If we were to believe the international press, Mexico has passed through its worst crises and is now on the road to recovery. No longer is it the pariah of the international financial community. The serious environmental crisis and the rest of the nation's problems are on the mend. The press joins the international financial community in celebrating the "new team" of pragmatic politicians--personable and technically competent, bent on overcoming the heritage of cynicism and corruption and to confront forthrightly the ills that beset Mexican society.
Pete Hamill, a journalist normally critical of the Mexican system, has joined this peculiar conspiracy to confound international investors and interested observers alike; celebrating the new team's skills in tackling Mexico City's monstrous environmental problems, he ends an article in Audubon magazine (January- February 1993) on an optimistic note, with a quote from the present mayor:
[Mexico City] will be a paradigm of how under adverse circumstances people can find a way to live together .... To do things fight. Not to lose what has been acquired in the past ....I plan to be living here in the year 2010. Probably my children will be living here, too.
In contrast, even the most ardent of the supporters of the Mexican model occasionally bemoan the environmental morass, which seems more intractable than the economic crisis: Matt Moffett's usually upbeat reports on the neoliberal restructuring and the apparent success of the nation's anti-poverty program change tone when it comes to the environment: a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal was titled: "In Mexico City, One Rarely Sees Anything as Lovely as a Tree" (March 5, 1993).
Mexico's environmental crisis is not limited to the problems of La Capital, as Jonathan Kandell's award-winning biography of the capital city is called. But almost one-quarter of all Mexicans live in the metropolitan area; much of the nation's personal wealth and productive apparatus is also concentrated there. The majestic snow-capped peaks of Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl, together with the other surrounding mountain ranges, cannot contain the devastation inflicted by the wholesale disregard for environmental imperatives in this mile-high cauldron of power and wealth, of ethnic and cultural diversity, which encompasses the many forms of horrifying marginality: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and human degradation. Through the length and breadth of the land, the Mexican people suffer the ravages of ill-considered development programs and rapacious developers. Even now, as the awareness of the nation's environmental crisis creeps into the public consciousness, new industrial and rural "improvement" programs continue to demonstrate a wholesale disregard for the natural environment, the resources that the country has inherited, and the people who have jealously guarded them for millennia.
Mexico's Environmental Crisis
The Mexico City metropolitan area has a population of about eighteen million. The Salinas administration is proud of having overcome the crises of 1976 and 1982. This success has its dark side; structural imbalances, social dislocations, and falling standards of living are only sustainable because of the massive inflow of foreign capital and the increasingly authoritarian exercise of power. Mexico's environmental crisis is a reflection of this more general crisis, and now the country's environmental disorders are transcending social classes.
Modernization has decimated urban labor markets and living standards. The real value of the minimum wage has declined more than 65 percent since 1976; it is now about $4 a day ($U.S.) in Mexico City and along the border, while in the interior it is 20 percent less. In fact, the minimum wage is no longer useful as a guideline for industrial employers, who pay about twice the base wage just to assure that their workers will survive. But most Mexican workers are not so fortunate. Only about 40 percent of the labor force earn more than twice the minimum wage and less than one-quarter of Mexico's families earn more than the government-defined poverty level.
Families also send women and children to search for work, frequently in marginal or even illegal conditions. Low wages and high risks to health and safety are common because of low productivity and the lack of protective equipment. Throughout the country, and even in some of the most "modern" plants, toxic fumes, poor planning, hazardous materials, and poisonous chemicals permanently injure workers and cause industrial accidents. Inadequate or non-existent disposal systems spew hazardous wastes into local waterways and underground aquifers and heap others into uncontrolled landfills.
As a result of the "modernization" of Mexico's industry and the rapid opening of its economy, 1.9 million jobs were lost during the first eight years of neoliberal reform. Far from ameliorating the economic crisis by restraining inflationary pressures, the imports have made matters worse by widening the imbalance in the foreign account and increasing underemployment. Many jobs were sacrificed as manufactured imports displaced goods produced in less efficient small and medium sized industries. Without productive alternatives, people are forced into marginal occupations, creating social and environmental problems. The government refuses to take responsibility and rejects those who ask whether it would not be more efficient for society to find ways for people to work and to do useful things instead of being forced onto the streets as beggars or as homeless. Who is going to pay to support people, or pay the costs of not supporting them?
People are forced to seek new forms of employment. Migration to the urban areas has increased while the search for work in the United States has mushroomed. The amnesty mandated by the U.S. Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, afforded more than two million people the opportunity to obtain legal working papers, and many others have joined the growing flood of undocumented workers who took up permanent residence or continue to migrate for short periods searching for jobs that will allow them to support their families in Mexico. Vast networks of itinerant merchants have sprung up in virtually every urban area, provoking a growing conflict with organized commerce and with the citizenry, which local governments have not been able to mediate successfully.
In rural Mexico, public policies deliberately, and with malice of forethought, are driving untold millions off the farms. For more than two decades, the government decided that it was more cost effective to import food than to allow "inefficient" peasants to continue to till their lands. Without credit and technical assistance they were unable to increase productivity, and without adequate prices many families were forced to reduce their plantings and even abandon their farms. As the real value of basic crops continued to fall, even families that remained in rural communities were compelled to send some of their members to search for work to supplement their incomes.
But the problem of rural survival is not solely related to production costs. It has also to do with people, with their relations to each other and to the society as a whole. The Mexican president recently imposed a dramatic program of privatization on the vast system of communities organized under the land reform system. The beneficiaries of land reform can now enter into legal contracts with commercial interests to finance the cultivation of the land; in return, the farmers will be allowed, under suitable conditions, to work on their own land. (This is very similar to contract agriculture or the putting out system.) The concentration of land ownership in Mexico's irrigation districts and most productive dry land agricultural regions in the hands of large agro-industrial groups will contribute to the impoverishment of Mexico's peasantry, just as it did in the United States, when Native Americans were allowed to sell lands granted them under treaty agreements.
There are now about one hundred thousand acres in Mexico sown by U.S. farmers with fruits and vegetables for export. This creates about seventy-five thousand migrant labor jobs. Many of these jobs have come at the expense of jobs for migrant workers in the United States, since the production has often replaced product from farms being closed in California in response to economic and ecological pressures. This process is leading to a number of problems. The farms use a great deal of water, some of which is being extracted from fossil aquifers on the Baja peninsula, which are not naturally recharged; pesticides poison workplaces and communities as they are sprayed from the ground or planes and leach into the aquifers; and inadequate transport wreaks its own havoc. Further, as grain production declines in traditional areas, serious social disorganization is occasioning massive emigration. Women enter the local wage labor forces, children join them in the workplaces, and in many places educational levels actually decline.
Mexico City's Environmental Crisis
Beginning in 1990, the Mexico City authorities implemented what was widely proclaimed as a very courageous program to confront the rising levels of airborne contamination. They first requested, and then ordered every automobile owner in the valley to abandon each vehicle for one working day a week. (Many claim that the record domestic automobile sales in 1991 and 1992 are partially explained by rich people's acquiring additional vehicles to circumvent the intent of this legislation.) The president was universally applauded for closing an obsolete fifty-year-old petroleum refinery. The Mayor asked the city's residents to adopt a tree. They were to plant them and then care for them; only about 60 percent of them died in the first six months, which is better than the normal record for reforestation around the world. (The success rate might be due to the water quality in Mexico City: it is very rich in nutrients!) In spite of these efforts and many others, air quality in the valley continues to deteriorate.
The effectiveness of any controls is constrained by available alternatives. Restricting the circulation of cars does not guarantee the poor public transportation. The Mexico City metro is a modern and relatively well managed transportation system; although it has design flaws, it is growing. Unfortunately, the system is overcrowded, and is used at more than 125 percent of its design capacity. The bus system has been modernized, after the debacle occasioned by letting out contracts for new buses to international bidding. The English winner sold Mexico diesel motors which were not fit for use in London because of unacceptable emissions; to correct this problem, Mexico had to retrofit the units with more appropriate motors, a very costly and lengthy process. The tram and electric bus system was burdened with motors which lasted less than one-half of their rated lives; these are now being reconstructed. Political delays and technical difficulties have caused repeated postponements of luxury bus service to cater to those wealthy who might abandon their cars and of construction of monorail routes. Although private jitney routes wend through the city to supplement the public services, collective transport is woefully inadequate.
The city's sewage treatment system can process only about 10 percent of the volume generated in the valley. Unfortunately, much more of the effluent goes through the system, so that none gets adequately processed. An additional 20 percent gets recycled for irrigation or reinjection into the valley's aquifers to equilibrate the delicate hydraulic balance, and to attempt to avoid further sinking of the city. The rest is piped out to nearby arid regions, where it irrigates fruits and vegetables which are then shipped back to the city. Although this public health menace is illegal, the regulations are difficult to enforce in the present policy environment.
There are virtually no solid waste processing centers. A toxic waste treatment plant in the Texcoco Lake area spews white foam over the surrounding areas; the lake is the target of an important rehabilitation program to rehydrate an area which was desiccated hundreds of years ago by the Spanish colonizers as part of their settlement program in the valley. Most solid garbage is trucked to vast open air landfills where tightly-organized teams of scavengers pour through the loads; these humble families, living inside the dumps, are part of a complex corporate organization controlled by wealthy local czars.
Mexico City uses one fifth of all the energy generated in the country to move water. And yet water in Mexico City is even cheaper than in the subsidized water systems of the United States. People pay more for their families' home water needs in the poorest provinces, than one university pays for its 15,000 students' needs.
The city's problems are not just those of the natural environment. It is very contaminated, although contrary to common belief, it is not the most contaminated city in the world; unfortunately, there are others that are even worse. Most of its people are very poor, but 20 percent is very rich, even by the standards of the wealthiest communities in the world; few urban communities in the United States, even in California, have the number of elite shopping malls which are springing up in various parts of the Mexico City Valley. These malls offer very exclusive merchandise, a great deal of which is imported, and cater to people who, before "apertura", might have done their shopping in Houston, San Antonio, or Los Angeles. The country's international integration takes on real meaning in these centers of conspicuous consumption.
People are being told that living conditions in Mexico City will improve over the next few years. Industrial production is going to be decentralized, contaminants reduced, transport improved. This will not really solve the metropolitan area's problems: the official program envisions a move of activity and people along the improved railroad axis between Mexico City and Queretaro, still within the central valley; they will occupy some more farmland, but these new lands use water from the same aquifers that supply the megalopolis. Growth will bring more consumption, with its wake of garbage, sewage, and gases. Decentralization is the key word in Mexico, but Mexico's government apparatus is not moving out and plans call for Mexico to become a global or at least a Latin American financial center.
Confronting Mexico City's environmental problems involves much more than reducing air- or water-borne contaminants and garbage disposal. The technical solutions are sometimes alluring, bordering on the surreal: a very creative engineer in Mexico, an opposition political leader, proposed that Mexico City construct 100 giant ventilators to stir up the air and end the thermal inversions which trap the contaminants at low levels around the valley; others propose drilling tunnels through the mountains to suck the muck into the neighboring valleys.
Problems in the Hinterland
While Mexico City's problems are serious, other areas are less well prepared to confront their environmental crises. In Monterrey and Guadalajara the problems are everywhere. The arid region around Monterrey generates a great deal of dust, compounded by the large cement factories in the metropolitan region, creating a serious problem of carcinogenic particulates. Shortages require vast water works to bring the liquid from long distances, impoverishing the basins from which the water is captured, similar to the problems created by the system constructed to serve Mexico City. Water consumption in Guadalajara threatens the viability of Mexico's largest natural lake, Chapala, although conservation measures are staving off the threat several more years.
The far-reaching nine-kilometer explosion of a sewage line in Guadalajara illustrates another widespread problem. Underground storage facilities and pipelines throughout the country are inadequately protected and receive virtually no preventive maintenance. This tragedy and many less spectacular incidents elsewhere are beginning to stimulate demands for greater corporate and public respect for established health, safety, and ecological norms. But a long history of inadequate construction techniques and the lack of an effective urban planning process instill fear throughout the society.
People in the cities along the border with the United States get it from both sides. It is hard to know which is the greatest danger: contaminated surface water and aquifers, illegal industrial discharges, dirty air, unsafe factories, or lack of sanitary infrastructure. Radioactive wastes also abound. Proposals for a nuclear dump in Texas and the discovery of stolen radioactive wastes in an open air dump on the Mexican side only compound the problem. The maquiladora industry, which is the region's economic lifeblood, is growing rapidly. During the past decade it grew about 13 percent annually and now employs about half a million workers. The Mexican government is very proud of its promotion efforts in this area and the enormous investment it made. But, these industries' unregulated growth created an environmental mess, offering low-wage jobs to a society in disarray: ramshackle housing and contaminated food and water take their toll on the population. The inadequate infrastructure cannot respond to the peoples needs: aggravating the problem of insufficient schools, parks, hospitals, and sanitary landfills, are the virtual absence of water treatment plants, sewage processing facilities, and toxic waste sites.
Ecological devastation is not limited to prosperous centers of industrial growth. There is not a single river in Mexico left uncontaminated. Soil erosion, contamination of the seas, damage to endangered species, disappearance of germ plasm, lead poisoning, death from asbestos leached from domestic water storage tanks and municipal distribution systems, deafness from environmental noise, disabilities from polio, tuberculosis, malaria; the list is horrendous and very long. In fact, it is only limited by our knowledge of illness and our ability to diagnose damage to people and our environment.
The country has lost more than half its tropical rain forests. The Mexican government would like to declare nonexistent its 8,000,000 indigenous people, many of whom have taken refuge in the depths of these forests. Unlike the trees, these people have resisted the concerted efforts to wipe them out over centuries. Even now, in spite of many institutions which attempt to "protect" them, their very existence is in question because of the systematic devaluing of their traditional productive activities.
The New Environmental Awareness
There is a new consciousness of environmental problems and a burgeoning environmental movement. In Mexico City, one day every month, people are asked to bike to work; some do. On Sundays, a short stretch of the Avenida de los Insurgentes is partly closed so that families can enjoy bike excursions. School children are taken to plant trees on bare mountain slopes. But, throughout the countryside, open air landfills and polluted waterways surround virtually every community, seemingly impotent to stem their growth or eliminate the stench and the eyesores which are significant loci of infection.
The poor suffer these outrages more than most. And the poor are the majority of the population, some 50,000,000 people out of a population of 83,000,000. Millions of jobs were lost as contamination has spread: jobs were destroyed in the industrial sector with the "modernization" process and the precipitous opening up of markets to imports, forcing thousands of small and medium sized firms to close.
High government officials insist that they too have a greater consciousness about environmental problems. The Office of the Presidency summarized this official awareness in a document widely circulated outside of Mexico:
We do not accept that our country's finding anew the road to economic growth should be at the cost of harming our rivers and waters, the air our children breathe or, more importantly, at the cost of losing the extraordinary biological diversity of which our nation is one of the principal depositaries. (Carlos Salinas de Gotari, in "Office of the President," Mexican Agenda, 13th edition, 1992, p. 2001)
This, in spite of their continuing penchant to implement policies forcing emigration from the countryside, spreading social disorganization, and further deteriorating working and living conditions. How could there possibly be any meaningful sensitivity to environmental problems when some of its root causes are so firmly embedded in official policy? The unholy balance between rural and urban society forces millions to crowd into the cities. The misguided definition of economic progress leads to unabated production of more contaminants. In fact, a leading indicator of progress continues to be the record output of automobiles by foreign-owned industry.
This new consciousness about the gravity of the environmental problem is an ever-present theme in the discourse of official Mexico in recent years. With great pomp and circumstance, the president was named as one of the men of the year in 1990 by environmentalists from the international business community after his decision to order the closing of an obsolete petroleum refinery in Mexico City. But the daily operations of government belie his commitment. Subsidies lead to a misuse and waste of scarce natural resources throughout society; even worse, in the interests of promoting the new export-oriented development model, the automobile industry and fruit and vegetable producers are encouraged to increase output with subsidies which promote high energy use and the excessive use of water (water subsidies alone are more than $1.5 billion). In effect, poor and middle-class Mexican tax payers are subsidizing the consumption of more affluent consumers in other parts of the world.
I do not think that the root of the problem is what we can see, or what we talk about. I think that it is much more profound. Some people say that Mexico's salvation is at hand because of the greater consciousness that now exists about the problem. Now people are willing to talk about it. Finally, the mayor is willing to admit that Mexico City is polluted.
The environmental problem in Mexico, however, is not simply a problem of the muck in the water, the floss in the air, or the lead in the kids' brains. It is much more serious: it is the lycra in the garments, the preservatives in the bread, the junk food which displaces fruits and vegetables, the processed but contaminated ham in the sandwiches instead of the beans in the tortillas. It is the lack of adequate public transportation for poor people. It is the policies which prevent peasants from sowing corn, and the abandonment of land which could produce huitlacoche (a highly regarded fungus which is an important part of traditional diets) and other by-products in the milpa, or traditional corn field. It is the production of self-basting double-breasted turkeys which displaces backyard chickens and turkeys. It is the importation of massive quantities of hog tripe and the introduction of grain-based, factory-like hog-raising systems which make hog production based on the processed urban and agricultural organic wastes un- competitive. It is the introduction of garbage disposal units to process organic wastes and channel them into our sewer systems instead of obliging people to prepare them for composting or other forms of recycling, which is the historical solution. It is the burning of automobile tires as a fuel for making bricks.
The environmental problem cannot be solved solely by looking at the detritus. In the United States, economic incentives are the magic instruments of the economic healers; in this light, Mexico's problem--and that of the rest of Third World--is that the rich are not willing to tax themselves to pay the bill and the poor cannot pay more taxes. But the problem is not simply the things which come out from the production stream. Rather, we must ask what are the ways in which the productive system is conceived; even, what is progress itself?. Where are we moving to? Should Mexico, in its large industrial areas, be producing automobiles? Should people be allowed to drive on city streets? Should people living in the rainforests be obliged to produce commercial crops which threaten the forests themselves, rather than a diversified mix of their traditional products? Mexico's problems are similar to those in the United States, but they take on a different dimension in the United States, because there is enough money either to hide them or to force people to behave in a somewhat more responsible way.
These questions and the dilemmas posed by the environmental problem are quite difficult. One example offers a taste of this predicament: in the process of international integration, the impending free-trade area, should Mexico defend its paper and pulp industry, and therefore maintain the jobs of 150,000 people, or should we give it up completely and import from Canada, Scandinavia or Asia? How should such a decision be made? Who should make it? If you decide in favor of international opening, many poor people will be out of work and millions of consumers will get cheaper products and the country will have more trees; a small group of international firms will benefit but smaller national firms will be sacrificed. But without a drastic change in forestry policies and logging practices, the problems of private enrichment and natural destruction threaten the wide areas of the country. How do you trade off the benefits of some against the costs imposed on others; who is to make these decisions, and on the basis of what criteria?
In the face of mounting evidence of the depth of the environmental crisis, civil society is forcing producers to attempt to appear more responsive. But, in the final analysis, the issue is whether "the people" have enough power to force business to pay for the necessary adjustments, and whether these same actors are willing to make the required sacrifices in their own lives. The Industrial Chambers of Commerce, for example, in response to the record levels of contamination in March 1992, announced that they were willing to relocate, but that they could not afford the costs. They demanded government grants. But the government does not magically pay for anything. Taxpayers must pay the bills, but the tax structure in Mexico, even more than in the United States, shifts this burden away from the owners of the country's businesses.
A Global Framework for the Environmental Crisis
The environmental crisis is very serious and profound. The problem is that we can no longer afford to continue to talk about the crisis as if it were simply a problem of dirty air or recycling. It is no longer sufficient to discuss the notion of responsible consumption. Can the rest of the world take steps already enacted elsewhere? Do we demand, as Germany now requires, that your refrigerator sales outlet take back the carton in which the machine was shipped, or that the automobile company receive your used car after the crash or once it is no longer useful? Is this a responsible way to discuss the environmental problem?
How can we talk about an environmental problem while it is impossible for billions of people to enjoy an acceptable nutritional standard of living? Around the world today, poor people are producing more than ever before. There is no doubt that agricultural productivity is up; but many are producing more for export, either to the wealthier areas in their own countries, or more frequently, to the wealthy consuming nations abroad. Their own standards of living are declining. What will happen, five years from now, when farm interests in the United States and Europe are no longer able to extract huge subsidies, which they presently receive, to produce bumper grain crops? Will grain prices rise three-fold in the next period, as happened to milk prices during the 1985-1990 period, when subsidies were withdrawn? Even as the prospect for rapid rises in grain prices becomes greater, food producers throughout the Third World are being forced from their farms, their communities are disintegrating; others are being transformed into export producers and their lands being sterilized with intensive monocropping farming techniques that leach the land of its vitality. Once this process is complete, will their governments, or those of the wealthy nations, continue to sell them inexpensive grains? To maintain lower food prices, taxes will have to rise, and the poor cannot afford that. Will there be the bread riots?
The origins of the present world environmental crisis can be found in the development process financed by the international community and in the lifestyles of the affluent. The transnational corporations, multinational banks, and assistance agencies, and local bourgeoisies, have created a series of strategies which are impoverishing billions for the benefit of a very few. However good you feel about recycling, you must first ask why is it that you have so much to recycle? Why are you permitted to consume so much? Should there not be some mechanism which limits consumption to some responsible level? How much oil, how much energy should people be permitted to use, as individuals, as members of a wealthy society?
What volume of unrenewable natural resources is necessary to assure the success of World Bank projects in poorer countries? Who will benefit from these projects? Why do the development pundits continue to say that the way to achieve the good life is to consume more energy and that those who do not consume as much energy, are underdeveloped? These admonitions are not personal attacks, they are observations about people in the developed countries collectively.
These hard questions explain why the environmental problem is fundamentally unresolvable in Mexico at this time. They are the kinds of questions which an authoritarian system, run by and for the wealthy, is unwilling and unable to confront. To the extent the United States is a democracy, there is some chance that the interests of a very small minority of people will not always prevail. But the fundamental questions of how environmental problems are generated is not yet a basic part of the democratic agenda in the United States. These considerations lead me to conclude that the global environmental problem is much more serious than the muck in Mexico City's air or the cholera in its waters.
We must question at a profound level the patterns of consumption and therefore the dimensions of development which advanced industrial capitalism is creating as the program for world survival. We are told that Mexico has been successful because it has grown at 4 percent by producing more than nine-hundred thousand vehicles. Yet even that required a subsidy from Mexico's poor people, who are worse off than they were fifteen years ago.
The problem of thinking about the global environmental problem is illustrated by the questions: "Why were more than half of Mexico's tropical rainforests cut down? Was it because the Mexicans wanted the valuable wood from the trees?" No. A tragic facet of this history is that when the precious mahogany fell, it was not even turned into beautiful pieces of furniture, but left to rot so that "the cattle could eat the forest." And now Mexicans do not even have the income to buy the meat.
The North American Free Trade Agreement
The North American Free Trade Agreement (between Canada, Mexico, and the United States) is now hailed as a magic solution to Mexico's long-term problems of growth and environmental cleanup. The free-trade area is part of a larger program to transform the Third World into a service club for the rich. As part of this effort, the maquiladora industry will expand to create new jobs, so that Mexico can be part of this brave new world. Unfortunately, because of the large number of jobs lost in small and medium-sized industries and in food production, as a result of the opening of the Mexican economy, NAFTA does not appear to offer any serious prospect for an improvement in labor-market conditions. We see, instead, that free trade is really about profits for corporations rather than the quality of life for people. These two, historically, have not gone hand in hand.
In the area of environmental analysis NAFTA has made some important contributions. Even as this article is being finished, the three nations are negotiating "side" agreements to define acceptable protective safeguards in reference to the environment and on worker health and safety issues. The three years of negotiating the treaty and the preparation for the side agreements have offered an unusual opportunity for environmental and trade-union groups from all three countries to begin to formulate a constructive strategy for collaboration and action. This has forced all three governments and their allies in all sectors of the economy to move further in proposing measures to correct serious existing problems and to avoid a further deterioration of the environment.
Unfortunately, even if the negotiators demonstrated the best will in the world, NAFTA promises to complicate the problem of protecting the environment. With governments at all levels in the three countries suffering from austerity budgets and a transfer of economic control to the private sector, it appears that the vast resources are lacking for technologies and infrastructures to reverse existing environmental problems and avoid the creation of new problems. When this is compounded by the likely concentration of activities in a few "privileged" regions, and the heavy transportation flows which will spread their pollutants over the land, NAFTA does not seem to be able to deliver on the promises of a cleaner and healthier environment. Added to these problems are the inability of the Mexican system to deliver such basic needs as adequate low-cost housing and urban infrastructure so the new employees and their families can live in socially acceptable conditions.
What is the Solution?
When studying the relationship between development and the environment in Mexico, we must identify some problems for which we can find solutions. I think that we must start by finding solutions that redress the balance between rural and urban areas. In one way or another, this involves repopulating the rural world and making it more hospitable for those who are still there. I do not see any solution for urban survival within the kind of model which actually exists in Mexico and in most other countries, which encourages further abandonment of rural areas and production for basic needs.
When I talk about rural areas, I am talking about rescuing the ability of people who have lived there for centuries, so that they can continue their thankless task of saving the world from humanity. One of the things that we learn, as we work in Mexico, is that the people who live there--those so-called inefficient farmers--developed extraordinarily complex technologies to produce the basic goods that humanity needs and also produce the services which the earth needs in order to resist humanity. It is extraordinary to learn about the vast variety of products that are produced in a traditional Mexican corn field. There are more than fifty useful products which people use in their daily existence harvested from the milpa. In a modern corn field, only one product is produced: corn to be consumed by animals, and incidentally by Mexicans.
What can we do in the face of the onslaught against the rural communities? What responses can we offer to Mexican farmers in order to help them make sense out of producing corn, because in the current world market you cannot make money producing corn in a traditional system? The best answer, it seems to me, is to find ways to help them diversify their production so that their traditional means of food production become an auxiliary activity; to find some other type of production or paid employment that offers greater income, because food production alone will not allow them to liver That is the extraordinary sadness of the existing organization of the world system:for many traditional food producers, food production is not viable, is not a solution for their own survival.
We work with individual communities and regional groups to identify small projects which would help them to interact with the resources they have in as creative and productive a way as possible. The examples cited above are only that; examples of approaches may encourage others to look for different projects with the same goal, to diversify the productive base so that rural communities can continue to exist, even to thrive, and to continue to produce food, as part of a broader strategy for rural development. This strategy draws part of its inspiration from the need to protect the rich heritage of natural diversity which is so important in Mexico, but also to encourage the preservation of the extraordinary reserve of cultural diversity which has managed to survive in spite of the systematic attack to which it has been subjected during the past centuries.
These projects offer a ray of optimism in the midst of a bleak picture. They offer a little light, but they cannot change the underlying dynamic. The basic problem is much more serious and cannot be faced with such small-scale responses. It is the philosophical problem, the basic strategic problem of determining how to deal with our relationship with the world we live in. It all sounds quite simple, but as I teach and argue with people on the problems of the environment and natural resource use, the same fundamental dilemmas and conflicts arise again and again. What promotes economic growth and who is going to pay for it? What groups are going to benefit? In the ultimate analysis, it is almost always nature that pays the highest tax, and the poor who must endure the consequences.
David Barkin is Professor of Economics, in the Departamento de Produccion, Economica, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Unidad Xochimilco, Mexico City.…