Project Tecocomulco

The following is a project that eARThand gleaners society will be pursuing crowd sourced funding for in the near future.


Project Tecocomulco

The adaptive co-evolution of ecology and economy with art and culture

Project Description

Project Tecocomulco

“Transforming what was once considered trash into viable community art communicates a strong message.

 Art has the power to redefine our priorities and values. If we can transform trash into art, we may be able to work together to transform degraded community sites into healthy environmental models. It’s worth trying.” (Susan Leibovitz Steinman)[1]

The adaptive co-evolution of ecology and economy with art and culture

With environmental art as the starting point, this project builds local craft production, economic opportunities and a new creative resource management program. Project Tecocomulco supports the adaptive co-evolution of a community within a local ecology by developing a creative use for existing unwanted resources. In so doing, it creates a framework for re-examining how humans engage with local resources.

Contemporary art, craft traditions and ecological stewardship evolve, forming a partnership for adapting to environmental and community needs.

The place:

Laguna Tecocomulco, Hidalgo Mexico: Tecocomulco Lake (Figure 1) is considered to be one of the last natural wetlands of an old lake ecosystem that predominated in the basin of Mexico. It has been designated as a RAMSAR site and as an “Area of Importance for Bird Conservation” (AICAS, acronym in Spanish).[2]

Figure 1. Top – Settlement on Tecocomulco Lake shoreline. Bottom – View of Tecocomulco Lake showing vegetation coverage.


The problem: Income and waste management

Tule (Schoenoplectus californicus), a reed that covers  the majority of the lake surface (Figure 1 – Bottom), is cut back manually and by machine; without clearing measures in place, the tule chokes out the lake, significantly decreasing the wetland and ecosystem value of the lake and making it impassible by boat for humans. Until 2009, the tule (and a lesser amount of common cattail, Typha latifolia) was burned after clearing as a method of disposal and ongoing ecosystem management, at which point the government began levying  fines for burning. Piles of tule now accumulate, with old burn piles still evident on the landscape (Figure 2). The local conservation management organization (UMA[3]) manages 1600 hectares of the lake and removes approximately 3 tons per hectare from a 300/hectare area, equaling 900 tons of tule removed annually. Clearing happens sporadically throughout the year in non-prime hunting season, potentially affecting both locally breeding and migratory bird populations.

IMG_0319  IMG_0184
Figure 2 – Piles of cut and discarded tule.

The current human population that lives in various communities near the lake is around 1400 people. Approximately 150 of the families living in the immediate area of Tecocomulco Lake in the community of Ejido San Miguel Allende (population 418) are dependent on the income from the tourism generated during the hunting season. Hunters come from USA, Spain, China and Argentina from November through April. Many locals are unemployed or under-occupied throughout the summer months (i.e., non-hunting season) when crops are in the fields and agricultural demands are low.[4]  The rural areas of the Hidalgo region have high levels of poverty (with an economyprimarily based on subsistence farming) with the per capita income only 61.5% of  Mexico’s national average.[5]

The opportunity:

Tule and cattail are both widely used plants for traditional weaving: traditional Japanese tatami mats, North American West Coast First Nations’ seasonal huts, European rush seated chairs and contemporary Ecuador woven furniture. Tule and cattail are materials worthy of using, not burning. Both plants are an available potential resource for an impoverished rural community and can serve as links to the rediscovery of cultural weaving traditions.

The potential exists to create both a small cottage-industry focusing on hand-woven products made with local tule, and the market place for those objects. Such an endeavor would put a portion of the tule that is removed as a part of ongoing local management practice into the centre of a new economic system.

Basket weaving cooperatives and independent traditional basketry weavers reside in communities just a few hours away. Some local community members have weaving in their family history going back a few generations and have a limited personal weaving experience. This experience is applied to making utilitarian and occasional items (Figure 3), but not to making products with a market focus. Community members have skills using other plants, but they do not value the extremely abundant tule as a useful material.[6]

Figure 3. Sample of local weaving with Tecocomulco tule.

Developing a sustainable resource:

Tule needs to be harvested when green, then dried and soaked prior to weaving. The ideal time to harvest tule for weaving purposes is in the middle of summer when the stocks are still green but the fibers are strong. This harvest schedule coincides with the best time for clearing tule from an ecological perspective; at this time local nesting birds will have fledged their young and most migratory birds will have not yet arrived. Restricting the currently unscheduled tule clearing to the time period which maximizes benefits to humans and to the lake ecosystem lays the foundation for a successful and sustainable resource management practice.

If successful, this project will create an economic incentive to restrict and adjust tule harvesting times in a manner that benefits both local economy and local biodiversity. The ongoing human stewardship of the lake ecosystem—the removal of tule and cattail to benefit birds— becomes an adaptive diversification of the existing  economic support, one that further ties the local human community to the ecosystem in which they are embedded.

The catalyst:

Sharon Kallis, executive director of the eARThand gleaners society, is a Canadian artist whose practice focuses on work with communities, invasive plant species re-purposing and traditional craft technologies. Sharon spent two months in nearby Real del Monte in the fall of 2012 and, while visiting  Tecocomulco Lake and speaking with locals about the old burn piles of tule and cattail, saw possibilities to build cultural and ecological connections through a large community weaving project.

Working with a local ethnobotanist, master weavers will be selected to work with Sharon and local Tecocomulco community members that are interested in learning new skills. Working together on weaving forms for a large sculpture will provide the first opportunity for learning the tule material properties, skill sharing and technique development. Through the process of weaving the sculpture components, potential marketable woven projects will be explored. Together the group will create the blue print for an additional income source for local artisans in harmony with the environmental needs and management of their local ecology.

The vision:

“…To affect values, to create desire, to make us care about something, you have to affect people’s hearts, and bodies, our unconscious dream lives and imaginations. This is the work art can do so well”

 (Jackie Brookner, Ecoartist)[7]

Art carries the potential for seeding change and understanding for a new vision of what the world can be. Public eco-sculpture can catalyze conversations, draw public attention and participate in environmental education initiatives.

A large woven tule ephemeral sculpture will be created collectively by visiting master weavers and local apprentice weavers working with Sharon who will act as catalyst, weaver and project coordinator. The sculpture will be created by linking individually made baskets (using 3-dimensional natural packing principals) into a large structure that stands as evidence to the time spent collectively learning and rethinking the sustainable “material potential” of the landscape.

Using regional weaving techniques and twining methods, baskets with 0.5 to 1.0 meter diameters will be made as both an exercise in knowledge sharing of weaving techniques and as an opportunity to become familiar with the local tule and its specific weaving properties. The sculpture will be made entirely from on-site materials. The individual baskets will be woven together to create the larger form; the final shape may be defined by individual forms inspired by traditional carry baskets and iconic nest forms. The completed eco-sculpture will be placed back into the lake (either floating directly on the water or rising out of a floating mat of cut tule) and nestled against a tule “wall” in an area routinely cleared (Figure 4). Over time, the sculpture will biodegrade back into the water, the nutrients in the plant materials now free to re-join the ecosystem.

basket arch a

figure 4

[1] Bonnano, A., J. Brockner, and S. Leibovits Steinman. 2004. Materials. In  Strewlow, H., H. Prigann, and V. David (eds.). Ecological Aesthetics, Art in Environmental Design: Theory and Practice. Birkhäuser Architecture, London, UK.

[2] Lanza-Espino and Gómez-Rodríguez. 2011.  Analysis of the effect of El Niño and La Niña on Tecocomulco Lake, central basin, Mexico.  Hidrobiológica 21:249-259.

[3] Information regarding local community received from Arturo López Hernández, community resident and manager of Las Unidades de manejo para la Conservación de la vida silvestre (UMA) in conversation with Sharon Kallis and Maria Teresa Pulido Silva November 2012.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Standard and Poor’s Rates State of Hidalgo, Mexico ‘mxA-“. PR Newswire (New York): p. 1. December 14, 2000.

[6] Ibid footnote 3.

[7] Jackie Brookner, Reconstruction Ecologies Panel, Guggenheim Museum, New York 12.6.2001