Tuesday, February 26, 2008

American Sahara

Mexico's arid north - 54% of the nation's land surface - is drying out and blowing away in the wind at an alarming rate as desertification transforms this always-hardscrabble terrain into an American Sahara.

According to the National Commission on Arid and Semi-arid Lands, semi-arid land is being converted to arid wasteland at the rate of 2% a year. Fragile aquifers are sucked dry and erosion turn once-tillable land into sand dunes. Subsistence farmers abandon their plots and jump into the migration stream. Even the native peoples who have lived on this difficult land for millenniums are deserting the desert.

NASA satellite overflights of the northern states of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Durango, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora and the Baja California peninsula now show spreading swatches of bone-white, waterless desert, inhospitable bad lands that can no longer support human communities.

But the North is not the only region of Mexico that is drying up. National Water Commission (CONAGUA) studies indicate that 38 Mexican cities, including the luxury resorts of Acapulco and Cancun, are running out of water and could be dry in a decade. Carlos Gay, director of the National Autonomous University Climate Study Center, anticipates a 20% decrease in rainfall by 2010 in Mexico's two wettest states, Chiapas and Quintana Roo, on the southern border.

At the other end of the nation in the desiccated north, it hardly ever rains anymore. The Laguna region, 10 municipalities in Coahuila state and five in Durango, receives the least rainfall in the Mexico - 244 millimeters annually - and has the highest rate of evaporation. Rescued from the desert by the collectivization of the land and construction of vast hydraulic projects under depression-era president Lazaro Cardenas, the Laguna was once Mexico' leading cotton growing region. Now, devastated by dried-up wells and soils that have been contaminated by agri-chemicals, the desert is reclaiming La Laguna.

One key reason for this tragic desertification: the re-privatization of land and water resources and their over-exploitation by Mexican and transnational Agribusiness. Perhaps the most notorious offender is the dairy giant Lala - owner Eduardo Tricio Haro's herds of 200,000 cows exhaust the carrying capacity of this fragile land. Industry insiders calculate that it takes a thousand liters of water to concoct one liter of milk. Lala - which sells more than half its production to Liconsa, the national milk distribution agency - is the source of one out of every two glasses of milk gulped down in this thirsty nation.

For the past six years, as director of CONAGUA, Clemente Jaime Jarquez, an old crony of ex-president Vicente Fox since their days at Coca Cola (Fox was the director of Mexican operations) presided over the systematic draining of the Laguna's aquifers to benefit Tricio Haro and Lala. Now the National Water Commission is turning its attention to the neighboring Cuatrocienegas international biosphere where Lala has been granted permits to drill 250 wells - 80 of which are already in operation. Clemente Jaime Jarquez was, of course, the former CEO of the Lala Corporation.

Cuatrocienegas water is precious. The biosphere was once under the sea and its secrets date back to the Jurassic age. Indeed, microorganisms native to the region's land and water are so unique that the biosphere has been dubbed Mexico's Galapagos by scientists. Last July, UNAM biologist Valeria Sauza discovered that since the water agency authorized the drilling of Lala's wells, 70% of the aquifers in some valleys have vanished and the geology of the region, which for 35,000 years remained unaltered, is turning into desert.

Lala is certainly not the only corporate entity that is draining Mexico dry. In Sonora, a border state whose badlands blend into the brutal Arizona desert, Governor Eduardo Bours, Mexico's chicken king, has permits that allow his Bachocho corporation (the major supplier for Pepsico's KFC) to exploit 600 million liters annually in a largely waterless state. Fox's old stomping ground, the Coca Cola Corporation of Atlanta Georgia, sucks up ground water that could otherwise provide two liters a day for 14.5 million Mexicans, to formulate its noxious brew. In San Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas, "La Coca" sucks up five liters every second from the Huitepec aquifer where the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has installed an encampment to protest the selling off of precious water.

Big timber has so denuded northern Zacatecas with clear-cuts that the region is losing 150,000 hectares to encroaching desertification every year and another 300,000 hectares are so critically eroded that springtime "tolaveras" or whirlwinds fill the air with choking red-brown dirt. University of Zacatecas agronomists calculate that 20 tons of earth is being moved every spring and dunes now rise where once farmers eked out a living growing corn and beans.

The poor of the region have paid the price for clear-cuts and the corporate evisceration of aquifers. Marginalized desert communities wage wars over what little liquid is left in the ground - 59 out of Mexico's poorest municipalities are located in desert zones. Emaciated kids are strung along the federal highway outside Matahualpa San Luis Potosi selling desert iguanas and begging coins from passing motorists. Farmers abandon their dying fields and flee into the cities and across the northern border, leaving behind abandoned ghost towns.

Even the first peoples to inhabit these inhospitable lands - 15 desert Indian cultures - are having a harder time surviving in an environment that is seriously out of balance. Chakoko Aniko, a 76 year-old Kikapoo Indian shaman from El Nascimiento Coahuila, rues the disappearance of his peoples' sacred deer without which Kikapoo culture cannot continue. "When the deer dies, the Kikapoos will die too" he laments to La Jornada reporter Laura Poy.

As their habitat dries out and sacred species disappear - cactus rustling puts a big hurt on native cultures - the young men and women abandon the old ways and native speakers among the Indians of Mexico's northern desert now number in the dozens.

Mexico's North is just one corner of the global desert. At least 41% of the planet's surface is now in danger of going dry - 20% is already desert - directly impacting 250,000.000 people and threatening 1.5 billion more, according to numbers presented by Doctor Zafar Abdeel at the 2005 United Nations conference on the degradation of arid lands. Some 60 million sub-Saharans will be forced off ancestral lands in the next 20 years and migrate in search of work and water as the desert takes over. Wherever they go, the desert will not be far behind.

"We have lived on these lands since history began" the Kikapoo shaman Chakoko Anika recalls plaintively, "where else can we go?"


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