Shell casings of bullets fired by municipal police atop plat map showing illegal wells
in Flores Magón region / Tom Barry
(Published in The Desert Exposure, April 2013, at: http://www.desertexposure.com/201304/prt_201304_water_wars.php )
“Mennonites got up like medicine show rubes in their straw hats and bib overalls and a row of children…”—Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (1995)
Mexican Mennonites are a curiosity.
Always the same peculiar appearance: the men in bib overalls invariably leading the way, their women forever a step or two behind in flower-print dresses that drop down to dowdy black shoes, and a brood of children invariably in tow.
They are a people apart—set apart from Mexican society by their Old World attire but also by their skin color (Northern European white) and by their Platt-Deutsch language (a Dutch-influenced Low German dialect). It’s as if they came from another century, another hemisphere.
When shopping at Costco in El Paso or when visiting the Pink Store in Palomas (or most anywhere in Chihuahua), you may, on occasion, see these Old World farming families, and then turn your head to stare and wonder: Where did they come from, where do they now live, and how have they managed to stay so exclusive and removed from our rapidly modernizing society?
Unlike the Mormon settlers (famously the Romneys) in Chihuahua, Mennonites don’t intermarry outside their ethnic and linguistic communities), don’t proselytize, and normally don’t interact socially with non-Mennonites.
While most Mennonite men speak Spanish at varying levels of fluency, Mennonite women generally aren’t conversant in Spanish—or any language other than their sect’s German dialect. Education beyond sixth grade is rare, healthcare is primitive, and medical conditions caused by inbreeding are widespread.
Lately, part of the curiosity about Mexican Mennonites is how these fundamentalists now stand at the vanguard of a revolution in land management in Mexico’s arid north. Over the past decade, Mexican Mennonites have been changing their style—not how they dress or interact socially but their traditional farming patterns.
Once forbidden as a transgression of God’s natural laws, irrigated agriculture backed by increasingly deep wells and the most advanced farming machinery has become the norm. Mennonite farmers are meeting—and taking advantage of—the challenges of climate change and intensifying drought cycles by embracing the most unsustainable practices of capital-intensive, resource-depleting agribusiness.
With large families—typically six or more children—Mennonites in Chihuahua routinely outgrow their original colonies, obligating them to establish new farming colonies. Leaving the original colonies, they are converting barren rangeland and desert expanses into agribusiness plantations by tapping groundwater reserves with new wells descending to unprecedented depths.
Nowhere is this phenomenon so evident as in the new Mennonite colonias that lie directly along the Chihuahua-New Mexico border.
“Curious and curiouser,” you might observe.
Recently, Mennonite expansionism into new areas of Chihuahua has set off what could well be described as the first water wars of the climate-change era. The Mennonites are not alone in buying up abandoned rangeland ravaged by unprecedented drought and turning desert into lush farmland, but they account for an estimated 95% of the new agribusiness operations in Chihuahua.
For the past nine decades, the relations between the Mennonites and the Mexicans have been largely amicable—in part because there is little direct interaction with the Mennonite enclaves, in part because Mennonite agriculture has boosted the regional economy (and been an important source of seasonal farm labor for surrounding communities), and in part due to awe of Mennonite productivity and their intense work ethic. The modest, unassuming and pacific behavior of the Mexican Mennonites has also won the respect of Chihuahuenses.
Police approaching to stop me taking photos / Tom Barry
Over the last year, however, the traditional Mennonite/non-Mennonite coexistence has started to shatter. As the Mennonite colonies have expanded to previously uncultivated areas of the state, the proliferation of hundreds of deep wells for irrigation is rapidly depleting aquifers and basins as neighboring farmers and ranchers see the yields from their shallower wells dramatically diminish.
Mennonite colonization has long been driven by the hunger for new lands to support ever-growing families and communities. Echoing a common story, Sara, a teacher at an elementary school in the border colonia of El Camello, told me: “Ten years ago we moved north from Cuauhtémoc because there wasn’t any more land or water.”
For four centuries, land hunger and escaping the sprawl of Babylon have driven a Mennonite global diaspora. Over the past few years, as Chihuahua suffers a drought at levels not experienced since the 1940s, there is widespread acceptance among Chihuahuenses that climate change is intensifying and prolonging traditional drought cycles.
One result has been escalating demands by small farmers and members of ejidos (government granted land), along with environmental organizations, that the federal and state governments halt and reverse the proliferation of deep wells, leading to heated and sometimes violent incidents.
The most tragic and ominous was the Oct. 21 assassination of a leader of the small farmers’ organization El Barzón and his wife. They had been organizing against the illegal and unsustainable pumping of groundwater by a Canadian mining company and new agribusiness operations in central Chihuahua. The murdered couple had also been associated with the newly formed Colectivo de Defensores del Agua del Desierto Chihuahuense.
Several months previously, on July 2, the first shots of the new water war in Chihuahua were fired by rogue police in an unsuccessful attempt to end the mobilization of more than 300 small farmers who had gathered to prevent the drilling by Mennonite farmers of yet another illegal well south of Flores Magón. Wielding semi-automatic weapons, the police barged into the gathering of unarmed farmers and forcibly attempted to confiscate the camera of a reporter/photographer—me—who was chronicling the Barzón-organized action.
Matín Solís confronts government ministers and Conagua officials
at ad-hoc meeting in Palacio de Gobierno that night / Tom Barry
When the farmers pushed closer to prevent the police from successfully seizing my camera, the uniformed gunmen began firing up in the air and into the ground—a confrontation that is now regarded as the first skirmish in the new water wars.
At a late-night meeting in the Palacio de Gobierno in Chihuahua City, top state and federal officials met with the frightened and indignant farmers and agreed to form a collaborative working group to identity and shut down illegal wells in that water basin. In response, a few days later a quickly organized small group of Mennonite farmers declared that they would protect their wells and their livelihoods, taking up arms if necessary despite their religiously professed pacifism.
Over breakfast, the morning of the fateful mobilization, Martín Solís, the Barzón leader who in June had launched the initiative to identify illegal wells and work with the government to shut them down, told me: “Look, the main problem is climate change, which is increasingly affecting Mexico’s arid northern regions. As we see it, these dramatic changes in the climate are intensifying the droughts we have always had here.”
But it is more than nature gone awry, he added, “There is the underlying and persistent problem of corruption and bad governance, specifically in this case the failure of the government to apply the laws and regulations about water use.”
While government institutions like Conagua (National Water Commission) are primarily responsible for the proliferation of unsustainable well-drilling and irrigated agriculture, “the main beneficiaries have been the Mennonite farmers who have the money to bribe and pay for illegal permits,” he said.
“We are now cultivating 200,000 more hectares (494,210 acres) than the subsurface water basins can sustain,” Solís said, “This has mostly happened in the past five years, principally by Mennonite producers, 95% by our calculations, as cattle ranches are converted to agribusiness operations without anyone really knowing how much water is available.”
The new year has brought little improvement in the water crisis across the border and no diminishment of the tensions. In an attempt to assuage rising tensions with the Mennonites and to allay the rising fears that climate change and the continuing drought will destabilize the society and economy of northern Mexico, President Peña Nieto did what Mexican governments always do.
On Jan. 13, Mexico’s new president announced the creation of a new bureaucratic initiative, called the Programa Nacional Contra La Sequía—basically a crop and cattle insurance program to compensate select farmers and ranchers from losses suffered from the continuing sequía (drought).
“But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, a peculiar people.”
—Peter 2:9, King James Bible
Mexican Mennonite insularity is largely self-imposed and self-defined.
Like the Mormons who established their first colonies in Chihuahua in 1885, the Mennonites regard themselves as special, chosen and undeviatingly righteous. The Mexican Mennonites, who emigrated from Canada to Chihuahua in the 1920s, believe that they are literally God’s people, the true tribes of Israel.
Mennonites are followers of Menno Simons (1496-1561), an Anabaptist leader who was a contemporary of the Protestant Reformers in the first half of the 16th century. Search for land to establish their self-reliant communities led the Mennonites across Europe and eventually into Russia. Their Biblical fundamentalism mandated that these chosen people continually flee the new Babylons: “Come of here, my people that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).
In 1870 the ancestors of today’s Mexican Mennonites emigrated from Russia to Canada, bringing with them a religious determination to transform frontier territories into productive farming districts. But the insistence by the Canadian provincial governments that the Mennonite children attend public schools spurred yet another emigration—this time to the sparsely inhabited valleys, basins and intermontane plains of Mexico’s largest and least populated state, Chihuahua, in the 1920s.
The roughly 80,000 Mennonites—known commonly by other Mexicans as menonitas or menones—who currently live in Chihuahua are Mexican citizens—as Mexican as the next Mexican. Their pickups have Mexican plates, they hold Mexican birth certificates, and they vote (usually as a bloc) in local and national elections.
But unlike other Mexicans they benefit from a Privilegium—an agreement between Mennonite colonizers and national governments that bestows special status and privileges.
In Mexico in 1921, President Alvaro Obregón granted the archly conservative Altkolonier Mennonites from Canada the right to establish agricultural enclaves in Mexico—with sparsely occupied Chihuahua being the principal destination.
The Privilegium, modeled after similar agreements around the world, specified that the Mexican government would allow the emigrating Mennonites to satisfy their “desire to establish yourselves as agricultural settlers in our country.” And the government agreed that the Mennonites would not be obligated to serve in the military, swear oaths or attend public schools.
What is more, the revolutionary-era Mexican president agreed to allow that “you may administer your properties in any way or manner you think just” and “may establish among yourselves economic regulations.”
More than nine decades later, it seems—at least at first glance—that little has changed. The Mennonite women continue to bundle their long hair in black, blue or green headscarves. Straw hats still remain common headgear for Mennonite men and boys, although increasingly they sport baseball caps (always cap forward, though).
Most of the men speak functional and sometimes fluent Spanish, but the girls and women are still largely monolingual. That keeps them eerily restricted to their enclaves, where men set all the rules—religious, social, cultural and economic—outside the kitchen.
Mennonites still live in self-contained colonias (divided into numerous campos) in remote areas, virtually hidden from the mexicanos—the common term Mennonites use to identify non-Mennonite Mexicans. The government continues to honor the original Privilegium, and the Mennonites have prospered and multiplied under its provisions.
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”—Isaiah 35:1, King James Bible
Over the past two decades, the Mexican Mennonites have left behind their wooden plows and horse-drawn buggies and threshers. Except for the rare Mennonite colonia, like Sabinal, the modern Mexican Mennonites largely left behind their history (and ethic) of nonmechannized agriculture. Mennonite farmers now enthusiastically embrace the high-tech, capital-intensive, chemically saturated, and bioengineered habits of US and Canadian agribusiness.
With endless work, religious fervor and no worldly distractions, the Mennonites have transformed the Chihuahuan Desert and grasslands into an agribusiness apex: no desert, no mesquite, no birds, no natural flora, no fauna, nothing but laser-defined rows of crops, rotary irrigation systems spraying a bounty of water onto cash crops.
In sharp contrast to the Mexican towns, there is absolutely no street life and no bright colors. But an exaggerated sense of order prevails over these antiseptic communities of gray homes, gray warehouses, and gray schools and community centers.
The community patriarchs govern the settlements, but the lords and idols of the society and economy are the ubiquitous agricultural implements and machinery. The Mennonite men and women live to work, yet the lifeblood of these agricultural realms comes from the machines, the electricity grids, the omnipresent wells and pumps, all working day and night to make the desert bloom.
You might, if you are a nonbeliever, think you have stumbled upon an agribusiness Babylon—where man, machines and chemicals have turned the desert an unnatural green.
The new agribusiness boom is not dependent on annual rainfall or snow melt but on a proliferation of new wells that plumb groundwater that has accumulated over the millennia in closed basins under the desert landscape.
Private ranches and especially the government-granted ejidos have been devastatingly overgrazed, and the ongoing drought has made continued cattle ranching all but impossible. There’s nothing left to forage—precipitating a massive sell-off of ranch lands to Mennonites and agribusinesses that tap groundwater to irrigate the arid landscapes.
In the mid-1990s, when a three-decade period of high precipitation was coming to a close, Mennonite farmers began organizing new colonies to transform desert lands to farms. In part, the shift by the Mennonites from traditional to more capital-intensive farm practices explains this new colonization of remote tracts of desert. The high birth rate among Mennonite families and the consequent need to expand also help explain this agricultural expansion.
As drought conditions became more common in Chihuahua, overgrazing by ranchers and ejidatarios became increasingly unsustainable. Massive cattle deaths—an estimated 400,000 in the last two years—persuaded many ranchers to sell their rangelands, mostly to Mennonites abut also to enterprising agro-capitalists from Sinaloa.
While the lack of rain combined with traditional unsustainable land management practices made ranching a losing proposition, these same nearly barren rangelands could be turned into farms by tapping aquifers with deep wells.
As Chihuahua and other northern states enter their third year of intense drought, tensions are building between those with relatively shallow wells (most ejidatarios and small individual producers called pequeños proprietarios) and the Mennonite communities that persist in drilling hundreds of new wells at unprecedented depths. The Mennonites, while leading the charge to convert overgrazed and drought-devastated rangelands in agricultural estates, are not alone.
Farmland is edging out the desert and grasslands throughout Chihuahua. Along the main highways and between the mountain ranges that divide it, the arid state is turning green with alfalfa, corn, sorghum and cotton, as well as new cash crops such as potatoes and chile.
Along toll highways that connect the cities of Juárez, Chihuahua and Cuauhtémoc, forsaken expanses of Chihuahuan Desert are now in bloom. When descending from mountain passes, formerly arid landscapes take on the appearance of agricultural enterprises in the US Midwest.
Neither the 2000-2004 drought nor the recent drought (considered the most severe in modern Mexican history) has stymied this rush to make the Chihuahua desert blossom with cash crops. Instead, drought has fostered the spread of agribusiness-type farming.
Over the past two decades, paralleling the expansion of the rural electric grid, deep irrigation wells have mushroomed in Chihuahua. Most of the new wells are three to five times the depth of the older wells, tapping the subterranean water basins at depths regularly exceeding 800 feet and often reaching 1,200 feet.
Most of the wells drilled for new agricultural projects can at best be characterized as “irregular”—meaning essentially that they are illegal either because the well permits don’t exist, were the result of bribes, or are forged, cloned or copied. Although no one knows for certain, there are at least 1,500 illegal wells sucking water from rapidly shrinking water basins.
Farmers and water experts in Chihuahua say that on average the level of groundwater has dropped 5-10 feet annually in the areas of new agricultural production over the past couple of decades. In Chihuahua, the lack of reliable information about the size and depletion rates of the aquifers also complicates an assessment of the severity of the current crisis, as does the systemic corruption and lack of transparency and accountability at all levels of government.
Yet the figures that do exist are alarming, although mostly ignored by government and producers alike.
Carlos “Chacho” Ramírez is president of the COTAS water committee in Ascensión, a border municipality that includes Palomas and three new Mennonite colonias.
“There is no life without water,” he says, “and the frightening reality here is that we don’t know how much longer our groundwater will last.” Given the rapid drop in the water table, as much as six meters (almost 20 feet) annually in areas around the Mennonite settlements, Ramírez says he wouldn’t be surprised if the intensely exploited aquifer ran dry in five years.
This vast border municipio (county) of Ascensión is emblematic of the water crisis facing most of Mexico’s north, including the states of Sonora, Coahuila, Zacatecas, Durango and Chihuahua—and by extension into the border states of Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.
“The problem, of course,” says Ramírez, “is the increasing lack of water—both in the form of surface flows and groundwater, and realistically there is nothing to stave off the crisis, only mitigate it perhaps as part of a new survival strategy.”
The severity of the water crisis in Ascensión is directly related to the proliferation of deep wells for irrigated agriculture. Back in 1979 the federal government declared that Ascensión was already unsustainably exploited—meaning that the annual recharge didn’t compensate for the annual exploitation of groundwater.
At that time, this vast border municipality had some 350 wells. Today, the area has an estimated 1,750 wells. And the depths of the new wells are at least 400-500 feet, according to Ramírez, while the average well depth was only 80 feet 35 years ago.
According to the Mexican federal government, the aquifer beneath Ascensión is one of the 15 in Chihuahua that is dangerously overexploited. It is only a matter of time—most close observers estimate 5-10 years—before it will be completely drained of accumulated water reserves.
The drug-war crisis in Chihuahua seems likely to be overshadowed in the near future by the escalating water crisis and accompanying water wars.
Most everyone bemoans the increasingly arid environment, echoing the common observation that never before have they seen such an intense drought: “Not in my life.” “Never before in our history.” “The mountains no longer bring the rain, and the land is dead.” Over and over I have heard these and similar laments.
In his 2011 book A Great Aridness, author William deBuys contends that the North American Southwest—which he defines as including northwestern Mexico—promises to be the “center stage for the continent’s drama of climate change.” Most models of the impact of climate change predict that this transborder Southwest “will outstrip other regions in both the rate and the amount of change,” observes deBuys.
Although human-induced climate change is a widely accepted fact in Chihuahua, there are exceptions. Chatting with a Mennonite farmer in the new border colonia of El Berrendo, before crossing into the New Mexico Bootheel at the Antelope Wells port-of-entry, the lifelong farmer, one of the founders of the new colony, explained, when asked about his views about God, the natural world and climate change: “We don’t know about the sun. We don’t know about the moon. We don’t know about the water beneath us. These are the things of God, and we are only here to use these natural resources the best we can to be productive.”
Like so many other close observers of rural development and environmental conditions in Chihuahua, however, Martín Solís is preoccupied by the frightening acceleration of the region’s crisis. “The future of Chihuahua is at risk,” he said. “Rural Chihuahua especially is threatened, and in as few as five years the rural economy—ranching and farming—might shut down if we don’t do something now.”
Wherever one travels—through the heart of the great desert, past the parched and rapidly disappearing grasslands, into the sierra, and off the traffic corridors into the colonias of the capital city and Juárez—life in Chihuahua is threatened.
The essential aridness that has defined the region—giving rise to the Páquime civilization a thousand years ago and birthing the Mexican Revolution a hundred years ago—is threatened by a still greater aridness that is marked by higher temperatures, more severe droughts, and rapidly depleting aquifers.
Tom Barry, senior policy analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC, is author of many books, including The Great Divide, Zapata’s Revenge and, most recently, Border Wars (see the November 2011 Desert Exposure) Barry, who lives in Pinos Altos, has been writing on border issues and US-Mexico relations since the late 1970s. He blogs at