“Helping endangered cultures adapt and thrive in the modern world” is the noble goal of Living Roots, a social venture which has recently become a global affiliate of Village Earth.
A Disappearing Culture
Living Roots’ pilot project is in the sierra (mountains) of Baja California Sur, where approximately 7,000 isolated rancheros continue to use centuries-old traditional Spanish Colonial and indigenous techniques in everyday life. However, due to rising costs of Baja’s coastal development and the lack of economic opportunity, direct access to markets, and occupational prospects, as many as 9 in 10 rancheros are leaving the sierra. Without Living Roots’ help, ranchero culture, the “living roots” of the American cowboy, is likely to vanish in one-to-two generations, along with the critical wisdom of living in balance with Baja’s arid eco-system.
The Living Roots’ Plan
Since its incorporation a year ago, Living Roots has focused on proving that the unique culture of San Javier has economic value that can be captured and invested in the community to both help rancherofamilies realize the value of their culture and enable economically sustainable lifestyles. Toward this end, Living Roots has fostered a community-run marketing association which certifies products, as being authentic, hand-made and based in a traditional skill.
These artisanal products include, olive oil made from some of the oldest olive groves in the Americas, wine from heirloom grapevines originally brought to the new world by Jesuit missionaries, historically significant saddles and cowboy wear which continue to be handmade and tanned in the traditional style, and intricate embroidery, an activity enjoyed by women throughout the sierra.
Creating Community-Driven Infrastructure
Arising out of the San Javier “Envisioning Your Future Workshop” facilitated by Living roots, next month, in collaboration with the Municipality of Loreto, Living Roots and community members will begin to build a Cultural Center and Regional Marketplace. The center will create a direct connection to markets for regionally produced artisan crafts and food, a central communication hub for organizing tourism and community information, and an exhibition focal point for Baja ranchero history and lifestyle.
Rejuvenation of Historic Skills & Youth Empowerment
Also this fall, Living Roots is launching its educational programing through a series of workshops on organic agriculture and other heritage skills. After two successive years of drought, ranchers have begun to sell their livestock and look for alternative sources of income. Living Roots’ aim for the organics project is to help ranches return to self-sufficiency by providing food for families, helping them protect heirloom varieties of seeds, and increase their income through the sale of produce at the Sunday market in Loreto and eventually, at the newly-constructed Regional Marketplace in San Javier.
Living Roots has also developed other programs to rejuvenate rare and disappearing skills, including a generational transfer program known as “Youth as Stewards”, which empowers young children through teaching traditional skills and engages university-educated sierra-born youth in giving back to their communities through contributing business and professional skills.
The next step for Living Roots is to co-create an agro-tourism circuit offering hands-on cultural experiences to interested travelers. While Baja’s coastal regions host thousands of tourists each year, alternative or agro-tourism has yet to be developed in the remote mountain areas and presents an important opportunity to empower these mountain communities to direct their own livelihoods through managing and developing a unique, sustainable tourism program.
What Makes Living Roots Different
Mila Birnbaum, Living Roots’ co-founder and Community Development Director says, “What makes Living Roots different is our focus on a community-driven, co-created development strategy in the context of a market-based approach. This means the community decides what aspects of their culture are important to protect, as well as which skills are critical, and Living Roots helps them determine how best to preserve them – all the while building local capacity, empowering the next generation and creating sustainable lifestyles.”
Over the past year, the team has spent many weeks and months in the village of San Javier and the surrounding mountains, talking to individual ranchers and painstakingly putting together the infrastructure and human capital required for the venture.
The Team and its Roots
Living Roots was formed by three alumnae from CSU’s College of Business Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA Program. The venture has since been joined by a local team including Hugo Sanchez, Martha Drew and Diana Espinoza Meza, each of whom studied Alternative Tourism and is dedicated to the rejuvenation of the ranchero culture of Baja California Sur. Leading the community is a board of ten community leaders who represent regional clusters of ranches and make governing decisions regarding sales events, workshops and how to best serve the needs of the entire region.
McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots’ principal founder, Executive Director, and an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School, discovered the ranchero culture in the remote ranching communities of Baja California Sur while working in the region. She was amazed by the hospitality, skills, and abilities of these unique people to sustain themselves in such a rugged and arid environment. She also found that community members were afraid that their culture was at risk of disappearing amidst development and the rising costs of living in Baja.
Colleen Lyon, Living Roots’ co-founder and Marketing and Funding Director, recalls, “From the moment McKenzie first presented her idea to form a business designed to help this culture survive, we knew it was more than just a project. Her passion and commitment was contagious and infused the entire management team. Everyone who became involved with Living Roots could sense it would continue beyond the GSSE program – in some way, shape or form – and felt confident that their efforts were contributing to the success of a going concern.”
How You Can Help
Consistent with the goals of sustainable social enterprise, Living Roots measures its success based on a combination of social impact, environmental sustainability, and financial returns — a triple bottom line. While helping to foster a community-driven enterprise that is economically self-sufficient from the sale of artisanal crafts, foods and agri-tourism, Living Roots needs grants and donations to fund its programming and develop local capacity.