired of a system that has worked to keep them poor, afraid and broken. What they’ll do to change that, remains to be seen.