The cooperative fencing program

The next problem the poor farmers took on to improve their economic base was to find a cost-effective way to keep the rich farmers' cattle from entering their mountainside maize fields and from eating their crops. Among the poorest farmers are those who plant the steep hillsides by the slash-and-burn method. Each year they would timber a new patch of land, and fence it to keep the rich farmers' cattle from eating their crops. To buy fencing wire, they had to borrow from the rich cattle owners. In return, they were forced to grant the rich families grazing rights on the land they had cleared, fenced and harvested. Thus the cattle owners got new grazing areas timbered, fenced, and planted with fodder, all for only the cost of the wire.

After discussing and analyzing the implications of this situation to people's well-being, the Piaxtla health team, together with members of the small farmers' organization, began to explore possible solutions. They organized poor farmers to join together to cooperatively fence in a whole hillside. Within this large enclosure, all could plant their small plots of land. To buy the large quantity of barbed wire needed, the health team obtained start-up money from a nongovernmental organization. Once the fencing project was completed, by charging the wealthy cattle owners for grazing rights, the poor farmers' were able to pay back the loan for the fencing wire within two years. From then on, grazing fees produced an income which could be used for the food and health needs of their families.

When the first group of poor farmers succeeded in paying off their loan, the same money was lent to a new group. Through this revolving fund, a growing number of poor farmers became more self-sufficient. The gap in wealth and power between rich and poor narrowed somewhat, and the health of some of the poorest children began to improve.

Through these and other organized actions, people began to gain confidence and experience strength through unity. This empowering process proved contagious and soon neighboring communities began to join the informal but cohesive organization of poor farm workers. As the numbers and solidarity of the peasant farmers grew, they and their health team began to combat bigger, potentially more dangerous issues.

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