Thursday, August 30, 2012

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.” 

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