By Kent Paterson

History has not been kind to the indigenous Raramuri people of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Pushed to remote mountains of a harsh land by Spanish and mestizo colonists, the Raramuri managed to hang on to their culture while eking out an existence based on rain-fed farming and small herd grazing. In recent decades their lands have been invaded again, this time by cattlemen, loggers, miners, dope growers, tourism developers, and soldiers.

According to Mexican analyst and farm activist Victor Quintana, the United Nations named six municipalities with a large Raramuri presence as among the 10 least-developed indigenous municipalities in Mexico in 2005.

Ironically, Quintana wrote in a recent column, the Raramuri suffer water shortages and malnutrition while from their Sierra Tarahumara springs the headwaters of rivers that nourish commercial, export-oriented agriculture in the “fertile valleys” below.

“Richness and prosperity on the lower river: misery where the water is born,” Quintana wrote. “And the rich Sinaloan, Sonoran, Baja Californian and Chihuahuan growers don`t pay a single cent for environmental services to the indigenous people of the Chihuahua mountains.”

In another metaphoric twist to the Raramuri crisis, Chihuahua state officials are considering slaughtering thousands of wild pigs that regularly cross the border from Texas and devour what little cover is left on a rain-starved land. The meat, which one state official insisted was “tasty” and low in fat content, would then be shipped to hungry indigenous communities in the mountains.

The Raramuri are fast becoming a political football in a sharpening national struggle ostensibly over climate change and agricultural policy, but also intimately tied to free trade, food sovereignty and corporate consolidation of the food supply. Recently, Mexican media have been filled with stories about drought and hunger devastating the homeland of a people known for their long-distance running skills and passionate Easter season festivities.

An unconfirmed report of a mass suicide by distraught Raramuris received special scrutiny. Chihuahua state officials refuted the story, and National Water Commission head Jose Luis Luege, who was just nudged out of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) primary for the Mexico City mayoral race, put his foot in his mouth when he claimed there was no problem in the Sierra Tarahumara since the Raramuris had access to alternative water sources.

Confronted with reality, Luege later retracted. In fact, drought has been a recurrent problem in the Sierra Tarahumara since at least the 1990s, and thousands of Raramuris have since fled their homes for Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua City and other urban refuges.
The degree to which Raramuris have become pawns in an ongoing chess game of socio-politics was amply exhibited earlier this month when hundreds of indigenous residents of the Sierra Tarahumara were transported en masse to an event attended by Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte and Enrique Pena Nieto, the 2012 presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Although the event organizers said their intention was to familiarize national leaders with the Raramuri’s plight, indigenous people who attended the meeting were quoted in Mexico’s Proceso newsweekly saying they had no idea why they were brought to it. “They haven’t explained anything,” said Raramuri Francisco Mariano Gonzalez. “They could have brought us to hear these talks they are giving us,” Gonzalez speculated.

Reportedly, the man in charge of the acarreo–the Mexican word for carting people in to buff up political campaign events–was a former mayor of Guadalupe y Calvo, a violence-torn town located in heart of the Sierra Tarahumara’s narco country.

The former elected official’s stint in government apparently was good practice for his career as an actor in B-grade drug trafficking films like “Lead in the Sierra”.

Indigenous Pay the Price of Climate Change

Despite its spectacular and even surreal elements, the Raramuri episode was but the latest chapter in a deep-seated rural crisis worsened by climate change and neo-liberal economic policies.

A triple plague of floods, drought and freezes slammed nearly 70 percent of the country’s 26 million arable hectares in 2011 according to government officials, academic researchers, and farm organizations cited in the media. While drought alone has been particularly severe in the northern states, the lack of rainfall is also creating emergency situations for producers in places like Jalisco and Aguascalientes.

The federal Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries (Sagarpa) acknowledges that 19 Mexican states are affected by the worst drought in 70 years.

Nationwide, upwards of a half-million cattle have died and some water wells have dried up, according to a slew of reports. In 2011 an estimated 20 percent of Mexico’s vital corn crop withered up in the face of adverse weather, according to the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Production of another food staple, beans, is also down.

Climate disasters have contributed to pushing up food prices across the country. Puerto Vallarta tamale seller Estela Hernandez said it costs her two more pesos this year than last for a kilo of corn flour needed to make her product. As for the drought, Hernandez said it had not yet affected her supply. “There is plenty of corn flour now,” she added. “I don’t know about later.”
Max Correa, general secretary of the Central Campesina Cardenista, told La Jornada that price hikes of agricultural products could range from 100 to 150 percent this year.

Both farmers and consumers are already feeling a stinging pinch. A wave of price increases for eggs, beans and tomatoes, as well as the gasoline and the highway tolls required to get products to market, slapped Mexicans at the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012.

Perhaps most wrenching was yet another jump in the cost of staple corn tortillas, which rose in price from about 6 pesos per kilo at the end of 2006 to more than 12 pesos in many cities surveyed by the Economy Ministry at the end of last year. During the same time period, the average minimum wage increased from 48.67 pesos to 59.82 pesos; the ability of a daily minimum wage to purchase tortillas plummeted from 8.1 kilos in 2006 to 5.3 in 2011.

To compensate for a corn production downturn, Mexico is importing the product from abroad, especially from the United States. Corn imports surged 69.6 percent from January to September 2011, costing Mexico about $2.1 billion, an amount sharply up from the approximately $1.2 billion spent on imports during the same period in 2010.

Mexico’s experience is similar to that of many other developing nations, according to a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Global Development and Environment Institute.

The report blamed commodity speculation, biofuel production and “land grabs” for big hikes in global food prices from 2007 to 2008 and again from 2010 to 2011. While governments have taken some positive steps to address the food crisis, no real structural reforms to avert “another devastating spike in global food prices” have been undertaken, the report’s authors concluded.

Not everyone is losing out from a spiraling price cycle. The increase is connected to environmental issues, but it’s also heavily influenced by the gambles of finance capital, the hegemony of free trade and the corporate domination of the food chain.

Foreign food exporters, large domestic food processors and multinational and national supermarket chains all stand to gain from a loss in food self-sufficiency. Big box stores like Walmart sell tortillas at a lower price than do the mom-and-pop stores traditionally frequented by Mexicans. For instance, the US-based giant sells tortillas in a Puerto Vallarta store for 9.90 pesos per kilo, compared with the 14-15 pesos a kilo charged by the smaller tortilla outlets.

Taking a cue from the profit-making trick of leading buyers to think they have gotten a bargain by simply selling less for more, the rapidly expanding OXXO convenience store chain now sells three-quarter kilo packages of tortillas for 10.50 pesos.

Mexico’s food crisis has yet to acquire the status of a primary national issue, but different forces are beginning to push the issue into the center stage of national political life.

In what is likely to be the largest protest of its kind since 2008, Mexico’s main farm organizations plan to converge on the capital city during the last days of January to demand more government assistance.

“This is the first social movement that the country sees rising up because of climate change,” wrote analyst Victor Quintana. “More and more will rise up even stronger if the government continues on without understanding what is happening.”

Sparking the protests was President Calderon’s veto last month of an extra assistance package for Mexican farmers valued at about $900 million and approved by the opposition-controlled lower house of the Mexican Congress. In an election year such as 2012, the issue of who has control over government spending is a touchy matter as different political forces always suspect rivals of using their offices and budgets to influence voters.

The domestic battle contrasts with the Calderon administration’s support for extra funding from developed nations for the Green Climate Fund. And as the new president of the G-20 group of nations, Mexico is likely to lobby for more climate aid from the wealthier members. The Calderon administration considers Mexico to be in the vanguard of “green growth.”

While political considerations inevitably surround the internal climate politics debate, it could be said that at least Mexican elected officials accept the scientific consensus of climate change, unlike in the US where what passes for debate is still splashed by denial, dumbness and dodging.

At home, the Calderon administration is aggressively defending its domestic climate actions.

“Addressing the effects of the drought is a priority for the administration of President Felipe Calderon because it affects a good portion of the population, in particular, the most vulnerable Mexicans,” said Sagarpa Secretary Francisco Mayorga.

As evidence of the federal government’s attentiveness, Sagarpa said about $1.3 billion had been budgeted for mitigation and prevention programs in 2012. Among the measures already in motion or in the works for the coming days are crop substitution, water harvesting, pasture re-planting, sustainable range management and temporary employment. Also, the government plans on spending about $90 million on catastrophic insurance for “climatic and natural phenomena.”

Whether the government’s rural rescue policies can even lay the basis for turning around the countryside is another matter entirely. Under the current rules of the economic game, Mexico’s agricultural economy is ruled by free trade agreements, especially NAFTA, while middle-men merchants and big corporations control the transport and marketing of products as they travel from the country to the city.

On the land, the bigger and politically-connected farmer associations stand poised as always to benefit from any further injections of government aid. Large tracts of irrigated land and pasture are devoted to supplying the US market. Last November alone, 189,000 cattle were shipped north across the border, according to the beef industry publication Drovers Cattle Network. The Mexican government’s rural relief package will not disturb any of these profitable but increasingly ecologically-harmful economic arrangements.

It’s still too early to tell if the new farm protest movement will sow a seed for a 21st century agricultural model based on domestic marketplace reform, trade renegotiation and sustainable farming practices.

Many of the organizations involved in the January 31 protest are connected to political parties and, if organizers do not stake out a clear posture of independence, it’s likely their demands will be channeled into the ballot bin.
Previous national protest movements in 2003 and 2008 resulted in government subsidies, loans and other forms of short-term aid for a failing countryside but did not lay the foundations for a truly healthy rural economy.

In turn, the farm organizations largely pulled back from public protest. Demands for the renegotiation of NAFTA fell by the wayside, and an increasing number of farmers simply withdrew from the legal economy to cultivate opium poppies and marijuana as a way of staying on the land.

But with climate change becoming an ever and ever bigger factor in Mexico’s rural politics, the contradictions of temporary, politically-brokered fixes, whether in the Raramuri country or elsewhere, are becoming ever more acute.

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and Latin America, and he is an analyst for the Americas Program.