Urban Permaculture in the Mexican Highlands

I’d like to share an inspired project friends of ours Seth & Cris Phillips and their daughter Katia, have going in Guanajuato, a jewel of a city in Mexico’s central highlands. 
Several years ago Seth & Cris purchased their large, rundown city lot in the heart of bustling Guanajuato and set to work. The first couple of years were spent tearing down numerous, decrepit, old adobe structures, and creating a comfortable house and guest cottage in their stead. Where most “normal” people would have done away with the old adobe, Seth, a committed recycler, painstakingly stacked and saved the adobe blocks which have since been repurposed into a beautiful expansion of the living space. Over the years the family has also created wonderful Permaculture gardens and other systems (although I don’t think I’ve ever heard Seth or Cris call it that exactly).
Seth, Cris, Katya, & Pecos
Seth, Cris, Katya & Pecos at home in their urban garden…
Every time Holly & I visit there are fun new additions to take in, and we always find the project inspiring in its modestly. In particular, and unlike me, Seth is a minimalist who always searches out low tech solutions to energy & water usage challenges. While swapping ideas, we often share a friendly partier about his ultra basic approach vs. the more costly and complicated solutions I am usually prone to. “Why go to the time and expense of building an elaborate solar cooker”, Seth will chide me, “when a simple foil reflector blanket and black, cast iron pot can cook almost anything”? Hmmm, perhaps he has a point!
 
During the early renovations Seth created grey water storage and a network of direct irrigation channels and tubing to help sustain the various plantings during Guanajuato’s dry stretches which can last for months on end. Gradually, shade from the 30+ fruit trees is replacing the harsh noontime glare, and the walled, interior garden space is now a profusion of vegetable gardens, pathways, and chicken coops. Every day Seth feeds the chickens buckets of fruits and vegetables discarded from the neighborhood fruteria.  Once a week the resulting organic material is shoveled out of the chicken run and into a compost that is used to improve the soil.
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The Gardens…
Along the way Seth has also puttered around with various low tech energy saving add-ons including a home-made solar food dehydrator, solar water heater, solar distiller, a rocket oven, a “humanure” style composting toilet, and a hay box cooker.
 
The most recent addition is a 20,000 litre water collection cistern capable of spanning the ever longer water outages the city suffers. 
 
As the oasis grows greener, Seth and Cris remain committed to simplicity and a pragmatic yet seemingly joyful exploration a the good life, right there, in the heart of the city!  

Sustainable Mexico, an overview…

Sustainable Mexico? Is there such a thing? You bet! And as environmental protections, governmental programs, and NGO’s  are coming online at a rapid pace, I thought I’d create a blog that explores the various ways that we can all participate.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s buzz out to 80,000 feet for an overview.

First of all, let me ask if you are any of the following:

Are you a volunteer, looking for the right spot to make use of your fine energies. Do you want to meet others operating at the same frequency; working hard, having fun, doing right by the planet.

Are you an experienced Wwoofer, looking to take it to the next level. Maybe you’ve got a bit of money saved. Maybe not. Either way, Are you looking for some good soil and, hopefully, some good community, where you can sink your teeth in deeper? Plant some roots?

Are you a seasoned farm hand or CSA worker, looking to homestead or start your own business?

Are you looking for intentional community to join, or thinking of banding together with friends to buy some land and forming one?

Are you a farm family, facing yet another harsh northern winter; stacking wood, canning veggies, worrying about heating oil contracts, thinking that there must be another, better way…

Well, if you’re any of the above, or anything like it, then this blog is a place to share ideas, options, and stories of what you think about, struggle with, and strive for.

My disclosure: I’m not an expert with pat answers to the above. I have enough experience with setting up solar photovoltaics systems to give specific advice and recommendations on that. My wife and I have an off grid working ranch, campground, and sustainability education center in mexico (www.ranchosolymar.com) and have enough knowledge of animal care (specifically goats & chickens), food production, managing water resources, and running businesses, to have some good, solid, practical advice to offer on those fronts as well. But really, there are plenty of other informational sites where one can find advanced farming and off-grid living knowledge. Instead, with this blog, we’ll be exploring topics that we considered vital to our basic decision making process, but which we’ve been unable to find to be well considered elsewhere. We’ll also be getting postings from time to time from some of the volunteers that have helped us at our ranch, to get their perspective, to find out what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully we will  be drilling down more deeply into specific sustainability topics as the blog it evolves, hopefully offering some fresh perspectives and some useful advice!

General Topics This Blog Will be Covering:

  1. Consider Moving toward the tropics! One theme we’ll be revisiting frequently is the role of LATITUDE in the pursuit of sustainable living. One of my growing pet obsessions is the idea that living north or south of 35 degrees latitude presents inherent physical challenges, that, in many ways, simply don’t make good , common, practical sense. It’s all a matter of energy, really. The energy is takes to prepare for and survive winters (heat energy, and also “life” energy) can be put to much better use if one is living closer to the equator. By moving south (although this could be “north”, of course, if you’re located in the southern hemisphere. For simplicity here, I’ll be using “south” as the general catch all direction for considering a move) you can automatically liberate much of your life energy for other pursuits – pleasure and/or leisure time being not insignificant! There’s also a very basic baseline of security to be had by leaving winter behind.
  1. The costs and benefits of having animal “partners”. On this topic we’ll bounce around a bit; from the responsibility and expense of animal husbandry, to the practical benefits and shear joy of life with animals, we’ll explore many of the considerations that having animals “brings to the table”.
  1. “Farming Photons”: A general discussion of the use of renewables, particularly solar, as well as the practical considerations; costs, benefits, off-grid vs grid tie, siting, general equipment recommendations, and other specific information. (see “Our Solar Story” below for the first post on this…)
  1. Defining your goals and figuring out how to make them profitable: Having both run & sold successful businesses, Holly and I have spent a lifetime developing tools & strategies for defining and promoting one’s own niche market. Whether you are growing veggies, raising animals, or producing a value added product, we’ll explore some simple techniques for figuring out what “makes you sing” and how to turn it into a profitable business.
  1. Crossing Borders: We’ll look at both the literal implications of seeking out a sustainable life across the border, (in our case Mexico, but much of this discussion can apply to any cross border situation) but also the more metaphysical aspect of re-mapping one’s own life. What are the possible challenges and benefits of breaking out of your old, often worn out, geographical paradigms??? (see “Secret Sustainability South of the Border” for more on this…)
  1. Stories of sustainability: Stories can entertain as well as instruct. We’ve got a growing collection and would love to hear yours!

So, there you have it. It is my intention, above all, to make this blog a useful sounding board for your own pursuit of sustainability. Working toward true sustainability can and should be a joyful, fulfilling, lifelong experience. The hours will be long, and we’ll each have our own path to follow, but we’ll also have much commonality to share and helpful wisdom to impart. I hope that you’ll participate and make this blog part of your own virtual homesteading community – a place to cultivate, share and learn from!

Purchasing Property in Mexico

Purchasing Property In Mexico

Thinking of heading south of the border with dreams of homesteading? Don’t know how buying a choice little piece of land to farm could fit into the equation? Well, the great news is that yes, you can do it! Purchasing property in the interior of Mexico is very affordable, very do-able, and an excellent alternative for many reasons (see “secret sustainability” post below…). It’s actually really easy. Here’s how: 

Property in Mexico is affordable and has minimal taxation or other carrying costs.

 

1) Obviously, step one is finding your spot. Take your time, do your homework, and take at least a month to travel around the area you’re interested in. Travel by bus is easy and affordable in latin america, the people are incredibly friendly, and there are plenty of others travelers out there who you will meet on the road. Holly and I knew the country fairly well before starting, but still spent a month in a rental car, touring the Pacific coast within 150 miles of a key transport hub, Puerto Vallarta, before settling on the exact spot where we ended up taking root.

2) Once you have a property in mind, be certain to seek out a reputable notario in the area near where you are considering purchasing. Make sure you talk to a registered “notario”, not a regular abogado (lawyer). Also note that real estate agents in Mexico aren’t licensed and there are many agents peddling property without oversight or exclusivity, so if questions come up, the notario is the person to confer with, not a real estate agent. Always check with a Notario first before making a commitment to anyone! Most city’s have english speaking Notario’s available.

3) Once you’ve settled on a place that you know to be titled (having an escritura), have the notario you are working with review all title doc’s to make sure there are no liens. (Usually a small deposit will hold while doc’s are reviewed. Title insurance is available from U.S. based company, Stewart Title).

4) Next have said Notario write up a “Compra y Venta” sales agreement, and then proceed with purchase… Bank $ transfers are straight forward, Titles are usually issued within several days.

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Purchasing near the Coast

Condominium properties or titled private properties located in the restricted zone and less than 2000sq meters can easily and safely be put into a Mexican bank trust (Fideicomiso). The process is basically the same as above however title will be issued in the banks name with you named as the beneficiary (trust are generally 99year term & renewable).

Palm trees & powder white sand, Tulum.

Problem Properties

For ejido property without previous title, or purchase of larger land tracts in the federal restricted zone (within 50 km of the coast), property purchase can get a bit more tricky.  For other, more problematic purchase, almost anything is possible although the process can be long and grueling. Read on…

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The following is offered as a quick start trouble shooting guide to any foreign nationals considering the purchase of ejido, or recently privatized ejido property, or property in the restricted zone. Blogger MexDog assumes no responsibility for accuracy as the rules change over time, and even by region/municipality. Make certain to seek advice from at least one reputable Notario before committing more funds than you’re willing to lose!

1) Any deal to purchase property that is still part of an ejido should be considered RISKY. Regardless of what you may be told, using a mexican national as presta nombre (borrowed name) or any other means to purchase ejido property in the restricted zone can never be a fail safe proposition regardless of having Powers of Attorney or a Will in place. While many people have successfully “owned” property for years in the name of a prestanombre, there seems to be increasing financial/development pressure that is making that vehicle for holding property ever less stable over time.

2) The litmus for determining if property is actually private, and not still part of the ejido, is possession of an escritura (title) for the parcela or lot from RAN in name of the ejiditario property owner.

(Note that property can be titled and owned privately by an ejido member (ejiditario) without still being part of the ejido land holdings). Privataization can be accomplished through either the Procede “regularization” or dominio pleno process only). Any deals involving property said to be “about to be privatized” should be approached with extreme caution – if at all.)

4) It is advisable that any deposit money paid should be accompanied by a formal compra y venta agreement, best reviewed by a Public Notario’s office. A formal compra y venta will be drawn up for privately titled property only, not ejido property. Any purchase agreement other than a formal, approved compra y venta shoud be consider extremely risky. Consideration should also be given to the facts that realtors aren’t licensed, escrow accounts are rarely used, and that even deposit money accompanied by a formal compra y venta may be at some risk.

Note here also that even with a compra y venta agreement in place, all members of the ejido are constitutionally entitled to a first right of refusal before the first sale of a property out of the ejido.

5) Final purchase, payment, and transfer of title should be conducted under the supervision of a Public Notario’s office only.

6) Final deeds and ownership will be in the name of either a bank trust (fideicomiso) or mexican corporation, not in the name of the foreign national directly, and title insurance is available once the final deed is issued, approximately 2 to 6 months after closing.