Acequias, GMOs and bioregional autonomy | Report on the condition of agriculture in Costilla County, Colorado

Here’s Part 1: Ecological, Cultural & Historical Background (Devon G. Peña):

Moderator’s Note: This is the first in a three part series plus a source bibliography. The author is Co-Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and prepared this report during August- September 2015. The report is intended as a contribution to local agricultural, scientific, and environmental education for Costilla County residents, farmers, and public officials. The information or views presented in this report do not reflect the official views or policies of The Acequia Institute or its Board of Directors and Officers or the University of Washington.

Geographical, Ecological, and Historical Context

Costilla County is in south central Colorado in an alpine desert steppe region known as the San Luis Valley (SLV); Figure 1 below. The county seat of San Luis is 60 miles north of Taos, New Mexico. Average annual rainfall is the same as California’s Death Valley (about 6 to 7 inches). The SLV steppe is ringed by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (east) and the San Juan Mountains (west). The high country sustains deep snow pack used by farmers during the spring and summer snowmelt runoff season.

Emerging abruptly from the Valley floor, the frontal edge of the mountains presents dozens of peaks exceeding 3962 meters (13,000 ft) and 10 exceeding 4267 meters (14,000 ft) above sea level. The SLV intermountain ‘park’ itself has an average elevation of 2,407 meters (7,900 ft).

Fig. 1. San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.
Fig. 1. San Luis Valley. In this perspective, S is on top. Costilla County is along the edge of the southeastern side of the Valley between the Sangre de Cristo sub-range known as the Culebra Mountains (on the E) and the Rio Grande (on the W); upper left quadrant within SLV on this map. Source: http://geogdata.scsun.edu.

The rapid elevation gain means that nearly every major life zone in North America is represented within an average ten-mile walk from Upper Sonoran (or cold) Desert to alpine tundra above timberline. These environmental conditions result in an average growing season of 100 to 120 days but the region is home to a robust agricultural sector and also hosts a significant source of indigenous agrobiodiversity in the form of local land race cultivars including maize, bean, and pumpkin/squash varieties.

The SLV is within ancestral Ute first nation territory and members of the Capote bands hunted bison, mule deer, antelope, and elk across the high steppe well into the 1850s. Armed entry by white settler cavalry began during the same period with the establishment of Ft. Massachusetts (1852-58) near present day Ft. Garland and resulted in the permanent expulsion of the Ute people from the Valley.

Today, the Southern Ute tribal reservation is limited to 1059 square miles in an area centered around the vicinity of Ignacio, and due southeast of Durango, Colorado. This is about 181 miles due west from San Luis, Costilla County across the San Juan Mountains. Some descendants of Ute-Mexican marriages still reside in the Valley’s diverse Indo-Hispano, Chicana/o and Mexicana/o rural villages and communities.

La merced

The Mexican government issued the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant in 1844 as part of a decades- long, liberal inspired process to confirm and secure Native Pueblo and community land grant rights involving common lands and private vara strips. The Colorado section of the grant is just north of the New Mexico border at Amalia-Costilla but strong cross-border family, social, and cultural ties prevail. The 1 million-acre land grant includes what today constitutes the entirety of the Culebra Mountain Range and associated acequia-irrigated agricultural bottomlands within Costilla County; see Figure 2 below.

Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.
Fig. 2. Mexican Land Grants in Colorado and New Mexico. The Baumann map depicted here mislabels these Mexican land grants as “Spanish”. Source: Paul R. Baumann 2001. SUNY-Oneonta.

The land grant (merced) led to the establishment of a diverse community of people whose ancestry can be traced to a bewildering amalgamation comprised of a minority of Spanish (mostly Mexican- or New Mexican-born Spaniards, or criollos) and a majority comprised of P’urhépecha, Tlaxcalteca, and Mestiza/o (Native Mexicans); Pueblo, Diné, and Jicarilla Apache (Native Americans); and Sephardic and other Mediterranean peoples; all of whom moved up from Mexico and New Mexico to permanently settle in the area comprising today’s Costilla and Conjeos County in Colorado as part of a combined native settler and indigenous diaspora.

These are deeply rooted place-based communities and many acequia farm families hail from mixed mestizo/o and genizaro (qua Christianized Indian) communities like Abiquiú which were established as ‘frontier border’ outposts when the area was still part of hotly contested New Mexico Territory prior to the U.S. invasion and usurpation of 1848. Pueblo intermarriages also run deep across the history of these families.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo essentially defined Mexicans that chose to remain north of the new border as part of a pre-existing indigenous population with distinct rights. This included rights to common and private property in land and water, preservation of native language(s) and dialects, and full U.S. citizenship status.

The customary laws associated with the exercise of these rights, many of which were actually rooted in Pueblo Indian and other indigenous cultural traditions, were abrogated and systematically violated during one of the most scandalous episodes in the history of colonial dispossession and enclosure of Native Pueblo and Chicana/o land grants (Ebright 1994). Northern New Mexicans faced the notorious Santa Fe Ring and San Luis Valley acequieros had the U.S. Freehold Land and Immigration Co. as principal interloping usurper.

This was all part of a violent process of illegal expropriation and appropriation of Mexican land grants, in violation of Treaty rights, and reshaped the political geography of land tenure in what are now the U.S. Southwestern states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona in addition to parts of the adjacent states of California, Texas, and Utah.

Despite cycles of enclosure and dispossession, the mostly mestiza/o and indigenous Culebra acequia villages established the first community irrigation ditch systems — or acequias — in the what is now the State of Colorado and did so well before the establishment of Colorado Territory (1861). The acequias are sustained to this day in part because of the power vested in militant attachment to the first 23 adjudicated water rights in the State, beginning with the San Luis Peoples Ditch which was dug by hand and draught animals in 1852.

Most of the upland common areas of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant have been privatized. The one exception involves 80,000 acres in northeastern Taos County that are managed by land grant heirs as a common property in the New Mexico stretch of the merced. These heirs established the Rio Costilla Cooperative Livestock Association (RCCLA) and eventually purchased the acres in 1942. Livestock grazing (mostly cattle) was the primary focus at the start of this community- based cooperative endeavor but in the 1950’s the land began to be seen for its unique recreational values. In 1983, visitors were given the opportunity to hunt, fish and camp in designated portions of the ranch.

‘La Sierra’ portion of the land grant comprising originally all of what is now Costilla County, Colorado is the watershed that pertains to our struggles, and it also comprises approximately 80,000 acres (as seen in Appendix 1). This section has been the subject of a protracted land rights case that dates back to 1981 and is a response to violation of due process rights provoked during the violent 1960 enclosure by a North Carolina timber man and land speculator by the name of Jack T. Taylor.

Today, the heirs and successors of the Culebra acequia farm villages have access to La Sierra for the exercise of some of the original historic use rights (no subsistence hunting or fishing are allowed). But this instance of usufruct occurs within the enclosed boundaries of a ranch property that is still privately owned, now by wealthy billionaire investors from Texas.

In a historic 2002 ruling addressing the famous Lobato v. Taylor land rights case, the Colorado Supreme Court restored historic use rights to the heirs and successors to the 80,000-acre Colorado common lands of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant (i.e., La Sierra). The veritable common lands of this merced, perhaps the largest to be restored in this manner anywhere in the world, are vital to the survival of the watershed-dependent acequia farmers and to the protection of the area residents’ strong sense of place and bioregional values. Some 500 families comprised of heirs and successors have access to the mountain range to gather fuel wood and construction materials and to use as pasture for livestock grazing.

Fig. 3. Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, La Sierra Common, and Subdivisions. La Sierra is the 80,000-acre common land or ejido. Map courtesy of High Country News at URL: https://www.hcn.org/issues/104/3250.
Fig. 3. Sangre de Cristo Land Grant, La Sierra Common, and Subdivisions. La Sierra is the 80,000-acre common land or ejido. Map courtesy of High Country News at URL: https://www.hcn.org/issues/104/3250.

Finally, absentee real estate speculators have ruthlessly subdivided the dry land llanos (prairies) of central and far western Costilla County and while most of these lots remain vacant, in 2015 conflicts arose over land use regulations governing permits for septic tanks and home construction, camping rights and other issues; see Figure 3 above. These conflicts are the long shadow cast by the legacy of the enclosure of the common lands of the Sangre de Cristo land grant; under local customary law these lands were never intended or considered appropriate to permanent settlement by humans. Many of the inhabited lots are close to industrial monocultures in center-pivot sprinkler circles, some sown with GMO crops that present a landscape of polka- dot uniformity (Peña 2005).

Acequia Systems

The acequias are gravity driven snowmelt dependent community irrigation ditches. They are also among the oldest collective action institutions as constituted by the practices of local self- governance by tribal and non-tribal indigenous peoples in the U.S. Southwest. This is especially evident in the Rio Arriba or Upper Rio Grande watershed where Pueblo Indian and Chicana/o communities of northern New Mexico and south central Colorado sustain the acequia institution across a nine county area.

Acequia flood irrigated technology and the civic association of farmers for self government tied to water allocation practices both are rooted in antiquity with parallel and interlaced origins in the kuhls of Kangra (India), as-Saquiyas of the Middle East (Yemen) and North Africa, acequias of Andalusia, Spain, zanjas of Mexico (and the Philippines), and KwVo of Native American ancestral civilizations including nearby historic Pueblo communities at Taos, Okay Owingeh (San Juan), and other northern Pueblos. Research scholars have long celebrated the acequia as a sustainable, equitable, and resilient irrigation technology and an effective institution of collective action for farmer-directed management of local water resources.

Fig. 4. San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña
Fig. 4. San Pedro Acequia. The headgate of the second oldest acequia in Colorado. Photo by Devon G. Peña

The acequia association is a self-organized instance of political and legal autonomy; Rivera (1998) has noted how in some cases the acequia is the only daily form of local government present in more remote and isolated mountain villages of New Mexico and Colorado. Acequias are widely celebrated as deeply rooted, time-tested “water democracies” and are considered a significant national and world heritage resource (Rivera 1998; Peña 1999, 2003, 2005; Hicks and Peña 2003, 2010; Rodriguez 2007).

In Colorado context, the customary common law of the acequia is “prior” to the dominant settler doctrine of prior appropriation, which arrived with Anglo settlers and specifically the hard rock miners of the ‘59er ‘Pikes Peak or Bust’ gold and silver rush. Acequia customary law and the post-territorial settler legal regime of prior appropriation are distinct and in many ways incompatible. For example, under acequia law voting rights on a given community irrigation ditch are based on the principle of “one irrigator, one vote”, which is indicative of an indigenous preoccupation with governance through consensus and equity.

In contrast, under prior appropriation, voting rights are allocated on the basis of proportional shares in the ditch (company) and this means that larger landowners tend to dominate governance and decision-making processes. Another key difference is that acequia customary practices for water allocation respect the ancient principle of “shared scarcity” while the prior doctrine imposes a newer inequitable system of priority calls in which only senior water rights receive water in times of drought.

Given this cultural, ecological, historical, and legal context, the Costilla County Land Use Code and the Costilla County Comprehensive Plan prioritized the adoption of rules and regulations to protect acequia farms and associated watershed values which are therein broadly construed as matters of legitimate state interest in order to promote the preservation of acequias as significant state and national cultural heritage resources; see Costilla County Land Use Code at §1.20.A.2 and Costilla County Comprehensive Plan at Policy ENR-14 (p. 24), Policy ENR-16 and Policy ENR-17 (p. 25).

These differences, and especially the historical status of acequia law as older than prior appropriation, were to some extent recognized and codified in 2009 when the Colorado legislature approved and the governor signed HB 09-1233, the Colorado Acequia Recognition Law. One local consequence of this new law is that the acequias are now able to act as bona fide sub-county consulting authorities involved in the review of county land use planning and zoning actions and regulations, especially those that impact watershed functioning in acequia-dependent agricultural communities like the Culebra watershed in Costilla County.
Testimony in support of the 2009 law recognized the value of the “ecosystem services” provided by acequias including the production of wetlands, creation of wildlife habitat and migration corridors, regeneration of soil horizons, and preservation of native agricultural biodiversity through the seed saving and plant breeding practices of acequia farmers (Peña 1999, 2003, 2005:81-85, 2009; 2015; Hicks and Peña 2003; Fernald, et al 2014).

Today, there are an estimated 200 acequias irrigating approximately 5000 farms distributed across the four counties of southern Colorado designated as eligible for inclusion under the 2009 law (Costilla, Conejos, Huerfano, and Las Animas). These farmers collectively irrigate some 70,000 acres of prime farmlands with significant additional acreage in wetlands created by the subsurface flows associated with acequia flood irrigation methods. Costilla County, the heart of acequia farming in Colorado, hosts 73 acequias managed by more than 350 family farmers who sustain 23,000 acres of field and row crops and more than 10,000 acres of sub-irrigated wetlands (Peña 2003; acreage estimates are based on official Costilla County Clerk data).

Part 2 | The Culebra Center of Origin and Diversity (Devon G. Peña):

Moderator’s Note: This is the second in a three part series plus a source bibliography. The author is Co-Founder and President of The Acequia Institute and prepared this report during August- September 2015. The report is intended as a contribution to local agricultural, scientific, and environmental education for Costilla County residents, farmers, and public officials. The information or views presented in this report do not reflect the official views or policies of The Acequia Institute or its Board of Directors and Officers or the University of Washington.

What we are working to protect. Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho grown at Acequia Institute farm in Viejo San Acacio. Photograph by Devon G. Peña
What we are working to protect. Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho grown at Acequia Institute farm in Viejo San Acacio. Photograph by Devon G. Peña

The Culebra Center of Origin and Agrobiodiversity

The acequia farmers of the southern SLV (Costilla and Conejos counties) are among the oldest non-tribal indigenous family farmers in the U.S. and are renowned for unique place-adapted heirloom land race maize, bean, and pumpkin/squash varieties.

These native crops are considered part of the land race populations of the extended Mesoamerican Center of Origin. The concept of ‘center of origin’ was first developed by the Russian scientist Nicolai Vavilov who identified several distinct biogeographical regions across the globe that are home to the wild ancestors of crops domesticated and diversified by indigenous farmers over millennia and remain places where the co-evolution of crops and wild ancestors persists as a direct result of surviving indigenous cultural selection and agroecological practices [our emphasis].i[i]

According to noted ethnobotanist, Gary P. Nabhan:

In the U.S. Southwest and northwestern Mexico, much of the land is arid. Indigenous agriculture persists here, in some places beyond where conventional modern agriculture is successful. In addition to the reason usually given for genetic conservation to preserve for future generations genes that may make commercial crop varieties less vulnerable to stresses and maladies there are others worth considering with regard to native crops of this binational region. (1985: 387-8).

Nabhan illustrates how “Aridoamerica” is an overlooked center of origin and diversity. Vavilov’s travels included vast stretches of Aridoamerica where he searched for and identified dozens of native land race crops developed and sustained by indigenous farmers with at least 25 plant species in advanced stages of domestication cultivated since well before European invasion and conquest (Nabhan 2011).

Centers of origin are also centers of diversity. We propose that this includes the San Luis Valley. Nabhan appears to include the Upper Sonoran desert country of the San Luis Valley (SLV) as a northern periphery sub-basin of Aridoamerica (1988: 393). More recent scientific research by Matsuoka, et al. (2002) squarely places the SLV within the center of origin and diversity of maize; see Figure 5 below.

Fig. 5. Center of origin teocintle and maize land race populations. The light blue dots include accessions from northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Source: Matsuoka, et al (2002).
Fig. 5. Center of origin teocintle and maize land race populations. The light blue dots include accessions from northern New Mexico and the San Luis Valley in Colorado. Source: Matsuoka, et al (2002).

As a center of origin and agrobiodiversity, the Culebra watershed acequia farms are recognized, above all, for their contributions to heirloom maize diversity and for sustaining several vanishing artisan production methods and practices involving the use of native crops. This is especially true of a maize white flint variety known as maíz de concho.

The ethnobotany of this white flint maize, which is used to make chicos del horno (adobe oven- roasted corn), is still a matter of research in-progress and only a very few published sources are available (for e.g., see Peña 2015). The Upper Rio Grande Hispano Farms study (1995-99) — co-directed by Dr. Devon G. Peña with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH Grant RO-22707-94) and the Ford Foundation — included what is likely the first scientific field and lab research on the local white flint maize grown by acequia farmers in the Culebra watershed of Colorado.

The maize geneticist Ralph Bertrand-García of Colorado College did the field study in 1995. Bertrand-García (in-press) found that the white flint maize produced by the Corpus A. Gallegos amily in San Luis is a highly in-bred parent line, implying genetic purity and an absence of genes from commercial conventional hybrids. We note that when the field study was done there were no commercial plantings of GMO maize in the SLV.

Bertrand-García further suggests (in personal communication to the author) that Culebra maíz de concho shares morphological qualities and possibly gene sequence patches derived from ancient Anasazi corncob remnants found at sites across the desert Southwest (Mesa Verde, Chaco, Grand Gulch). Bertrand-García’s study supports oral histories in Costilla County declaring that the local white flint maize originally came from Anasazi ancestral maize populations via the modern-day Taos, San Juan, San Idelfonso, Picuris, and other northern Pueblos (Corpus A. Gallegos interview with Devon G. Peña, July 18, 1996; archived at The Acequia Institute). Today, seed exchanges with indigenous farmers in those communities continue.

The principal traits identified by Bertrand-García include three that are adaptive responses to conditions in high altitude cold desert environments with short growing seasons and late spring and early fall frosts. These include: (1) rapid development with average of 74-80 days to maturity (between sowing and harvesting); (2) resistance to desiccation and tissue damage from intense UV solar radiation at high altitude and early or late frosts; and (3) adaptation to diurnal temperature extremes with a daily average range between lows of 40°F and highs of 80°F during the growing season.

These qualities are significant traits, especially given the context of today’s climate change challenges. It would seem that the genomic integrity of the Culebra bioregional land race maize populations could be recognized as a national agrobiodiversity conservation priority.

Santistevan (2003) also describes the specific heirloom white flint used by acequia farmers as maíz de concho. Adopting the scientific name Zea mays clibanus for this population, he notes that the heirloom variety is grown in rotation or intercropped with maíz de diente, another local flint so named because farmers describe the kernels as “horse’s teeth”.

In our own field observations, we are seeing a variety of inbred parent lines as well as a constantly shifting mosaic of native chimera varieties incorporating morphological, adaptive, forage/biomass, nutritional, and culinary qualities valued by acequia communities. Some chimeras of two or more parent lines from local land races often have features expected separately in flint, dent, and flour maize land races. One of our own heirloom varieties, gifted to The Acequia Institute by Joe Gallegos of San Luis, Colorado, can be described as a “floury flint” because it can be used, depending on the timing of harvest, to produce chicos or pozol (hominy) as well as corn meal for masa harina through a process known as nixtamalization.ii[ii]

Chicos del horno has been listed by Slow Food USA as an endangered food in the Ark of Taste project. This designation includes concern for disappearing artisan craft skills to construct and maintain the crucial adobe ovens and place-based knowledge required to prepare the oven- roasted chicos for consumption or sale. Chicos remain a significant part of our “First Foods” and as an icon of our heritage cuisine. As such, chicos sit at the center of the ethnic foodways of bioregional acequiera/o culture.

Finally, maíz de concho varieties bred and sown by the acequia farmers of Costilla County bear living evidence of genetic affinity with wild ancestral forms. During the 2010 harvest cycle of maíz de concho at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias, the home of the Acequia Institute’s farm school and grassroots agroecological and permaculture field station, we sowed a seventh generation of Gallegos family heirloom white flint, the same parent line studied by Bertrand- García (in-press); we found two stalks that produced tunicate florescence instead of whole cob alignments of the maize kernels.

Figure 6 and 7 below present two images: First is a diagram from the classic study by Noble Laureate geneticist George W. Beadle (1980) on “The Ancestry of Corn”. In the diagram, (a) and (b) are designated ‘teocintle’; (c) is designated as a ‘tunicate’ (a mutation in which individual kernels remain aligned in separate single- or double-file instead of clustered on a cob); (d) is designated as a ‘primitive’ ear, and (e) is designated as ‘modern’ maize. Second is a photograph of the tunicate florescence that we keyed as an example of a tendency in our maíz de concho to revert back to wild ancestral forms. These occurrences are indicative of the close genomic affinity our in-bred land race varieties have with wild and intermediary relatives.

Fig. 6. Diagram of teocintle, tunicate, primitive, and modern maize. Source: Beadle (1980).
Fig. 6. Diagram of teocintle, tunicate, primitive, and modern maize. Source: Beadle (1980).
Fig. 7. Tunicate white flint. From 2010 harvest at Almunyah Dos Acequias. Viejo San Acacio, CO. Compare with (c) in Fig. 6. Photograph by D. G. Peña
Fig. 7. Tunicate white flint. From 2010 harvest at Almunyah Dos Acequias. Viejo San Acacio, CO. Compare with (c) in Fig. 6. Photograph by D. G. Peña

The photograph in Fig. 7 above shows the tunicate white flint mutation from our own accession of the Gallegos family parent line of Culebra maíz de concho and was collected during the 2010 harvest at Almunyah de las Dos Acequias Farm in Viejo San Acacio. Comparing this mutation with Beadle’s 1980 diagram suggests that the occurrence depicted in Fig. 7 above is an example of the regression/mutation of a local land race to an intermediate wild stage. This is substantive evidence of the legitimacy of center of origin land race status for Costilla County maize varieties like Culebra-Gallegos maíz de concho.

Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO Photograph by Devon G. Peña
Local youth participate in the production of chicos del horno at Corpus A. Gallegos Ranch. San Luis, CO
Photograph by Devon G. Peña

i[i] See Nabhan 2011 for a detailed study of Vavilov’s journey through northwestern Mexico and the American Southwest, a bioregion Nabhan describes as “Aridoamerica”.
ii[ii] A process for the preparation of maize in which the grain is soaked and cooked in an alkaline solution, usually limewater, and hulled; the process makes the lysine and other essential amino acids available to the human digestive system, maximizing the nutritional value of maize consumption, a point overlooked by many scientific specialists studying maize who repeat the mythic refrain about the malnourished state of so-called maize-dependent consumers.

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