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NOGALES: When the Land No Longer Gives
by Juliana Barbassa

The barren hills to which Colonia Flores Magon clings bear no hint of walnuts, the trees that lent their name to Nogales, a booming town on the border of Sonora, south of Arizona. As with other border towns, Nogales has grown unplanned. A maze of cobbled-together shelters and unpaved street has devoured the area's native willow, cottonwood and walnut stands. The unprotected slopes become deep, rushing gullies when rain tears its way down.

Sergio Robledo Zepeda, however, like hundreds of the new migrants settling in the colonia has left the farm his parents and grandparents worked to try to build a home in this devastated landscape. In Nogales, the land lays bare; little grows, but work comes from the maquiladoras, foreign-owned assembly plants churning out televisions and undershirts for the American market just across the border. In the rural areas, like Robledo's home pueblo of Estacion Ortiz, in the interior of Sonora, when a family can no longer live from their farming, few options remain.

"La tierra ya no da," he says. "The land no longer gives." Robledo's refrain runs through stories brought by migrants from the misty forests in the Chiapan highlands to the semi-arid north, where popular border ballads, or corridos, tell of a farmer's sadness at having to leave his family's land. Ejidatarios-small farmers who work with their families on ejidos, or communal lands-have for over a decade been pushed off their farms by land degradation and their government's dwindling support for a life style that does not fit into Mexico's globalization drive.

In one recent year, as many as 1.8 million migrants from Mexico's agricultural south and center states migrated toward the northern border, most of them temporarily. Of those, almost 800,000 tried their luck on the other side, in the United States. Few settle; most lead cross-border lives, supporting their corn-and-bean milpas, or subsistence plots, with American dollars earned bagging groceries on the other side.

"I remember before, when I was a child, there were trucks and trucks of watermelon, and the 15th of May we had the fiesta de la sandia in my pueblo, the watermelon fiesta, with bullfights, all kinds of things," Robledo says. "Now we don't have that anymore. The land is no good. People don't grow fruit anymore, and only the old stay behind. The young people go there, visit their mothers, send money. Your house is still there, but you can't go back," he says, looking over the rolling hills, where wood-and-cardboard constructions rise and fall, blending into the dull brown landscape as far as the eye can see. "My pueblo is deserted."

Robledo's native ejido, Estacion Ortiz, shares its empty streets with many others across México. Usual explanations for the Mexican migration to the United States or to the border maquiladoras bring up deep seated poverty, or the wage gap between Mexico's industrial north and agricultural south. As Robledo and many of his neighbors explain, however, the roots of their displacement often sink deeper.

Ejidatarios like Robledo's family come north not only for the $5 they can earn sewing hospital gowns, or assembling garage door openers in American-owned plants; between 700,000 to 900,000 campesinos each year are pushed off lands in large part by environmental degradation they do not have the resources to stop, says a recent report by a non-profit natural resources law firm for the US Commission on Immigration Reform. This threat to Mexican agriculture has only grown in the last few decades.

"Since the 1970s, the expansion of agriculture into land that is not adequate has led to a decrease in production," said Victor Lichtinger, Mexican minister for the Environment, in a recent visit to U.C. Berkeley. Of the 35 million hectares cultivated in Mexico, 14 million are forestland converted into low productivity land and pastures. Some of Mexico's central environmental issues, such as erosion and floods, stem from these practices. "Ten percent of good agricultural land has been lost to erosion," he said.

These years also marked Mexico's tumultuous entry into the global economy. Reforms churned the countryside, as government trimmed down for competition in international markets. Long-standing agricultural policies were reversed, pulling the plug on financial aid for small farmers. The result: Poorer farmers, many abandoned ejidos, and an increasingly devastated landscape.

In just over a decade, the cradle of support Mexico's peasants counted on unraveled, measure by measure. Starting in 1988, Mexico reduced or ended agricultural subsidies, credit and other help to small farmers; by 1994, NAFTA opened Mexico's protected markets to tons of foreign products, including corn and beans, driving their price down, and leaving local farmers at a loss. Multinationals like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill entered Mexico's grain market, exposing campesinos to competition they were not prepared to face.

Trapped between a shifting economic landscape and impoverished, overworked fields, peasants left the land in droves. Approximately 80% of Nogales' 350,000 residents consists of new arrivals. Unofficially, estimates reach half a million residents - twice the population of ten years ago.

They found work in the low-wage, foreign-owned assembly plants that crowd along the border, churning out everything from remote controls to designer clothes. Some, like Robledo, settle for a long time, building homes out of wood, cardboard, and corrugated tin. Others stay only long enough to save a little money to take home, or until they are ready to try their luck on the other side -el otro lado, just across the fence in the United States, where the factories come from, and where a worker can make eight times the wage in Mexico.

Understanding the plight of Mexico's small farmers, however, takes more than just a quick look at the recent turnaround in agricultural policy. Disappearing credit lines and plummeting prices for corn came at a time when, more than ever, the environmental degradation of Mexico's countryside demanded attention.

"Historically, small farmers in Mexico have been displaced from good land to bad," says Peter Rosset, co-director of Food First, a non-profit research center studying the root causes of hunger and poverty around the world. "You see campesinos concentrated in areas where no one in their right mind should be farming, but they have no choice. Soon, you are going to get rapid degradation of that land."

Even ejidos settled on marginal land see their populations grow. More people farming smaller plots on increasingly less productive land only adds to the burden on a fragile environment. Soon, farmers look elsewhere for a means of subsistence.

"The sons of the campesinos need a way of making a living, and because now their crops are not worth much, they start planting on mountain sides, in the jungle, on the edge of deserts, even if it is just to subsist," says Victor Suarez Carrera, a Mexican agronomist and director of ANEC, an NGO which organizes 150 peasant cooperatives. "That has negative environmental impacts: erosion, less biodiversity, and less forests."

Three years ago, Eva left her ejido of Carrillopuerto in Chiapas, "almost in Guatemala," she says, for Agua Prieta, a border town 80 miles east of Nogales. As she made her way to the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, the first step in her trip to Mexico's other, northern border, she saw a lot of clearings in the forests. But she didn't think they were made by peasants, like her: "We only cut the wood we need, a little at a time. We don't have the machines to cut down whole hills like that."

As much as 70% of Mexico's agricultural lands are affected by land degradation. Much of this is preventable: erosion and salinization, two of the destructive forces behind the abandonment of Mexican farms, stem from inadequate irrigation practices and deforestation. "Overgrazing, overcultivation, a lack of management in times of drought, and intensification of the use of fertilizers" adds to the problem, says Michelle Leighton, director of the Natural Heritage Institute's international programs.

The Institute is a non-profit law firm that researches conservation of natural resources. Their study, "Environmental Degradation and Migration," found that 1000 square miles of potentially productive lands are taken out of use, and 400 square miles are abandoned each year due to environmental degradation.

Turning away from this problem now will only cause the Mexican government a bigger one later, adds Leighton.

"We have the technology. We know how to address these problems. We are doing it, Israel is doing it, Mexico is not," she says. "They are not putting any money into training; in fact, they have cut funds for rural areas."

The cuts in government support for agriculture essentially take from farmers the means with which to fight the growing devastation of their lands. Robledo, whose family used to grow fruit, now can only help his wife tend to flowers she planted in the buckets that surround their home.

"No one plants fruit there anymore," he says.

Sonora, where Robledo comes from, suffers from water scarcity like much of Mexico. Along with Sinaloa, the United States' "winter salad bowl", and other northern Mexican states, Sonora relies on large estates using the latest technology to grow much of what you find in your local grocery story. Naturally, there are limits to growing thirsty produce in a semi-arid environment. With irrigation, however, farmers found they could coax a steady flow of export-quality grains and vegetables from the unyielding ground. This apparently simple solution soon revealed its other, hidden costs.
"If they are relying on underground water to service these crops, they are probably pumping water that is fairly salinized," says Leighton. "Mexico is overpumping its aquifers by 40%. This will lead to a depletion over the years, but it also means that it concentrates salts in the water."

Even irrigating with fresh water from dams, ironically, can add salts to the earth. The overapplication of water, says Leighton, typical of practices such as flood irrigation, where farmers soak the soil, can raise the water table. In an arid zone such as Sonora, this could bring high levels of salts up to the crops' roots.

Even the ejidatarios in Robledo's home village, farming smaller plots, soon came to the same conclusion.

"When we counted just on the rain, everything grew better. Now, with irrigation, nothing grows well," says Robledo.

Up to 30% of Mexico's irrigated lands suffer from salinization, NHI's report found. It points to Sonora as particularly vulnerable to this type of desertification.

When small farmers leave their land, often they rent it to large companies who gather these small plots and use cutting edge technology to make them profitable.

"When agribusiness takes over these lands, they use great quantities of water in irrigation, machinery, and pesticides," says Suarez. "Irrigated agriculture has tripled in the last few years, while rain-fed, small-plot farming like what happens in the south has remained stagnant."

The erosion of Mexican soil has grown at alarming rates over the last 10 years, says Leighton, because of the combination of these factors. Ejidatarios live from crop to crop, on the brink of sustainability; they account for over half of Mexico's arable land, and land is all they have. When it fails, they suffer.
Mexico's rocky debut in the global economy-- marked by NAFTA and two grinding recessions that left the country deeply indebted -- fostered foreign investment, economic growth and job creation in cities and in border town maquiladoras. The same economic forces that pushed northern industrialization and growth in urban areas, however, dried up the scarce funds allotted to el campo, the countryside, and to Mexico's less developed south.

The colonias crowding around industrial centers like Nogales and Agua Prieta measure the extent of the north-south polarization of Mexico's economy, and the desperation of Mexico's rural poor. Here, droughts in Chiapas, devastating storms in Michoacan and changing government priorities do not remain distant abstractions for very long.

"People come through Agua Prieta and tell us of the terrible conditions in their villages in Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz," says Pola Pantoja, who works in the Maquiladora Organizing Project, visiting maquiladora workers to tell them of their rights. "Last year, when the floods in Veracruz washed crops away, you would see hundreds of people sometimes, walking through Agua Prieta, on their way to the United States. Some stay, some make it across."

As Eliza Ortega drives through Agua Prieta's dark, rutted streets, dust swirls in the headlights, blowing past the workers who walk home after a day in one of the town's 42 maquiladoras. Ortega, who works with Pantoja in the Maquiladora Organizing Project, holds up to 18 meetings a week with new migrants. Recent arrivals like Eva and Rubicella, two cousins from the ejido of Carrillopuerto, in Chiapas, often don't know their rights and are too frightened to ask.

When Eva and Rubi walk into their one-room cinder-clock home, Ortega is waiting with
copies of comic books in which maquiladora workers like them refuse employer demands for pregnancy tests, or ask for protective equipment from their managers.

After working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Breed Technology, an American-owned maquiladora where they assemble seat belts for 38 pesos - under $4- a day, Eva and Rubicella are too tired to read the booklets. If they did, they would find the company cannot force them to work overtime, as it has been doing. Their husbands work the night shifts-6 pm to 6 am, only seeing their wives on Sundays and as they cross each other at the factory door.

"Almost the majority of the people from my pueblo are at Breed technology," she says.

Eva comes from a coffee-growing region a few miles from Mexico's other, southern, border. After a day in the maquiladora, she moves slowly. Working six days a week, sometimes standing for hours, "for increased productivity," she says, exhausts even this 25-year-old raised on the long days and the hard work of coffee picking.

"People used to live on coffee there, and cocoa, and corn. At the time of my grandfather, people could live from harvest to harvest with the money they made. Now the land just doesn't give like before, and the little you have is not worth anything…. And we have to pay back for the loans we took to plant."

For as long as Eva and her parents can remember, the extension of official agricultural credit played a central role in the state's relationship to the countryside. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers found their access to credit severely reduced or cut off completely as the government started streamlining rural credit institutions in 1988. By 1989, Banrural, the main development bank servicing the agricultural sector, started selecting their clients, favoring agribusiness over ejidatarios.

"There was an ideological decision to not support Mexican agriculture where it does not have a comparative advantage" relative to American agriculture, says Suarez. "They saw it as good money thrown at a lost cause. And what should the farmers do?" he asks. "They should go to another sector of the economy, they thought, or to the United States."

Between 1989 and 1991, Banrural's financing of corn- Mexico's main crop- fell by 88.6%. Agriculture's share in total credit given to the private sector fell to half of what it was in 1981, and now remains at an all time low.

"Banrural had supported the planting of up to 7 million hectares of corn," says Suarez.

"Now it supports 800,000 hectares."

Pantoja, who now works with migrants, also left her family's farm in Veracruz one day to try her luck along the border. She understands the intricacies of economic reforms all too well. Daily, she sees their effects ripple through the stories of other migrants, and of her own family.

"My brothers and nephews live in Veracruz, and they live from planting chiles and tomatoes. They used to get credit from Banrural . Now, people have to go to caciques, private lenders, who lend you money, yes, but then they want you to pay it back doubled. When you harvest, they take all your money," she says. Lately, she has been trying to discourage her nephew from leaving his parent's farm in Veracruz. Like so many other young men, he is eager to see the other side, el otro lado.

When Banrural cut its loans to ejido farmers, the Mexican government established "credito a la palabra," a simple system of lending that takes the peasant's word as collateral. Designed to help subsistence corn farmers, these small loans only let corn farmers continue to be corn farmers. The investment in new methods or crops some experts suggested as the ejido's route to surviving the flood of cheap American grain that followed NAFTA was out of the reach of most peasants.

In fact, diversification "is not a response to rural poverty," says Rosset, of Food First. "It is a complete illusion for poor farmers. The start-up costs are 30 to 300 times the cost of planting corn; no one is going to lend you that money; markets are highly unreliable, and if you don't a market failure one year, you get one the next. If you are poor, that wipes you out."

Locking farmers into producing corn for a glutted market not only impoverishes the farmers; indirectly, it impoverishes the land.

"Without access to credit, farmers can't diversify their crops. One of the key strategies to avoid land degradation is to change periodically to other crops, or grow several crops at the same time. That keeps the land more fertile," says Leighton. "But that is more expensive, and takes more training ."

Land degradation can be turned back, she explains. "Just look at the dustbowl. Today that same area is one of the most fertile, productive areas in the world," she says. "But this is not a priority for the Mexican government-and this neglect will lead to more poverty."

NHI's report stated that almost 27% of ejido households had a family member who migrated at least once in their lifetimes, and 85% of the rural population lives on less than a dollar a day. Rural poverty and migration go hand in hand.
Farmers were still struggling to understand the shifting credit policy when, in 1994, Mexico's currency plummeted, and the pesos a few had managed to borrow turned into handfuls of nothing. By early 1995, the Mexican economy sunk into its worst economic depression in 60 years. The crisis stretched from Mexico's countryside well into the urban middle class. Over 12,000 of Mexico's businesses filed for bankruptcy that year-and the border saw men and women wash up like so much driftwood brought to shore after a storm.

"From 94, 95, people started coming by the hundreds," to Agua Prieta alone," says Ortega. "You'd see them in the streets. They came from the south, willing to work in any conditions, for as many hours as they were given," says Ortega. She sometimes has difficulty convincing these new migrants to learn about their rights; they are afraid to be taken for agitators and fired. "They were desperate," she says.

Sister Alma Angelica Macias Mejia, a missionary of the Eucharist who works with the floating population of Nogales' colonias, watched the peso devaluation devastate her family's livelihood, as well as that of many of those she now helps.

"We had our life settled, and we never thought anything would happen: my mother had a store, and we had some land our father had left us," she explains. "With the change in the money in 1994, everything changed. Debts doubled and tripled… in the countryside, in small businesses, they owed everything to the bank. Everyone sank, like in a swamp."

Now, Mejia works with Borderlinks, a Tucson-based not-for-profit dedicated to building relationships and institutions across borders that "put a human face on capitalism," according to director Rick Ufford-Chase. Funded by Borderlinks, she developed a microloan program which gives border residents without access to bank credit the chance to establish a small business.
"Mexico used to produce corn and beans. Now it produces Hanes underwear and Sears garage door openers," says Ufford-Chase, mulling over the recent changes affecting Mexico as he drives west through the open desert landscape between Douglas and Nogales, Arizona. Tall saguaro cacti stand like sentinels beside the road, silhouetted by the setting sun.

The shift from rural to urban development, agricultural to industrial production, and the south to north migration that followed these trends started decades ago, with Miguel de la Madrid's administration, he says.

"Poor Mexicans have been growing increasingly poor for 20 years," says Ufford-Chase, staring straight ahead at the hills flanking Nogales.

Only with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, however, did the larger public give this process a name. NAFTA immediately became a powerful symbol of the economic growth and increasing poverty that was tearing Mexico apart. In the last five years, Mexican homes subsisting below poverty levels - with less that 560 pesos, or just over $60 a month-went from 69% to 76%. All this while the economy has been growing unchecked for over 4 years.
NAFTA's provisions also accelerated the process it had brought to public debate. Foreign investment and products reached far into Mexican markets; maquiladoras mushroomed along the border, and reforms whipped through the countryside. The agreement brought globalization home to Mexico in the form of tariff reductions that flooded the market with inexpensive American corn grown on mechanized, large-scale farms; beans, rice and wheat soon followed.

Soon, the 2.5 million tons of corn allowed by NAFTA into the Mexican market tariff-free turned to 4 million tons, then to 6 million, and even 8 million, in 1996.

"In reality, no attention was paid to the more conservative aspects of NAFTA, to the maximum quota of imports,' says Rosset. "The same thing happened to beans. Many months the imports have doubled, tripled the amount allowed. They basically opened the floodgates."

Corn feeds Mexico, and up to 18 million people depend on its production. Experts predicted that allowing cheap American corn would ravage the ejidos, where 70% of farmers worked, producing 73% of country's corn. One study by economists Santiago Levy and Sweder van Wijnbergen predicted that two million ejidatarios and campesinos would leave the country for the city if corn tariffs disappeared; the number could reach 5 million with families, they said. Many of the newly unemployed would find work along the border, and in the United States.

Others feel the massive exodus from Mexico's countryside didn't occur as expected.

"Those households are highly diversified," says Alain de Janvry, a professor in the department of Agriculture and Resource Economics in the University of California at Berkeley. "They can keep an agricultural base and still migrate, hit the job market, have microenterprises, send their daughters to work in maquilas, and still have the parents in Chiapas or Oaxaca. There were also policy interventions, such as Procampo."

Through Procampo, the government pays farmers in cash per acre of land they hold. Studies have shown, however, that corn farming has become so unprofitable that half the farmers receiving Procampo payments use them for family subsistence, not as an investment in the land.

These days, says Rosset, if an ejidatario "took $100, invested it in his farm, and worked for 3 months, he'd get $90 in the end. So why not eat with those $100, work as a migrant somewhere, and end up with more income?"

Even those farms which only produced enough to feed the family working the land - and 31% of farmers in Mexico live this way-took a blow when prices dropped.

"We don't live on corn and beans alone," says a Zapotec migrant from Zanatepec, Oaxaca, who declined to give her name as she wrapped her woolen rebozo, or shawl, over her head and tighter around her torso, pulling the sleeping child on her back closer. She is suspicious of foreigners who want to know more than cuanto cuesta -- how much she asks for the colorful necklaces she strings and sells to American tourists in Nogales' lively downtown area, just a stroll away from the border.

"We came because there was nothing for us there anymore. We grew barely enough to eat, and the little we could sell was not enough for clothes, for the children, for school," she admits.

If only the lower prices fetched by farmers for their corn and beans meant lower food prices for Mexicans elsewhere, that would be something, says Suarez, "but that is not so."

"Today, the price paid to farmers is the international market price-30%, 40% lower than before," he says. "In this same period, over the last seven years, the price to consumers has increased by 300%. Look at the tortilla: from 80 centavos a kilo seven years ago to five pesos, even though now they are made with cheap American corn."

The last and most basic of all subsidies was abolished in January 1st, 1999: in Mexico's globalized economy, even the price of tortillas fluctuate according to the international market. Meanwhile, up to 50% of Mexico's population suffers from some form of malnutrition.

Continuing its push to slim down government, Mexico shed another bloated state-owned company: CONASUPO, the Compania Nacional de Subsitencias Populares. For 38 years, until its demise in 1999, CONASUPO distributed and guaranteed the price of basic grains in the Mexican market through subsidies and price controls. Profit-seeking multinationals like Cargill-Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland-Dreyfus, and Novartis-Maseca moved into its wake.

Maseca produces 80% of Mexico's tortillas. As such, they bought most of Mexico's grain through CONASUPO while it existed.

"When CONASUPO disappeared, Maseca switched almost all their buying to American producers," says Rosset. "They didn't want the hassle of buying it from millions of little producers in remote areas-they preferred to pick up the phone and order it from ADM or Cargill and have it delivered the next day."

Small farmers, exposed to competition on a global level, and to commercial intermediaries, lost ground once again.

"Yes, we really lost when the prices dropped," says Eva, in Agua Prieta, thinking back to her far-away ejido in Chiapas. "Those who had their little piece of land, and planted on it…. The little they harvested, they ate, and then they gave it away, so that it wouldn't spoil," she says. Her eyes fill with tears when she mentions the 3 children she left behind three years ago. Now, they are 9, 8 and 5 years old. "There was a noose tightening around our necks. The prices were so low, but we lowered them even more trying to get back what we had invested. That is why people left…."

In spite of the shifting economic landscape, many Mexican farmers have shown enough resilience and enterprise to find new ways to support a traditional lifestyle.

"Reforms in Mexico have been incomplete in the sense that they have not helped people make productive use of their land," says de Janvry. "But these people have been terribly ingenious in finding ways of coping in spite of a lack of attention from government. They lost all the services the government provided, so they have diversified: they migrate, go to maquilas, set up microenterprises."

Monthly remittances from a daughter making Tommy Hilfiger shorts in border maquila, or a husband working a clandestine job picking California's strawberries, fill in for the government's dwindling support. In 1998 alone, migrants living in the United States sent $4 billion home to Mexico.

According to a survey conducted by de Janvry and the Mexican Secretary for Agrarian Reform, 37.8% of the heads of ejido households immigrated during their lifetime; migration is going up in states with the highest levels of immigration, even while it reaches into states which are far from the border, with little migratory tradition, like Eva's native Chiapas and the neighboring Guerrero and Oaxaca.

The indigenous groups of these southern states represent the fastest-growing group of migrants. Relegated to marginal land at advanced levels of degradation, poor even amidst the poverty of Mexico's rural sector, and with little hope for access to credit or technological innovations, the indigenous, like the Zapotec artisan in Nogales, rely on immigration to keep their family farms afloat.

"Agriculture, instead of being subsidized by the Mexican government, is being subsidized by migrants," says Rosset. "Since the government withdrew subsidies and support for campesinos, the only way to keep farming is if you have someone sending you money."

Back in colonia Flores Magon, Robledo considers his future in Nogales. Relative to maquiladora workers, he is well paid for his work in construction. With the help of Borderlinks, he has just built a composting toilet, making his family's life more bearable, though they still lack running water and electricity.

"To tell you the truth, my hope is to one day save enough money to leave here," he says.
"I don't like this life."