Indigenous people threatened by Mexico's worst drought in 70 years

GENEVA, 14 August 2012 - Mexico is in the grips of one of the worst droughts in 70 years - a catastrophe which has devastated agricultural production for over one year now.

According to the National Water Commission the prolonged drought has affected 70 percent of the country and decimated agriculture in the states of Aguascalientes, Coahuila, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas, among others.

Food production is down 40 percent says the National Confederation of Peasants, with some 2.5 million people affected and almost two million hectares destroyed. Head of Mexico's National Cattlemen's Association, Osvaldo Chazaro Montalvo, has reported over one million head of cattle dead. Financial losses have surpassed US$1.3 billion including losses of US$710 million for corn, and US$280 million for beans.

Leading members of the Group of 20 nations, France, the US and G20 president Mexico are preparing to hold a conference call at the end of August to discuss whether an emergency international meeting is required to prevent a repeat of the food price spike that triggered riots in poorer countries in 2008.

Probably invisible in all of these high level negotiations is the smaller tragedy taking place within the larger Mexican tragedy; that of an indigenous way of life that is threatened and a woeful tale of exploitation fuelled by vulnerability.

Chihuahua is one of the areas most affected by the Mexican drought. It is home to the reclusive indigenous Tarahumara community, described as "the kindest, happiest people on the planet." The Tarahumara call themselves the Rarámuri - the light-footed ones. Their unique physical abilities were largely unknown to the outside world until 2009, when the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen made them famous. "When it comes to ultra-distances," says author Christopher McDougall, "nothing can beat a Tarahumara runner - not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner.".

This season's harvest of beans and corn had very low yields. And since farming is the Tarahumara's only source of income, they lack other opportunities to make money for necessities. "Approximately 100,000 indigenous people who inhabit this zone have been affected," said Sergio Cano of the National Water Commission. "Lack of water for irrigation has led to the loss of nearly 800,000 hectares of the Rarámuri's maize and bean crops.

In the best of times, the Tarahumara live on the edge, tilling enough to survive. Now, with the drought, they are desperate. Compounding the tragedy are drug cartels that are exploiting the legendary Tarahumara endurance and enlist then to run drugs by foot across the border to the U.S.

U.S. defense lawyers say Tarahumara drug runners are a growing segment of their clientele. Ken Del Valle, a defense attorney in El Paso, Texas, says it is precisely their aptitude for endurance running that makes them so heavily recruited. "The cartels can put them in the desert and just say, 'Go!", he states.

In January, Mexican President Felipe Calderon announced a US$2.6-billion programme to help victims of the record drought, including food and water handouts stating that the aim "is that no family is without water or food due to this drought." A presidential decree was passed to lift bureaucratic obstacles to speed up aid distribution.

International NGOs such as the Red Cross and World Vision have also responded with food drives, water service, and temporary jobs. David Muñoz, a spokesman in Mexico for World Vision, says, however, that "communities affected are very far from places where they can get food. Many are not accessible ... and in some places, if a family wants to get food they have to walk three or four hours to the nearest village where they can buy food."

According to Ricardo Mena, Head of the UN Americas Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), while the Mexican Early Warning System for cyclones has proven to be a powerful tool to reduce the loss of lives, there are yet no appropriate early warning systems for other extreme hydro meteorological events such as drought, hail storms and flash floods.

"Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable. Climate change added to their current socioeconomic condition, can transform drought into a chronic, widespread and irreversible disaster for these communities. While immediate measures to alleviate the suffering of the Tarahumara are necessary, even more critical are the establishment of credible drought risk models to protect them, create resilience and safeguard their culture and heritage", Mena states.

The UN 2011 Global Assessment Report, Revealing Risk, Redefining Development states that in the US, between 1999 and 2009, another indigenous group, the Navajo Nation, experienced drought of historic proportions. Some 30,000 cattle perished between 2001 and 2002, and entire communities ran out of water. Political marginalization, rural poverty, land demarcation and livestock restrictions interrupted a traditional Navajo drought impact managing practice of moving animals across boundaries to less drought affected areas.

According to GAR 11 such policies in the context of decreasing water availability led to endemic poverty even before the drought began in 1999. In 1997, 60 percent of the Navajo were living in poverty. They had also invested their savings in livestock, a safety net that was itself vulnerable to drought. Inappropriate development, badly managed water resources, weak local government and inequality all contributed to translating the drought into a further series of cascading losses and impacts.