Anastacio Mendez Diegez is the kind of guy who will climb a tree to pick a local fruit for a visitor and stop to answer his mobile phone while up in the branches. He maintains firm roots in the culture and traditions of his rural Mexico while keeping his antenna attuned to what’s going on around the globe.

Better known as “Tacho,” Mendez Diegez is a community leader in the Morelos Ejido in the city of Tapachula in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost and poorest state. Ejidos are communal lands established as a land reform measure after the end of the Mexican revolutionary war, which started in 1910 and lasted for the better part of a decade. Inspired by the commons of the natives prior to the Spanish Conquest, ejidos are sometimes compared to Israel’s kibbutzim, though peasants can and often do collectively decide to farm individual family plots.

The Morelos Ejido consists of about 200 families who occupy an expanse of dry, dusty scrubland behind the Tapachula Airport. Many homes have thatched roofs. The big news this year was the announcement of a municipal home improvement program designed to help the low income residents to pour cement floors of up to 49 square meters. A few years ago, larger private farmers tried irrigate nearby fields, but their source of groundwater dried up and they abandoned their sprinkler machinery poised permanently over the lifeless land. Old-timers remember when the free-running river that wended its way through the area. Its course straightened, it has become an ugly gully filled with discarded boots and softdrink bottles. “These areas used to be humid,” says Tacho. “The natural environment was destroyed.”

Not surprisingly, the Morelos Ejido’s biggest export is its future – as young adults escape to other parts of Mexico or the United States in search of a better life.

The picture is hardly pretty, but Tacho and some of his neighbors had visions of multiplying fish in this no-man’s land. Seemingly against all odds, they established a fish farm. Two tanks, each roughly the size of an Olympic swimming pool, are stocked with tilapia, a fish native to Northern Africa that is highly adaptable to aquaculture. Water is pumped from a nearby well that belongs to the ejido. A third tank is being dug both to expand the operation and increase its efficiency.

The community had long dreamt of such an initiative. The idea first emerged, as Tacho tells it, during an effort to protect a nearby mangrove swamp in the 1980s. Several false starts ensued. Only when The World Conservation Union (IUCN) stepped in with technical support and a loan in 2004 did the project make it off the drawing board. The Tapachula City Hall added financing for the tanks.

Tacho and his fellow “ejidatarios” see the fish tanks as anchors for their children and grandchildren. “The idea is to avert emigration,” he says. “We as parents must teach the lesson that you can work here. We can give them an example of how you can work, how you can struggle.”

Though their personal needs are great, the partners in the fish farm project recognized they couldn’t drain the coffers anymore than they could the tanks. They established a revolving fund to reinvest in supplies and repay the IUCN loan – thus favoring long-term success over short-term returns. “The last harvest didn’t turn out as well as we had hoped,” says Tacho. “But with the next one we want to distribute [dividends].”

Progress on the fish farm is giving locals hope about transforming the area through reforestation, soil recuperation and water conservation. “We want these lands to once again be humid, rich in wildlife,” says Tacho. “There is hope in Morelos.”

Written by Bill Hinchberger