Friday, August 31, 2012

Farming Chihuahua Dry

Irrigating desert at Mennonite colony on Mexico-U.S. border / Tom Barry

Drug war violence continues to besiege Mexico, diminishing in some areas while surging elsewhere. As drug-war violence has decreased in Chihuahua, simmering tensions over the state’s water crisis have surfaced.

In this northern border state – the largest in Mexico – it seems certain that conflicts over scarce water supplies will shape the state’s future. The conflicts over this scarce resource in northern Chihuahua will surely also affect binational relations.

It is highly likely that as Chihuahua strives to ensure adequate water for state residents, crossborder tensions over surface water treaties and transborder underground aquifers will likely rise. As water becomes increasingly scarce in Chihuahua, state residents may consider crossing the border into the United States as a survival option.

No one knows the extent of Chihuahua’s water crisis. But in the past couple of years concern about the state’s water future has heightened and resulted in conflicts between water users, intergovernmental tensions, and increased citizen activism.

The lack of good information about water resources and water use in Chihuahua, as elsewhere in Mexico, is due in part to Mexico’s highly centralized system of government. States depend on federal agencies to assess, monitor, and regulate water resources and water use.

Another problem is that both the federal and state governments have been more dedicated to the promotion of water consumption for energy production, irrigated agriculture, and industry than to water conservation.

The difficulty in assessing the impact of climate change is, however, the main obstacle to constructing reliable models of water availability and use in Chihuahua – a problem that is of course not confined to Chihuahua.

The stark separation between the rural and urban sectors in Chihuahua also obstructs a full appreciation of the extent of the state’s deepening water crisis.

Drought and overgrazing leave land barren near Ascensión

Chihuahua is vast territory – nearly as large as Great Britain. As might be expected, it is most sparsely populated state in Mexico.

However, Chihuahua is not a predominantly rural state. With nearly 80% of its residents living in cities, Chihuahua is one of the most urbanized states in Mexico. It is the only state that has two cities – Juárez and Chihuahua – ranking among the 20 largest cities of Mexico.

Within Chihuahua’s urban areas, there is little awareness of the state’s precarious water conditions. Even during drought years, urban residents, for the most part, have been largely unaffected by dramatically reduced precipitation rates.

That’s because domestic water comes not from surface waters captured in reservoirs but from wells. As long as the city wells are deep enough, water generally keeps flowing into the urban water systems.

Huge reservoirs have over the past five decades been constructed to capture the runoff from the mountain watersheds. Drought turns these lakes into puddles. However, because of their remote locations, few Chihuahuenses ever see these stark reminders of just how bad a drought is.

The farmers and orchard owners in water districts fed by these reservoirs live in fear that the reservoirs will be left completely dry. Most Chihuahua growers, however, don’t depend on the heavens for their water – at least not directly. Their crops are irrigated by more than 19,650 pumps that tap aquifers that have been creating underground water basins in this region long before the arrival of humans.

The condition of the state’s aquifers is the fundamental measure of water sustainability in Chihuahua.

Only the ranching sector, a disappearing sector of subsistence farmers, and growers in several water districts rely on surface water for their livelihoods.

Overall, the titled extractions of water for agriculture, according to Conagua (April 30, 2012) account for nearly ten times the amount of water dedicated to urban consumption in Chihuahua – 4,286,505,358 cubic meters for agriculture compared to 471,290,161 cubic meters for urban users. This accounting greatly underestimates groundwater use by farmers since it does not include the more than 1,500 wells that lack a Conagua permit.

After agriculture, the largest water-consuming sector in Chihuahua is electricity generation, much of which is used for water pumping. Water used for electricity generation – 2,311, 132,000 cubic meters – represents nearly half the water extracted by legal pumps for irrigated agriculture.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Water Conflicts Threaten Governability in Chihuahua

Las Lajas Reservoir near Flores Magón / Tom Barry

Despite the diminishing violence in the Chihuahuan border city of Juárez, government officials are warning about problems of governability in Chihuahua. But the new threat doesn’t come from the war over drugs but from the conflicts over water in the midst of the state’s most severe drought in seventy years.

In Mexico City this week officials of the National Water Commission (CONAGUA) charged that the drought-wracked state wasn’t providing adequate security for agency inspectors. Over the past month CONAGUA has shut down more than 150 illegal wells and numerous illegal check dams in central Chihuahua.

The ongoing drought, which began in 2010, has sparked long-simmering tensions over the state’s scarce water supplies.

Because of the reduced rainfall and snowmelt in this largely desert state, the water levels in reservoirs have dropped precipitously, thereby dramatically decreasing the water available for irrigation in the associated agricultural water districts. The empty and near-empty reservoirs in Chihuahua mirror similar scenes north of the border, where farmers are also suffering from reduced allocations of irrigation water.

When Conagua officials warn about the lack of governability in rural areas, they are referring mostly to conflicts arising from the use and abuse of groundwater. The aquifers that have collected water over the millennia are largely overexploited – with water levels dropping fast. From one year to the next, the depth at which wells tap into aquifers is not uncommonly 6-10 feet lower.

A succession of droughts since the mid-1990s have led to much-reduced recharge rates for the aquifers that lie under Chihuahua and the arid lands of northern Mexico. The severity of the droughts – especially the 2000-2004 drought and the current one – along with record low temperature events have led to common conviction that climate change is hitting the region hard.

Unlike in the past, where the desert denizens resignedly waited out the droughts, there is a new sense rising in Chihuahua that long-term survival is the challenge of the 21st century.

El Barzón action confronts Mennonite drilling in the 
Santa Clara - El Carmen water district / Tom Barry

“Climate change is the major threat to the survival of rural Chihuahua,” said Martín Solís, the Chihuahua state director of the small-farmers organization El Barzón. But Solís is quick to add that this threat can be met if government and rural communities resolve the political and structural causes that have wrung Chihuahua dry.

The emerging water wars in Chihuahua have muddied politics.
Pressured by organizations of small farmers – mobilized by El Barzón – the state office of CONAGUA agreed to start shutting down illegal wells and water catchments in the El Carmen water district. 

The increasingly harsh conditions created by the 2010-2012 drought have intensified popular pressure on CONAGUA to stop the water-pumping boom.

Mennonite farmers have been the main beneficiaries of CONAGUA’s failure to regulate the pumping of groundwater. While CONAGUA acceded to popular demands to shut down illegal Mennonite wells in the Namiquipa – Buenaventura – Riva Palacio region, the state government has generally sided more with the Mennonite agricultural colonies because of their economic clout.

Non-Mennonite small farmers, energized by CONAGUA’s decision to close illegal wells in the contested region, are pressuring the agency and the government to stop illegal well drilling throughout the state.

Meanwhile, Mennonite farmers, recognizing the rising threat, have mobilized to win assurances from the governor that their interests would be protected. Some Mennonites have said that they will protect their wells with firearms – a threat that has alarmed CONAGUA and raised tensions between Mennonite and non-Mennonite farmers.

Referring to these tensions, Joaquín Solorio, a member of the Defenders of Chihuahuan Desert Water Collective and ejido member in the El Carmen district, told a reporter that more government attention is needed to address what may become the “first water war” in Mexico. 

Farmers confront CONAGUA and other govt officials in Palacio de Gobierno / Tom Barry

Cheap Energy, Cheap Irrigation in Chihuahua

Las Lajas Reservoir near Flores Magón in central Chihuahua / Tom Barry

Drought and climate change are the proper framing for the water wars that are surging in Chihuahua. But money, politics, and power are the fundamental causes.

Money has farmers, mainly although hardly exclusively Mennonites, to penetrate federal and state bureaucracies to obtain well permits and to ensure that electrical lines are extended to arid lands being prepared for agriculture.

Mexico’s historic corporatist inclusion of the rural sector into a decisive political base combined with the government’s attention to the demands of large producers – as well as rhetorical commitments to food security – have resulted in multibillion dollar subsidies for “rural development.”

In Latin America, no other farm sector enjoys such high levels of subsidies for electricity. Mexican farmers and ranchers pay only few cents on the dollar of the cost to generate and distribute electricity.

A strong case can be made this immense subsidy for rural electricity distorts prices, encourages waste, and primarily benefits large producers while rural poverty remains endemic.

But the most pressing argument against subsidizing rural electricity is that cheap electricity encourages the reckless exploitation of Mexico’s endangered aquifers.
 Chihuahua Chronicles #7

Dirt irrigation ditches common in water-starved Chihuahua / Tom Barry

Subsidized electricity has fueled the explosive expansion of agriculture throughout Chihuahua. 

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. 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.

With enough electricity, pumped water from underground water basins could make the desert bloom. 

Ironically, as drought conditions have intensified in Chihuahua, the agricultural sector has boomed – doubling and tripling in many districts. Since 2000 -- at a time when Chihuahua was experiencing its worst drought – more than a 134,000 hectares have been brought under irrigated agricultural production. Irrigated agriculture has expanded by 35% over this past decade.

Without cheap electricity, this farm boom in Chihuahua would not have been possible.

Irrigating in Mennonite colony near Flores Magón / Tom Barry

Economists, like those associated with the World Bank report of 2010 on agricultural subsidies, contend that such government supports distort the market and undermine the productivity of Mexican producers. The more powerful argument, however, is an environmental one, which the World Bank also made:

Agriculture consumes more than 70% of the potable water that’s available in Mexico. There are various causes contributing to the excessive water demand from agriculture, among which is the fixing of electricity fees at levels that are highly subsidized – resulting in the increase amount of ground water that farmers want to extract.

Water is treated like an unlimited resource. While many farmers are switching to drip-tape irrigation systems to conserve water and reduce electricity costs, it is more common to see water flowing through dirt irrigation ditches and furrows.

Ignorance about the limits of the underground water basins is widespread. One Mennonite farmer in Berrendo, a new colony on the border with New Mexico, told me: “We don’t know about the sun. We don’t know about the moon. We don’t know about the water below the earth. These things are things of God, and we are here to use the resources and be productive.” 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Irrigating the Desert – with Electricity

Chihuahua Chronicles #6

Farmland is edging out the desert and grasslands throughout Chihuahua. Along the main highways and between the mountain ranges that divide the state, the arid state is turning green with corn, sorghum, and cotton, as well as new cash crops such as potatoes and chile.

In Chihuahua, farmers are making the desert blossom. That’s despite a succession of two record-breaking droughts that have ravaged the Chihuahuan Desert region since 2000.

In Chihuahua, 135,000 hectares (2.47 acres = 1 hectare) have opened to agriculture since 2001. At least another 100,000 hectares are currently being developed for new farming, mostly by new Mennonite colonies.

The new agribusiness boom is not dependent on annual rainfall or snow melt but on a proliferation of new wells that plumb ground water that accumulated in closed basins under desert landscape.

There is something awe-inspiring about this transformation of arid lands into lush cropping. Turning overgrazed rangelands and creosote-studded desert land into highly productive farmland seems nothing short of miraculous. Along toll highways that connect the cities of Juárez, Chihuahua, and Cuauhtémoc, forsaken expanses of Chihuahuan Desert are now in bloom. And when descending from mountain passes, formerly arid landscapes take on the appearance of agricultural enterprises in the U.S. Midwest.

It’s a sense of awe at what mankind can do that must have accompanied the government dam projects of the last half of the 20th century that opened up more than a 100,000 hectares in Chihuahua to agriculture. The runoff from monsoon rains and snow melt from the Sierra Madres flowed into reservoirs that fed irrigation canals. Rangeland turned to walnut and apple orchards, and small farmers that formerly depended on undependable rains could flood their fields with the new miracle of reservoir water.

Today, the desert-farmland transformation is not the product of concrete dams but of steel transmission towers. These giant towers now march across the desert bringing electrical power to previously undeveloped and uninhabited stretches of Chihuahua.

A network of giant transmission towers carrying power lines that crisscross the state explains the miracle of modern agriculture in Chihuahua. Without the electric current these towers carry, the Chihuahuan Desert would not be blooming.

Paralleling the expansion of the rural electric grid, water wells have mushroomed in Chihuahua and across Mexico’s arid north.

But miracles have costs and consequences.

Complaining is a common occupation of farmers and ranchers worldwide. Most complaints concern the vicissitudes of weather, and especially about the lack of rain in arid regions.

Another category of grumbling concerns the high price of inputs and insufficiently high market prices.

As the record-breaking 2000-2004 began to take hold of Chihuahua and northern Mexico, farmers were complaining not only about the lack of rain but also about the rising cost of fertilizer and the low prices for their products.

But the organized focus of farmer griping was the cost of electricity. Before farmers get water, they need to get electricity to power their pumps, which often work night and day to irrigate crops and orchards throughout the six-month growing season in Chihuahua.

As water levels dropped and rains no longer complemented irrigation, electricity costs increased with increased pumping and ever-deeper wells. Farmer organizations, spearheaded by Agrodinámica Nacional, mobilized a strike against the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE), Mexico’s electricity monopoly.

Farmers routinely complain about the high cost of running their pumps. Complaining that electricity costs cut into their meager profits, more than 2,000 farmers in Chihuahua have refused to pay their electricity bills over the past eleven years.  In March 2008 Agrodinámica’s leader, Armando Villarreal Marta, was assassinated – by government agents, according to the farmer organizations in Chihuahua.
The electricity strike has stirred much unease, dissension, and resentment in Chihuahua. Farmers who do pay their CFE bills resent those who don’t. Yet even among those farmers who ignore their CFE bills there is little righteousness because of the increasing realization of how profoundly subsidized is the electricity that CFE provides agricultural producers.

Subsidized electricity for pumping leads to wasteful irrigation 
practices outside Ascensión / Tom Barry

According to the World Bank (using 2008 figures), it cost CFE $1.13 to generate and distribute one kilowatt hour. However, if the CFE customer is a farmer, then he or she pays just 2-3 cents on the dollar for the electricity used for pumping and other farm operations. According to Mexican government calculations, which indicate that the farm sector pays only 28% of electricity costs, the level of subsidy is less dramatic but still major and much higher than any other sector.

All electricity use in Mexico is subsidized, including domestic, commercial, governmental, and industrial electricity consumption. But the farm sector is far and away the most subsidized.

In Latin America, Mexico ranks as the country with the highest electricity subsidies, with no other country coming close to the amount of public resources used to keep electricity bills low.

(Next: Environmental consequences of subsidized electricity for farm wells.)

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Police Shoot to Protect Illegal Mennonite Well in Chihuahua

Chihuahua Chronicles #5

Dismantling Mennonite well in Campo 83 / Tom Barry

New deep well drilling has spread across Chihuahua and business 
is booming along Mennonite Corridor / Tom Barry

Cuauhtémoc is the center of Mennonite colonization in Mexico.  No one doubts that Mennonite farming and associated businesses constitute the main economic engine of rural development not only this area of central Chihuahua but also of the entire state.

That has been the case since German-speaking Mennonites moved to Chihuahua in the 1920s to establish enclaves – or what are commonly called colonies – where they could practice their fundamentalist Anabaptist religion without government interference.

Over the past three decades Mennonite dominance of the state’s agricultural sector has dramatically increased as Mennonite farmers have left behind traditional farming practices (dating from the 16th century) and embraced the high-tech, capital-intensive practices of U.S. and Canadian agribusiness. While Mennonite families still dress the same as their European ancestors, they now (with rare exceptions) enthusiastically embrace highly mechanized and chemical-dependent agriculture.

Over the past decade, Mennonite agricultural development has dramatically expanded throughout northeastern and central Chihuahua. About 120,000 hectares of the state has shifted from ranching to farming, as Mennonite communities have expanded to previously uncultivated regions.

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 in this semi-arid state.

This stunning transformation of the rural economy and environment, while possibly inexplicable when viewed from afar, is readily understandable when traveling in Chihuahua. Private ranches and especially the ejidos (government granted land) are shockingly 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 Mennonite and agribusinesses that tap groundwater to irrigate the arid landscapes.

Las Lajas Reservoir near Flores Magón / Tom Barry

Mennonite Corredor

Leaving Cuauhtémoc, heading north, you pass through what is known as the Mennonite Corridor. You won’t see any of the traditional trappings of Mennonite life in Chihuahua – the milk jugs waiting along he highway, horse-drawn buggies, ancient plows. 

Instead, the corridor is more a celebration of modern capitalist agribusiness – a few miles of businesses selling all types of heavy farm machinery and irrigation equipment. If you aren’t planning on traveling to the Mennonite Corridor, you may find that simply perusing the web advertisements of the Mennonite business along the route may sufficiently disabuse you of any lingering notions about Mennonites being stuck in a pastoral time warp. See

Perhaps it was because where I was headed that morning – to a planned operativo of El Barzón to shut down illegal Mennonite wells in the Carmen river basin – that what particularly struck my attention were the well-drilling companies along the Mennonite Corridor, including one named Pumps for Deep Wells.. Not only do most of the new wells in Chihuahua fall into the irregular category (illegal, falsified, cloned, clandestine, or multiple pumps based on a single doubtful permit), but the latest farm wells also drop unprecedented depths into the already extremely over-exploited aquifers.

Many of the farmers who had gathered as planned at the crossroads café in Ojo de la Yegua that morning also depend on wells for irrigated farming on their small farms or ejido parcels. Others rely on rainwater and snow melt that accumulated in the Las Lajas Dam not far Flores Magón. But their relatively shallow wells are drying up, as are the area's large agricultural dams.

By 11 o’clock on July 2 several hundred small farmers (pequeños propietarios) and ejidatarios had gathered at the crossroads. The previous week Martín Solís, the state leader of El Barzón, had met in Chihuahua City with officials of Conagua (National Water Commission) and state officials about the planned action, inviting their participation. Conagua representatives and other government officials promised they would be there to ensure that the targeted wells and check dams (marked on the plat map) were indeed illegal or irregular.

After the officials failed to show up as promised and then after calling the government offices that morning, Solís told the gathering men that they would wait two hours for the government inspectors and representatives to appear. Local police cars circulated back and forth monitoring the constantly increasing number of Mexican farmers.

(Almost all Mennonite farmers are also Mexican-born and with Mexican citizenship. However, their common language is Plattdeutsch (a Dutch influence low German dialect), and while most Mennonite speak Spanish at varying levels of fluency, Mennonite women generally don’t know Spanish – or any other language. Unlike the Mormons living in colonies in Chihuahua, the Mennonites don’t intermarry and live in remote and austere communities where there are generally no other Mexicans. Hence, the Mexican-Mennonite (menonitas or menones) terminology.)

Around 1 o’clock the group mobilized and drove in caravan to nearby Mennonite settlement known as Campo 83, where several Mennonite men and a boy were engaged in drilling a new well. Surrounding the rig and the overall-clad Mennonites, the leaders of the local farmers demanded to see the permit for the new well. Since the Mennonite men couldn’t produce a permit or otherwise prove that the well was legal, the non-Mennonite Mexican farmers insisted that the drilling equipment be dismantled – which after some rhetorical wrangling the Mennonite men proceeded to do.

I had never before witnessed a well being drilled but was fascinated to watch the reversal of the well drilling,  as the rig lifted the large-diameter pipes out of the ground, laying them on the slurry-stained ground. It was like a  work-based reality TV show, with couple hundred farmers from the Carmen basin on the set watching.  Although some harsh words were exchanged – mostly about threats to the livelihoods of the Mexican farmers from illegal Mennonite water withdrawals from the basin – the scene was remarkably calm -- in large part due to the impressive leadership of El Barzón leaders. So quickly was the well equipment being dismantled that the discussion turned to the next well and small dams that would be shut down or destroyed.

Police shout no photos and then grab for camera / Tom Barry

Police Escalation

Suddenly a couple of police officers, armed with automatic weapons, barged their way into the group around the rig. I hadn’t seen them coming. There were no law enforcement officers around during the apparently very successful Barzón operative. Not having the law on their side – in the form of a permit – the Mennonites were largely compliant and seemed resigned.

When I raised my camera to photograph the police approaching, one burly officer waved his AR-14 and grabbed for my camera. Damn, I thought, I haven’t downloaded any of the photos I had taken over the past week, and the chip was nearly full.

Instinctively, I pulled my camera back protectively – having only managed only one badly exposed and unfocused photo. Instantly, the farmers gathered around me preventing the officers from reaching me. I then turned and ran. As ducked behind a nearby car, I heard the shots – about two-dozen staccato blasts from the police.

There was burst of shouting and indignant cries. But no cries of agony.

Emboldened by their weapons, the police had apparently expected the farmers to give way – not to contest their authority by protecting my camera and me. They had fired their weapons, but thankfully not at me or the farmers, but in the air or at the feet of the farmers.

Then the local cops withdrew back to the highway. But not before they or their undercover accomplices had slashed the tires of the pick-up trucks that would lead the caravan out of Campo 83.

Shortly, more police – local, state, and federal – arrived, lights flashing, blocking our way out to the highway.

This shooting and confrontation with the police hadn’t been part of the operativo plan. After all, the men had expected to be accompanied by government inspectors. A new plan was necessary.

As we mulled around, I was repeatedly praised for having stuck to my camera. All the handshakes and arm patting helped, since I was shaken and unsure where this would all lead.

Barzón leaders Rodríguez and Solís speak to farmers after confrontation with police / Tom Barry

I repeatedly expressed my gratitude to the farmers who had immediately jumped in to protect me and my right to take photos of what they all saw as a perfectly reasonable action – “We are doing what the government says it is doing,” being a common explanation of the mobilization that day. 

About four hours later, after the police ended their blockade, we were all at the Palacio de Gobierno in the capital. 

Over the past month, Conagua and the state police have taken up the work that the men who had gathered in Ojo de la Yegua had started -- shutting down more than two dozen wells in the Carmen water basin and bulldozing dams that Mennonite farmers had illegally constructed to water their own farms.