Monday, August 16, 2010

Mexico Diaries, Day 12: Tequila!

At the beginning of my trip to Mexico, a few members of our group visited the town of Tequila. Oh yes, it's a real place. I had considered bringing home a bottle of tequila as a gift for my boyfriend, and Ann (the organizer of our trip) advised me that organic tequila was available at the airport. Organic tequila? Wow! More on tequila below...

Since Guadalajara is located a mere 40 miles from the town of Tequila, I feel that any discussion of agriculture in the state of Jalisco must include tequila. In fact, by Mexican law, only Jalisco and a certain areas of few other states (Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas) are even allowed to grow agave for tequila.

Long before Europeans "discovered" America, the Aztecs made an alcoholic beverage from the blue agave plant. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and ran out of their own booze, they distilled blue agave as well. However, tequila didn't hit the big time until centuries later when a few men you might have heard of - Jose Cuervo and Don Cenobio Sauza - came along. Cuervo was the first to make tequila in 1795, and Sauza (municipal president of Tequila) first exported it to the U.S.

To make tequila, first the leaves of the blue agave plant are cut away, leaving a center that looks an awful lot like an oversized pineapple. It's this part of the plant that is incredibly sweet. The juice is extracted from it and fermented. Once fermented, it is distilled twice to become tequila. Then, it is aged. There are various categories of aging, but the one I was advised to buy is "añejo," which means the tequila spent between one and three years aging in oak barrels. And skip on the gold colored tequilas, unless you like food coloring (or caramel color).

In the late 1990's, disease and weather led to a shortage of blue agave. According to one source, the price growers received for blue agave increased more than tenfold between 1999 and 2000. This led to a frenzy of planting, followed by a drop in the price as the agave matured and oversaturated the market. Some farmers chose to abandon their agave instead of harvesting it because the low price made it not worth the effort. Some predict another agave shortage, since ethanol has made corn suddenly more profitable for Mexican farmers, leading them to plant more corn and less agave.

While I was in Jalisco, I saw an awful lot of blue agave growing, destined for tequila. My friends who visited tequila were told that today there are very few Mexican-owned distilleries. Many are owned by multinational corporations. No surprise there. However, there are absolutely zillions of brands of tequila. For example, a tequileria in San Diego, CA has 600 different tequilas on the menu.

So how about that organic tequila? When I first heard about it, it took me by surprise. Given the rather unregulated state of pesticides in Mexico, I suppose buying organic tequila is a really, really good idea. In the end, particularly when I realized it cost about $30-$40 a bottle, I decided against it. And, as it turns out, maybe they aren't so organic. Baluarte advertises itself as "natural" (a word that means NOTHING) and says that no chemicals are used in processing the tequila. That's nice but it doesn't make it organic. The Herradura website says nothing about the Hacienda del Cristero or Herradura Blanco 46 tequilas being organic. There is one organic tequila out there - 4 Copas. Moral of the story: Ask for 4 Copas and don't rely on the clerks in the tequila store at the Guadajalara airport to help you find organic tequila.

Baluarte tequila, which markets itself as "natural"

Herradura tequilas - not organic

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mexico Diaries, Day 11: Pesticides

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. On the 11th day, we drove back to Guadalajara to spend our last day there. At breakfast, we discussed heading to one of the many agrochemical stores in Cuquio to check out the pesticides on our way out of town.

Should we go check out the pesticides? I was at breakfast, across the table from Ann, when one of the members of our group suggested it. A few folks wanted to go see what was in those stores we kept passing, day after day. Which pesticides were there? Were they ones that are illegal or restricted in the U.S.? Ann said she didn't mind making the stop, but she wasn't going in the store. Then she told us why.

When she was researching her book, The Farmworkers' Journey, she took inventories of which pesticides were stocked in Cuquio's various agrochemical stores. Every single time she did so, she and any research assistant she was with got sick. The bottles in the stores were closed, but the fumes made her sick all the same. Here's an excerpt from her book:

Many agrochemical stores are poorly ventilated. I found that spending time in them while taking inventories, even among unopened containers, produced physical symptoms ranging from nausea to trembling. When my research assistant and I left Dow Agrosciences' Veterinaria Partido in Tecalitlan, Jalisco, we were both shaking, felt naseous, and had bad headaches. The young woman tending the store informed us that her brother inadvertently dropped some 2,4-D on his hand and subsequently fainted. He was taken to a hospital and treated for agrochemical poisoning. The day after taking the agrochemical inventory at Veterinaria Partido, I became very ill and required medical treatment. - p. 227

So, did we want to go check out the pesticides? I decided my answer was no. I already suffer from migraines, a neurological problem, and I need no more headaches or other neurological (or other) symptoms. I'm willing to do an awful lot for the sake of investigative journalism, but putting my long term health on the line is not one of them. (I'm occasionally willing to go see a movie or go to a presentation with a Powerpoint, knowing that will give me a migraine for the next several days. Pesticides, on the other hand, can result in chronic effects that last much longer than the immediate symptoms one experiences. Headaches can be caused for neurological reasons, and trembling is typically a neurological symptom as well. That implies that these chemicals affect the brain - certainly not something worth risking. Ann also lists various cancers in her book that farmworkers exposed to pesticides suffer from at higher rates than the rest of the Latino population.)

Although we didn't hit up the pesticide retailer, we saw plenty, and I read more in Ann's book. Here's an excerpt about pesticide use in a society with poor education and literacy from my Alternet article:

Campesinos say they had few problems with pests prior to the adoption of agrochemicals. Today, many talk of of plagas, pest infestations, affecting their crops. In this environment of minimal education and lax regulation, the pesticides sold to defeat the pests present a severe human health and safety hazard. Ann Lopez reports that pesticides that are banned or designated as Restricted Use Pesticides in the United States are sold freely in Mexico. Paraquat, an herbicide so toxic that one teaspoonful can be fatal, is among the most widely used agrochemicals in this part of Mexico. The carcinogenic herbicide 2,4-D is also sold in Mexico, often in combination with 2,4,5-T. Together, a 50:50 mixture of the two chemicals constitutes Agent Orange.

The chemicals are so toxic a woman told Lopez her daughter became sterile just by working in an agrochemical retail shop among the fumes from closed bottles of chemicals. Yet, campesinos often apply the chemicals with backpacks and handheld pumps, wearing sandals and no protective clothing whatsoever. Some believe myths like "agrochemicals are only poisonous if the farmer is smoking cigarettes or drinking while applying them" or "insecticides are harmful but herbicides are safe." Warning labels on the bottles are of limited help as some people are in this part of Mexico are illiterate. The local doctor in Cuquio says that two of every 10 patients who visit him during the rainy season months of June through October each year are poisoned by agrochemicals. Three or four die each year.

On some of Ann's trips, she's arrived to find the town buzzing about someone who died from pesticide poisoning. Thankfully, this trip was not one of those occasions. We heard an awful lot about paraquat and Roundup use from the farmers we visited with. On one occasion, we visited a rich man's land and looked at his various pesticides and animal drugs. Among them was a cattle drug I wasn't able to identify, a fertilizer, and Ridomil, a fungicide. On another occasion, a woman told us her teenage sons applied pesticides without any protective clothing and then burned the containers. Occasionally, the sons would leave the containers around the yard and her younger children would find them and play with them. We found one container in the yard, unlabeled, that still had a liquid in it.

Needless to say, as harmful as pesticides can be in a first-world country with enforced regulations and a literate society, they are many times more directly harmful to human health in a place where those using them aren't educated and sometimes aren't even literate.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mexico Diaries: Day 10, Part 2 - Microlending

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. This diary is about our talk with a local microlending cooperative.

If reading about the people I've visited inspires you to help, you can donate to the Center for Farmworker Families. Every penny given goes directly to these families for clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and more.

Microlending, if you aren't familiar with it, is an amazing way to lift people out of poverty. Normally, I am a strong supporter of microlending. I was blown away by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus' book Banker to the Poor which details his founding of the Grameen Bank, a microlending network in Bangladesh. If you go to his website, you can read an excerpt from the book about his first microloan.

Yunus met a 21-year-old woman named Sufiya who was making a bamboo stool. She bought the bamboo for five taka, about $.22. To get the five taka, she borrowed it from middlemen. At the end of each day, she sold her bamboo stools back to them for five taka and fifty poysha, giving her a profit of fifty poysha, or two cents. Another option she had - a worse option - was to borrow from a moneylender to buy her bamboo. The moneylender charged 10 percent per week or more.

Yunus followed up by finding out how many others in that town were in Sufiya's situation. He found 42 people borrowing a total of 856 taka - less than $27. He says in his book, "My God, my God. All this misery in all these families all for of the lack of twenty-seven dollars!" Instantly, he handed out the loans amounting to $27, telling the people to repay him whenever they could, with no interest. He says:

Usually when my head touches the pillow, I fall asleep within seconds, but that night sleep would not come. I lay in bed feeling ashamed that I was part of a society that could not provide twenty-seven dollars to forty-two skilled persons to make a living for themselves. It struck me that what I had done was drastically insufficient. If others needed capital, they could hardly chase down the head of an economics department. My response had been ad hoc and emotional. Now I needed to create an institutional answer that these people could rely on. What was required was an institution that would lend to those who had nothing. I decided to approach the local bank manager and request that his bank lend money to the poor. It seemed so simple, so straightforward. I fell asleep.

And, thus, microlending was born. Yunus founded the now-famous Grameen bank, making loans to people who would not even be able to read the forms one must fill out to get a loan from a bank, let alone qualify for those loans.

With the story of Muhammad Yunus in mind, I was ecstatic when Ann announced we would be meeting with a local microlending collective. And yet, when we met them, I was almost immediately disappointed.

Most of Cuquio's microloans are for agricultural purposes. Some are for cattle, most are for corn. A small percent who don't take out microloans for agriculture typically start small businesses. We visited one such small business, a tiny store selling painted ceramics. I believe the store belonged to one of the women we met with, a woman who told us that if it weren't for the microlending cooperative, she would not have been able to send her son to college. He is now in Guadalajara studying to become a lawyer.

Most of our conversation was about the nuts and bolts of the lending program. Where the collateral comes from, how a loan is restructured if someone cannot pay it back due to a bad harvest, etc. Much less was devoted to inspirational success stories of Mexicans starting thriving businesses, lifting themselves out of poverty via microloans.

What I did gather is this. Typically, when a small farmer takes out a microloan for agriculture, he or she (a significant percentage of loan recipients are women, which is especially wonderful given that women's lib has not reached rural Mexico yet) uses the money to purchase hybrid or genetically engineered seeds and the requisite agrochemicals to go with them. We didn't cover the specifics but I'd guess some might rent tractors as well.

One of the microlending representatives who met with us echoed what Juan Alba told us before, that yields for maiz criollo are low because the cornstalks grow tall and the wind knocks them over. He assured us that so-called improved seeds and agrochemicals were the best way to secure an increased yield. Then, I assume, a farmer would set aside what he or she needs to feed his or her family for the year and sell the rest at low prices (thank you, NAFTA!) to cover the cost of the loan.

If your crop fails and you cannot pay back the loan, you would restructure your loan, essentially taking out an even larger loan to pay back for the next year. (The example they gave is if you took out $2000 last year and your crop failed, you would take out an additional $1000 for next year, and now you will owe the interest on the $2000 for both years, interest on $1000 for this year, and the principle for all $3000 after next year's harvest.)

Here's the problem with this. First of all, consider that Juan Alba has found that maiz criollo, compost, and a small amount of chemical fertilizer can produce yields of seven to ten metric tons per hectare (up from a mere 2 tons/hectare using maiz criollo and no compost or fertilizer). This is competitive with anything one can produce using hybrid seeds. Planting trees and windbreaks and adding lime to raise the soil pH might help increase the yield further. Furthermore, if, after using Juan's methods, you cannot afford more compost or other inputs, your soil organisms are still alive and healthy, and you won't take suffer losses for no longer purchasing soil inputs. More likely, your soil will be healthier than it was before, more able to absorb water than it was before, and thus better adapted to help your crops survive droughts and floods.

On the other hand, the industrial inputs peddled by multinational agribusiness corporations are the equivalent of a drug that addicts your land. Once you switch to their seeds and the chemicals required to go with those seeds, you kill your soil. Next year, you must find a way to afford those chemicals once again because you'll suffer a greatly reduced output if you do not. For the subsistence farmers we met, that would mean starvation.

These industrial methods lead to the environmental problems we observed in Jalisco - namely heavy erosion and pesticide contamination. It's not just the frogs that die from the pesticides in Jalisco, because the poorly educated campesinos suffer from them too. Deaths are reported each year, and many don't die but suffer in other ways. We met one woman whose daughter became sterile from the fumes she inhaled while working in an agrochemical retail store.

At some point, this will come to a head. As land becomes more and more degraded, it requires more and more chemicals to keep producing corn. With the price of corn decided by the global "free" market, in which Mexican campesinos compete with Iowan farmers who are subsidized by the U.S. government, corn will always be cheap. When the cost of the chemicals outweighs the price of the harvested corn, even the best microloan won't save you. In India, farmers sometimes deal with this by drinking pesticides to commit suicide. When I inquired, I was told that suicide wasn't a problem in Jalisco. Probably because farmers know they have the option of going to the United States instead.

I was sad to find out that the microlending program in Jalisco wasn't going to be the salvation that it was in Bangladesh, at least not for those who use it to buy Green Revolution technologies. I think this shows that sometimes microlending needs an accompanying education program to make it work. There are successful agroecology training programs helping subsistence farmers all over the world, but not in this little corner of Jalisco. At least, not yet.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mexico Diaries: Day 9 - "Sometimes We Eat, Sometimes We Don't"

This diary series covers my trip to the Mexican state of Jalisco to study the effects of NAFTA and the Green Revolution on subsistence farmers in rural areas. The trip began with a few days in Guadalajara, the largest city in the state. Then we headed to the rural town of Cuquio, about an hour and a half away, for the remainder of the trip. On the 9th day, we had a painful reality check when we found out the family we were visiting was desperately poor and hungry.

If reading about the people I've visited inspires you to help, you can donate to the Center for Farmworker Families. Every penny given goes directly to these families for clothes, shoes, food, school supplies, and more.

Day 9 began as usual. An amazing breakfast courtesy of Dona Ines, our beloved cook, some pinata stuffing, and purchasing another cake and watermelon for the village we would visit in the afternoon. At 1p.m. the cops showed up with their truck, we piled into the back, and off we went.

All ready for our party

After a short drive, the truck came to a stop in front of a familiar house. I recognized Raquel, the oldest daughter of Lupe (host of our second rancho visit), as she came out to greet us. What good luck! Were the cops taking us by here for a quick visit? As everyone got out of the truck, bringing the fruit, pinata, and cakes with them, I slowly realized: THIS was our stop for today. It wasn't a coincidence that there was a big crowd of kids in the yard. Raquel lived in the next rancho over from her mother, and she was hosting the party.

The tiny house where Raquel lives with her boyfriend and three kids

A view of the yard

Quickly, we got started with the usual round of "mucho gustos" and introductions. The kids did their pinata, which was from a different store in Cuquio than the previous three, and nearly indestructible. Then cake, watermelon, fruit, toys, clothes, shoes, etc, etc. One of the moms gratefully told us that her child never had any toys before now.

Our indestructible pinata

As we handed out the toys, I wondered about the cultural appropriateness of some of them. Kids often get toys that are pretend versions of grown-up things. For example, last year I was a little surprised to see my boyfriend's three year old sporting a toy cell phone. However, cell phones are a reality in the worlds of American kids growing up today. Would the Mexican kids relate at all to the pretend doll-sized hairdryers?

Toys for the kids

Toys for the kids

When it started drizzling, I ducked inside of Raquel's tiny house. She had electricity, and I noticed a small TV on the bed. Besides the bed and a small table with chairs, the home was nearly empty. I found out later the family had no bathroom facilities whatsoever.

As usual, I began scoping out the corn. I tried asking Raquel's boyfriend, who I will call Sergio, whether he had planted hybrid or transgenic corn or if he used maiz criollo. I'll be the first to admit that my Spanish isn't great, but what I got from that exchange was that Sergio planted hybrid, perhaps genetically engineered, corn with fertilizer and Roundup.

A little bit later, as the party was winding down, I heard Ann say that Sergio had planted maiz criollo. "He told me he planted hybrid!" I said. Ann checked with Sergio. All of a sudden, we got a totally different story. Sergio had no land at all. The land all around the house belonged to other landowners and it was their corn, not his. His house belonged to someone else, but they let him live in it rent-free (I think). He looked for work and worked whenever he could, but there was very little work to be had. He tried to go to the U.S. once but was unsuccessful at crossing the border. He and Raquel also checked the fields for any remaining food after the harvests each year. Other than that, they had no source of income and no way to produce food, save for a single orange tree in their yard.

For a day that began in a festive mood, it certainly didn't feel like a celebration now. Sergio wanted us to visit his mom's house, about a mile away. As we cleaned up after the party and gathered our group together, a Coca-Cola truck passed by. At last, we got everyone together and began our muddy walk in the rain.

Beautiful scenery and a Coca-Cola truck

At last, we arrived to a rather nice house (relatively speaking) with an outdoor hearth and warm, glowing embers remaining from a recent fire. Somehow, they found enough chairs to accommodate most of us, and then Ann gave Sergio's mom, who I will call Eva, some clothes: a pair of slippers, a pair of shoes, a nightgown, a few tank tops, capri pants, sweat pants, a shirt, socks, and underwear.

After remaining rather quiet all afternoon, Eva came to life. She excitedly thanked Ann in Spanish, and I heard her use the verb "to dream." I asked Ann what she said. Ann told me she said that when she was little, she would dream of picking out her clothes, and then remembered that she didn't have any. She said this was a dream come true.

We began asking questions about the house, and it was soon established that the Eva moved there after marrying Sergio's dad, and it was Sergio's father who really knew the history of the house. We asked him to tell us more about it and about his life.

Sergio's parents' house

A view from inside the gate

Sergio's parents' yard

Sergio's parents corn growing together with beans and squash

Sergio's dad's parents (Sergio's grandparents) were born in the house, which is over 70 years old. One part was an addition added to the house about 50 years ago. They got electricity in the house about 20 years ago and that made life easier. Sergio's dad said he lives as a campesino planting maiz criollo with squash and beans. He doesn't grow enough corn to sell any, only enough to eat. Last year, they didn't even grow enough to eat.

He and his wife have 9 children, and the youngest is in junior high. Three of the children still live at home. Three of the other children (who are married/cohabitating but live in the area) were with us during our visit, including Sergio. One son has been in the U.S. for 12 years and he sends back money.

His wife, Eva, has a heart condition and she occasionally has to go into Guadalajara for treatment. Both he and his wife receive free health care from the government, and it seems that they can get most kinds of primary care in Cuquio. And, fortunately, Eva is enrolled in the Oportunidades program (a welfare program) which provides her with 770 pesos every other month.

His land, including the area occupied by the house, is a half a hectare (1.23 acres). He used to have more, but he sold one hectare (2.47 acres) about 10 years ago because he was in debt. When he had more land, things were a little better. (If you recall the ejido system I described in a previous diary, you'll note that it's a change in the last 20 years that allows Mexicans to sell ejido land. Had his father not sold the majority of his land, Sergio might not be in such rough shape.)

Sergio's dad told us he uses maiz criollo with urea fertilizer but no pesticides or herbicides. The hybrid seeds are too expensive and he said he has no money to buy them. He told us that the maiz criollo grows very tall and the wind blows down all of his plants. He said it about three times, actually, so it was clearly quite a sticking point for him. He and his wife have no livestock (they used to have chickens but they all died) and they have one mango tree that doesn't produce mangoes. They quite literally subsist on corn tortillas and beans only. Upon hearing that, Ann made arrangements to give them a box of vegetables the next day.

At this point, we began walking back to Raquel's house. I don't know how it happened, but I ended up holding hands with one of Raquel's young children (age 3, I think) and walking and talking with Raquel. She's 23 with three kids ages 2-6, two from a previous boyfriend and one from Sergio. I don't know how it came up, but while we walked she said to me, "Sometimes we eat, and sometimes we don't." Oh god. How awful. This family is in really bad shape.

"Does that scare you, for your children?" I asked. "Yes," she replied, "Especially for my oldest because she has asthma and respiratory problems and we cannot afford the medicine." I told her we should ask Ann for help and I gave her all of the money I had on me, which was unfortunately just 20 pesos.

Ann sprung into action when Raquel told her about her daughter's asthma. The next day, Ann arranged for Raquel to take the bus into Cuquio with her daughter to see the doctor. I found out later that several others gave some money, and Raquel ended up with about 600 pesos ($60) between us. Ann also followed up with the municipal government about Raquel's lack of bathroom facilities, and the government immediately offered to bring her a composting toilet.

As we said our goodbyes, Raquel gave me a big hug. I wish we could do more for her. We left her family with clothes, shoes, school supplies, toothbrushes, toys, a composting toilet, a bit of food, asthma medication, and enough money to last a little while. But Ann only visits Mexico twice a year and the money will run out long before Ann's next trip. I wouldn't be surprised if Sergio makes another attempt to immigrate to the U.S., leaving Raquel alone with three young children.

After we said our goodbyes, we began walking up the road to meet the police so they could drive us home. Almost immediately, we walked past a woman weeding her garden with a hoe. Ann recognized her and gleefully shouted her name. Afterwards, Ann told us her story. This woman has a disabled husband, and two daughters with a genetic disorder. The disorder begins to disable them at a certain age and unless they can get a certain medicine, they end up in a wheelchair. The oldest daughter is in a wheelchair already, and the younger daughter walks with a cane. This, of course, leaves only the mother to work in the garden, growing the family's food.

Ann talking to the woman who has disabled daughters

We continued walking, and passed a billboard for DuPont Pioneer seeds.

Billboard for Pioneer (DuPont) seeds