Past Projects: Sierra Madre Project


The Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico has been recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a mega center of biological diversity – it contains an estimated 4,000 plant species including the richest diversity of pre-Columbian domesticated crops in the Americas. This area is the homeland of the Tarahumara, who for centuries have maintained a subsistence-style agriculture composed of corn, beans and squash within the deep canyons and high plateaus that define the Sierra Madre. The Tarahumara also utilize as food, fiber and medicine more than 300 different species from the surrounding forests.

The NS/S Sierra Madre Project originally emerged in response to the potential threat of a forestry project proposed by the World Bank that would have resulted in serious environmental damage to the fragile Sierra Madrean ecosystem in northern Chihuahua and had devastating impact on the way of life of the Tarahumara. Long-term goals of this project include: (a) promoting conservation strategies that focus on preserving the ecological integrity of the Sierra Madre while meeting the cultural and economic needs of Tarahumara communities; (b) building local capacity through training and technical assistance, and encourage local responsibility; and (c) implementing model projects – designed by local residents – to address deforestation and conservation of biological resources.

Early in the project, efforts included establishing a craft cooperative for residents of a small village perched on the edge of the famous Copper Canyon. In addition to saving precious forest resources, preventing severe erosion and saving traditional farming practices, the crafts provided an important source of income for villagers. Many of the objects from this cooperative – the beautiful double weave baskets and lidded petacas of all sizes and shapes, whimsical wood and stone animal carvings, and beautiful wooden bowls and implements – can be found at the NS/S store on 4th Avenue in Tucson and proceeds from their sale help support our conservation efforts.

All of these projects not only significantly improve the quality of life for many Tarahumara families, benefits of completed projects have created a proliferation of requests for assistance and resulted in an expansion of efforts from one village in 1994 to a total of seven villages by 2004. Today, the project has spread even further into remote areas of the sierra, where traditional communities have constructed extensive potable water systems, native plant nurseries, trincheras, rain-water harvesting systems and in some cases, have begun trying to ‘reintroduce’ once common traditional crops.


One of the most innovative and critical initiatives undertaken recently has been the introduction of water harvesting to capture precious rainfall. Drought conditions have been prevalent in the region for over a decade. For families who do not live near a water source, such as a natural spring or stream, getting water can be a difficult chore and the quality of that water questionable. In one community, a poorly fenced shallow well provided the only source of drinking water for residents and livestock together. Health problems from dysentery, giardia and parasites were common. Additionally, many families live anywhere from a quarter to half a mile away from their nearest water source. Transporting water is time consuming and labor intensive. Wells as deep as 60 to 80 meters have been drilled in some communities, but no water was found.

Systems utilizing simple materials of corrugated roofing, pipes and a storage tank are installed to collect rainwater, making it available long after the rains cease. Tin roofs direct water into PVC pipes. Captured rainwater is then funneled into a storage holding tank, anywhere from 2,500-4,000 litres in size. An effective and inexpensive filtration system consists of a plastic bucket filled with charcoal, gravel, and sand. The bucket is then covered with a fine wire mesh to keep out mosquitoes. This filtering system is added between the end of the PVC pipe and the tank at a cost of about $10 per system. Household potable water is drawn for the first time from a newly installed system. A total of 51 water harvesting systems were installed in the villages of Rowerachi, Wajurana, Raramuchi and Porochi.


The Tarahumara utilize over 300 native plants from the surrounding forest for food, fiber, dye and medicine. Of these, 2 species – beargrass and sotol – play important roles in the ability of households to earn income. Baskets made from both beargrass (Nolina spp.) and sotol (Dasylirion spp.) are used extensively in Tarahumara households and are sold to tourists throughout the area. The leaves used in basketry are harvested from wild populations of both species. Concerned about the need to protect sotol from overharvesting and to safeguard the natural resources and ecosystems of the canyons, a native plant nursery was constructed in Wajurana in which sotol would be grown and used in community revegetation efforts. The sotol nursery consists of eleven 1.5 x 3.5 meter beds constructed, fenced and filled with a mix of oak and firewood chips added to the local soil. A nearby gravity-fed water tank with attached soaker hoses in each bed provides automatic irrigation.

With the technical advice from Hacienda Sotol (a sotol nursery and distillery) about the germination and growing of sotol, seeds of a locally adapted species, Dasylirion sereque, were gathered, cleaned and abraded by hand. About 40 liters of gathered seed yielded one liter of cleaned seed. To ensure germination, seeds are “stratified,” frozen and then further abraded either manually or chemically.