A Crisis in Border Farming

The land has long produced a basket of delights. Wine grapes, chile and cotton have all thrived in the Juarez Valley bordering Texas. Nowadays, though, farming is in flux-battered by drought, urbanization and other adverse forces. Statistics recently published by El Diario de Juarez newspaper documented the decline of and changes in regional agriculture since the turn of the century.

According to numbers from the federal Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock and Fishing cited by El Diario, approximately 4,600 acres of 28,600 acres of cultivable land in the Juarez Valley stopped producing food between 2002 and 2011.

The biggest crop production losses were in corn, watermelon, red tomatoes, garlic, green chile, onions, and other vegetables. Among edible crops, wheat and squash have been the big survivors. On the other hand, cotton production held its own and actually increased from about 14,300 acres in 2001 to more than 16,000 acres by 2011.

The bottom line: local farmers consider cotton to be more profitable and less risky for investment purposes than crops destined for human food consumption. Producers blame the drought for many of their troubles.

Julio Guillen, an agricultural worker in the municipality  of Praxedis  G. Guerrero, added that water shortages likewise affected  the crop yields of  cotton plantings. “Compared with the six bales per hectare that we harvested in previous years, we barely harvested four last September- four-and-a-half when things went well for us,” Guillen said. “We won’t harvest food crops any more, because  they’ve been  a big loss…”

Miguel Hernandez of the Jesus Carranza Ejido said poorer yields were also recorded in the most recent winter wheat harvest, which fell from a previous harvest average of 7.5 tons per hectare to six tons per hectare.

Worse yet, Juarez Valley farmers face more tough times ahead in 2013. Dependent on irrigation water from the Rio Grande, growers aren’t expected to get their first delivery until June-the same time as fellow farmers in the neighboring El Paso Valley and upstream in New Mexico.  And for the first time in the nearly century-old history of the binational irrigation zone, a chance exists there will be no irrigation water available whatsoever.

Based  on dry weather patterns as well as water supply conditions and projections, the Las Cruces-based Elephant Butte Irrigation District  (EBID), which manages the Rio Grande water deliveries to the Juarez Valley,  issued a very sober assessment at the end of January.

“While it is painful to contemplate, there is also the possibility that, if the spring runoff fails, we may not have enough water to make any release, allotment or delivery in 2013…,” the EBID said in a statement posted on its website. “A zero release season has never occurred in (Rio Grande) Project history, and we certainly hope it will  not occur this year, but we are in hydrologic new territory, and we must consider the worst.”

Apart from the drought, Juarez Valley farmers have confronted other serious challenges in recent times. Farming declines coincided with the great wave of criminal violence that rolled into the area, especially from 2008 to 2011. Although precise numbers are hard to pin down, it is said thousands of rural residents fled their homes, many seeking refuge in Texas across the border.

Agricultural decline is also linked to the creeping urbanization of Ciudad Juarez from its downtown core into the fields of the adjacent valley. A look  at the status of local ejidos, the collectively-owned farm lands granted after  the 1910 Mexican Revolution, reveals an almost complete disappearance of a rural cultural heritage.

Since 2002, the three ejidos that  were located on the urban fringe of Ciudad Juarez have either ceased to exist or are in the process of extinction. Once encompassing more than 300 acres, the Senecu  Ejido reportedly has been the only ejido in Mexico to seek dissolution. Paved over with roads, subdivisions, schools and industrial sites, the ejido’s lands are now an integral part of the Gomez Morin-Paseo de la Victoria corridor in Ciudad Juarez’s so-called Golden Zone.

In coverting their land, ejido members became small property owners thanks to reforms in Mexican law made during the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gotari (1988-94). A similar privatization of ejido land holdings is currently underway in the two other ejidos closest to the city limits-the Salbarcar-Juarez and Zaragoza ejidos.

“(Members) are no longer interested in (ejido) assemblies,”  said Juan Carlos Fragoso Chavez, Ciudad Juarez representative for the federal agrarian secretariat’s legal department. “Many sold their parcel rights and left the area.”

For the time being, eight other ejidos survive in the municipality of Juarez- four in the Juarez Valley and four in the vicinity of Samalayuca, a small community located just south of Ciudad Juarez off  the Pan American Highway.  Three of the ejidos-San Agustin, Jesus Carranza and San Francisco Tres Jacales- have embarked strongly on the privatization path, with nearly half the combined 40,000 acres held by ejido members already parceled out to private owners or up for sale.

Sources: El Diario de Juarez, February 4 and 6, 2013. Articles by Antonio Rebolledo. Elephant Butte Irrigation District, January 31, 2013. Ebid-nm.org

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Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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