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Prickly Cactus Create Comfortable Jobs

Two initiatives aid Mexican communities - one saves native plants, the other strives to revive a sweet tradition.

Standing in a greenhouse brimming with thousands of Mexican cactus plants, Marcos Sierra Pechardo proudly holds a flat of a small bulbous variety of cactus sporting a distinctive reddish-brown fuzz.

Slender white tags poking up from each black plastic pot carry the name mammillaria marcosi - making the reason for Marcos Pechardo's proud smile clear. Though he has no formal training in botany and never even attended high school, the modest teenager can tell his grandchildren some day that a previously unknown cactus he discovered one day in the Mexican desert and learned to propagate carries his name.

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"I was with people who had been to that part of the state [of Guanajuato] many times before and were sure they knew every plant there," says Mr. Pechardo, "but I insisted this was something different. And it turned out I was right," he adds. "I'm really proud it's named after me."

A future in plants

Pechardo is one of a dozen Mexican youths from the area of this celebrated Mexican colonial city who are part of a development project with both the environment and people in mind. The idea is to promote the preservation and balanced use of Mexico's arid and semi-arid regions, even while the people who call these fragile areas home learn new trades that allow the land and its inhabitants to coexist profitably.

"Behind all of our projects is the promotion of a rural development that focuses on new uses for natural resources within a preservation of our surroundings," says Federico Gama, director of Cante, a nine-year-old technical and scientific nonprofit organization here. "We want to help the people in these areas move away from the social assistance notion towards an entrepreneurial perspective, but in a context of nature's preservation."

To accomplish that, Mr. Gama sees Cante's work with young, usually unskilled Mexicans as among his organization's most important. "One of our purposes has to be helping Mexico provide its young people with viable and rewarding skills," he says. "We want them to have the opportunity for meaningful work where they live, so that their only alternatives aren't either going to cities here in Mexico or up north" to the United States.

Cante, which means "water that gives life" in the language of the local Chichimeca Indians, boasts Mexico's largest collection of cactus species, a nature reserve, and a botanical garden where cactuses are preserved and new cactus plants cultivated. And in all these activities are found young, formerly unemployed dropouts who not long ago thought a cactus was just something to kick at - or at best something to pull up to sell.

"I was like most young people who don't take nature too seriously," says Jos Alonso Garca Luna, a teen who helps maintain Cante's "mother collection" of cactuses and who also discovered a new variety that carries his name. "Now I know I want a future in plants."

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Right now Cante is working with Mexican universities to create a diploma, something akin to an associate of arts degree in the US, that would recognize the vocational training the young participants have undergone. In addition, it would require more generalized knowledge of the world - in history, culture, and science - says Gama, so that a young person who has learned to cultivate cactuses will also have a better understanding of why that work matters.

Large-scale cultivation

In the rural villages around small cities like San Miguel, pressure remains very strong to leave for unskilled jobs in the US where the relative fortune of $5 or $6 an hour can be made. To help make it possible for the Marcoses and the Alonsos of the area to stay home, Cante is working on a plan to commercialize Mexican cactuses through a large-scale cultivation project.

As astounding as it may seem, Mexico has almost no cactus nursery industry, even though it is the world's cactus trove. Of the world's more than 2,000 known cactus varieties, at least 1,200 are found here. Yet a visit to any supermarket or commercial nursery in Mexico City reveals that most cactuses being sold are imported from California or Holland.

Cante is already cultivating about 40,000 plants a year, selling most of them to buyers in Mexico City. But if investment funds can be secured, plans call for expansion within two years to an annual production of a half-million plants. With some of the modest-looking cactuses Cante holds in its collection able to command prices of $2,000 in Japan or Germany, the market potential seems clear.

Another benefit of such large-scale cultivation, says Cante plant curator Charles Glass, would be to reduce interest in plant smuggling out of Mexico, which remains a problem. A long-time editor of the American Cactus and Succulent Society's journal, the former southern California nurseryman notes that so many foreign cactus lovers inevitably show up wherever new cactus species are found that small stores and roadside restaurants spring up to serve the crowds.

Mr. Glass, who knew Mexico from years of legally collecting plants for commercialization, says he always figured he'd live his life raising plants in California and editing a cactus magazine. But then one day in 1990 friends told him about the case of some European cactus rustlers who had been caught with more than 20,000 plants of a coveted cactus species they had stolen from the Mexican wild.

Cactus curator

"This was a species that is so difficult to come by in the wild yet so easy to raise oneself from seed," he says. "I decided right there to drop everything to come to Mexico to work with the artificial propagation of native plants."

Glass is now Cante's curator of plants, but he might also be called curator of young cactus specialists. "I came here to work with plants, but very quickly my main interest became working with these young people," he says.

In the five years he has worked with Cante, Glass has taken several young Mexicans to American Cactus and Succulent Society conventions - in some cases to give talks in English on their experiences - and he has also taken some to visit southern California's vast nursery industry.

"It really hits me every time I go back there now to see a 90 percent Mexican work force raising varieties of cactus that, like the workers, are natives of Mexico," says the tall, white-haired Glass. "It seems logical that we should be able to develop some of that here."

While plans for large-scale propagation are coming along, Cante's workers are also cultivating varieties of cactus that local populations now collect in the wild for various traditional purposes but which are fast disappearing. One is a relatively large barrel cactus used to make a kind of candy, and another is a grassy plant used to weave crosses and crowns for religious ceremonies.

"People tell us it's getting harder each year to find the plants to keep these traditions going," says Juan Antonio Garca Luna, Alonso's older brother, who notes that each village may require 100 plants to weave its cross, for example. "So now we say we'll work with them to raise the plants," he says. Adding a point that reflects the goal of the organization he works for, he explains, "That way maybe both the people's way of life and the plants they depend on can be saved."

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