Drought Ravages Farms Across Wide Swath Of Mexico

A vulture picks at a dead steer. Ranchers say many cattle have died because of the drought that has ravaged much of Mexico. i i

A vulture picks at a dead steer. Ranchers say many cattle have died because of the drought that has ravaged much of Mexico. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
A vulture picks at a dead steer. Ranchers say many cattle have died because of the drought that has ravaged much of Mexico.

A vulture picks at a dead steer. Ranchers say many cattle have died because of the drought that has ravaged much of Mexico.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

In the central Mexican state of Zacatecas, 76-year-old Genaro Rodarte Huizar rides his donkey along a dry riverbed. On his left is a dried out pasture; on his right is what used to be a cornfield; now it's just long furrows of gray, dusty dirt.

Rodarte says that for the past two years, the crops that he's planted here have failed. Normally, he plants beans and corn to feed his family, and oats to sell. He says he hasn't harvested anything because the land is too dry and there's no water.

This is an arid part of Mexico, but normally there's a rainy season between June and September, allowing farmers to grow crops during the summer. They also tend cattle on the scrubby rolling hills dotted with cactuses.

Rodarte has lived here all his life and says this is the worst drought he's ever seen.

"Now most people are leaving," he says, "to the cities, the coasts where it rains, or to the United States. That's where the people are going to work. And those who are abroad in the U.S. are the ones who are sustaining the families here. They send us a little bit of money."

The drought is extending across a broad swath of central, northwestern and northern Mexico.

Sugar exports are expected to drop 40 percent, and one top military official says the lack of rain is even hurting marijuana production in Durango. Many farmers have been forced to sell off their livestock as pastures and watering holes run dry.

Government To Provide Aid

President Felipe Calderon has pledged billions of dollars in assistance to the hardest hit states, and vowed that no one is going to starve because of the crisis.

Food aid shipments are already being sent by helicopters and trucks to the Tarahumara Indians in remote parts of Chihuahua. In Zacatecas, the mayor of the vast municipality of Valparaiso, Jorge Torres Mercado says he's still waiting for federal assistance to arrive.

Genaro Rodarte Huizar, 76, says his corn and bean crops have failed for the past two years. He survives off money sent home by his children, who work in the United States. i i

Genaro Rodarte Huizar, 76, says his corn and bean crops have failed for the past two years. He survives off money sent home by his children, who work in the United States. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR
Genaro Rodarte Huizar, 76, says his corn and bean crops have failed for the past two years. He survives off money sent home by his children, who work in the United States.

Genaro Rodarte Huizar, 76, says his corn and bean crops have failed for the past two years. He survives off money sent home by his children, who work in the United States.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

"Right now, my problem is food and drinking water," Torres says. "Starting last year we've been sending water in trucks up to 40 miles over dirt roads to remote communities."

Torres says he currently only has two trucks, and the demand for trucked water is growing as more wells go dry. He hopes the federal assistance will include tanker trucks.

Farmers Move To The City

Arriving to his office recently are desperate campesinos, or farmers, who've abandoned their land and decided to move into the center of town.

"They arrive here ... in these extremely poor communities; the families have five, six, seven, eight kids," Torres says. "They come and they ask for help."

Torres says these families arrive, and they don't have a place to stay, they don't have food, and they don't have clothes for their children. He says Mexico needs to invest in digging wells and building reservoirs so these people can stay on their land.

In the hills overlooking the center of Valparaiso, workers were busy digging a trench for a new water pipe. Currently, residents get water either by buying it in town and hauling it home, or from the municipal water truck that comes every eight days.

The pipe will be connected to a new borehole more than 300 feet deep.

Jose Pasillas, who has spent much of his life in the United States, is helping to dig the trench for the pipes. Pasillas says this system will give people here drinking water, but they're still dependent on rain for their crops.

"Like right now, you can see these clouds out here, and people get excited from seeing them," Pasillas says. "And you can hear the thunder — away. But it's just hope. It's just hope that it rains — and that's it."

The Mexican government is also hoping for rain. Officials say new wells and water trucks can help in the short term, but if the rains fail for a third straight year, it could provoke a social crisis across much of the country.

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