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Mexican farmland eroding at alarming rates

By Rod Santa Ana III Texas A&M University Extension

WESLACO, TX -- Mexico has lost millions of acres of valuable farmland to drought and erosion, and unless the government acts soon and farmers change their way of thinking, many millions more will soon be gone.

That's the assessment of Guillermo Perez, a retired marketing manager with John Deere International, who spoke recently at the 7th Annual Conservation Tillage Conference in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

"Farmers in Mexico make an average of 10, but as many as 23 passes over their fields in the traditional but mistaken belief that more passes mean increased crop yields. What they are doing is disrupting the top soil, compacting the land and killing off beneficial insects and nutrients," said Perez.

"I've been showing slides at this conference of sand in furrows and of fence posts nearly covered in sand right here in Rio Bravo (on the U.S.-Mexican border)," he said. "It's very sad to see once fruitful, irrigated farmland completely degraded to worthless fields of sand. Dryland farms in Zacatecas (central Mexico) are in very bad shape. Farmers are left with no means of supporting their families. That's why many are leaving behind their farms and families in Mexico to come to the United States to work."

Perez lays part of the blame on the overly ambitious Mexican administrations of the 1970s. Perez said then-President Echeverria once proclaimed that only roads in Mexico would not be planted in crops.

"They wiped out all the weeds, trees and shrubs that were protecting the land from wind," said Perez. "Sand from the coast is now blowing toward Tamaulipas. Red soil blowing in the wind sometimes falls with rain in Monterrey and even here in the Valley. That soil is coming from Zacatecas and Durango, which are both in very sad shape."

Perez said that six years ago John Deere International began forming farmers clubs in 10 areas of Mexico to encourage the practice of conservation tillage whereby fewer passes by machinery are made over fields and crop residue s are left on the surface to reduce erosion and help the soil retain moisture and nutrients.

"But we were doing it by ourselves and our budget could only go so far," Perez said. "Dr. Jim Smart and Dr. John Bradley of USDA here in Weslaco helped tremendously with equipment and information, but the requests for help far exceeded our ability to do the job right."

Perez said there is renewed hope for assistance from the Mexican government after finally meeting recently with top officials of the Fox administration.

"We've got to act fast," he said. "Right now, of the 21 million hectares of available farmland in Mexico, 1.6 million hectares are totally eroded, lost. It will be very difficult to rescue them. And about 2.5 million hectares are H.E.L., or highly erodable land, which has to be put into some type of conservation tillage before this also is lost.

Could the same problems develop in South Texas?

"They could. It's the obligation of all of us to leave for future generations the land in a better condition, not worse, than we found it," Perez said.

04/30/2001 12:03 p.m.CDT

-- Martin Thompson (, May 01, 2001

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