Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Mexico’s Drought Turns Farms to Dust

                                                     Mexico's livestock die off in areas hit hard by drought. (Simeon Tegel/GlobalPost)

Clouds of dust swirl around the desiccated cattle carcasses scattered across the sun-scorched field.
The buzzards have gorged on the corpses, picking out the eyes and ripping their way into the remains through the empty stomachs. Nothing but skin and bone is left.
The unprecedented drought that has parched northern Mexico — and stretched into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas — has been as good for these scavengers as it has been calamitous for the region’s ranchers and farmers.
Over the last 12 months, 350,000 head of cattle have starved to death here in Chihuahua, Mexico’s largest state, according to El Barzon, a national association that represents the owners of small and medium-sized farms.
Without rain, there is no pasture.
“With the capital, I could start another business,” rancher Ismael Solorio, 24, says wistfully as he considers selling his remaining herd. “If it doesn’t rain, I will have no choice.”
Solorio inherited 200 cows from his grandfather in 2008, in the community of Constitucion, about two hours northwest from the state capital, Chihuahua city. The unusually dry, difficult conditions slowly whittled that figure down to 160 a year ago.
But the last year has been disastrous. A total of 26 cows have starved to death over the winter and spring, and he was forced to sell another 10. He borrowed money to buy pasture to put a little fat and meat on their lean frames.
More from this series: Climate Pains
In recent weeks, seasonal rains have helped reduce the number of Mexico’s 32 states acutely affected by drought from 18 to five. But most of Chihuahua remains in a state of emergency.
If strong rains do not come here soon, the decision will be taken out of his hands, Solorio says. He will either sell or watch his entire herd die in front of him. “If I don’t sell them while they are still healthy, it will be a write-off,” he told GlobalPost.
Solorio could be waiting in vain, according to Carlos Gay, an atmospheric physicist and head of the Climate Change Program at Latin America’s largest university, the UNAM in Mexico City.
“Northern Mexico has always been arid, and there have often been droughts,” he said. “But what is strange is the duration of this drought, and the fact that it has been preceded by other droughts. Is it really a drought, or the region’s new climate?”
It is not just the cattle ranchers who are suffering.
So far, this year, some 60,000 families, including many impoverished Tarahumara Indians, living in the remote Copper Canyon, have needed food aid from the regional and federal governments.
In April, the Mexican Congress overwhelmingly passed a bill that would force the country to slash its carbon footprint 30 percent by 2020, making it only the second country, after the UK, to set itself legally binding targets.
And no wonder. Normally, Chihuahua produces 100,000 metric tons of corn a year. But in 2011, the harvest was all but wiped out. The entire state — Mexico’s largest — produced just 500 tons. According to the state government, local farmers lost 897.5 million pesos ($65 million) as a result.
Although corn was the hardest-hit crop, it was hardly the only one. Chihuahua’s bean harvest in 2011 was just 20,000 tons, down more than 100,000 tons from the previous year. That cost local growers around $112 million.

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