A fruit-grower opposes mining - and tourism

  • Estevan Arellano wants to save the farming culture of his home

    Heather Abel

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

TAOS, N.M. - Over the din of a Taos sports bar where tourists are watching the NBA playoffs and drinking Coronas, orchardist Estevan Arellano is trying to explain the idea of querencia. It means, loosely, a love of home, an anchor to the ground.

It is this querencia that makes him fight to preserve the subsistence farming culture of Embudo, Dixon and Pilar. Arellano, who directs the Oûate Cultural Center, thinks Summo's copper mine would destroy it. To demonstrate, he draws maps on drink napkins to show how this area looked when it was governed by land grants given to the Hispanic people.

Bleeding into the napkin is a sketch of a prototype village. It could be present-day Embudo where he lives, or Taos many years ago. A river runs across the top. Below, the most fertile land is owned by community members, and irrigated by the communally run acequias, or ditches. Below that, in the less fertile ground, are the commons with houses and stores. Unlike public lands, these commons were governed by the local community, not Washington, D.C.

As the common lands were gradually incorporated into the public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, villagers moved mobile homes onto the fertile croplands, sitting too close to the river when the floods come.

"The mine would never happen under the land grant. It would be up to the local people to make a decision. Local people are not in favor of that type of mining.

"Now they have a small garden, couple of cows, chickens, trees. With a mine, everyone abandons land. Then they say, "I can buy chilies, corn, apples, peaches in the store. I'm not going to bother planting anything." They are missing the whole idea. It is not about $1,000. It is about preserving our land, our lifestyle. It is very healthy. We don't have to go to the gym. There is fresh air, sun, vegetables. People here have been organic forever. The hippies think they discovered it.

"Sixty percent of the young people leave (Rio Arriba County). There are no jobs. We know that jobs from the mine could provide economic incentive for people to stay, but it is not worth the damage to the area. Very few people would benefit."

In Rio Arriba County, the fastest-growing industry is tourism, promoted by recent Anglo immigrants. The stretch of the Rio Grande from Pilar to Embudo attracts 40,000 rafters every summer, and bed and breakfasts and cafés have opened to service them. But Arellano also wants to cut back rafting.

"Nobody local makes money from rafting. They go into our orchards and get food, mess up the river, leave empty cans. ... Local people don't want to end up a ghost town, a tourist attraction, a living museum, so that tourists can stop by and say, 'this used to be a historic acequia; now it is dry.'

"Let's establish comanagement with the Forest Service and BLM. They're not doing a good job of management. When local people throw trash in the arroyos, they are doing civil disobedience. If people knew the land also belonged to them, they wouldn't do it. We are never in favor of returning common lands to private ownership. We only want to protect lands from the big contractors from out of state."

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