Facing Climate Change, Mexican Farmers Shed Old Methods, Adapt to Altered Rain Cycles


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In central Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, most people make a living as farmers. But erratic weather last year, with long dry periods interspersed with torriential rain, caused crops to come up dry. This farm, which grows corn, belongs to Alonso Ruíz, 56, and his brother. Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Drier weather is causing harvests to suffer in southern Mexico. Facing crop diseases and uncertainty about when to plant, growers are working together to adopt new techniques.

REGIÓN V ALTOS TSOTSIL TSELTAL, MEXICO ─ José Luis Sánchez’s dark eyes focus on the small, deformed ear of corn he holds in his hands. He twirls it between his fingers.

This ear of corn is representative of climate change’s harmful effects on his livelihood, he says.

“Last year was very difficult,” Sánchez, 29, says. “It rained a little bit in May. From there, all of June and July was dry. In August, it rained again a little bit more, but not enough for the corn to load up, so it can grow. Look how this corn stayed so tiny.”

Sánchez is a farmer who lives with his family in a farming community in Región V Altos Tsotsil Tseltal, an area commonly known as Los Altos de Chiapas, or the Chiapas Highlands, in central Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. The region comprises 17 municipalities.

Sánchez is among the majority of the region’s population who make a living in agriculture, according to a report published in 2014 by the Chiapas state government. Sánchez grows corn, as well as beans and some vegetables, on the hectare and a half (3.7 acres) of land he owns.

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Corn farmer Alonso Ruíz says he has always been able to produce enough corn to both sell and feed his family. But this year, for the first time ever, he says he’ll have to buy corn for his family.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

“We are farmers. We live off of what we produce from Mother Earth,” Sánchez says. “That’s what we call the earth because she feeds us, she gives us the corn and beans we eat at home and that we also sell in order to have some money.”

Sánchez says the rain cycles his people have depended on are now erratic and unreliable.

“My father and my grandfather taught me how to plant. With them I learned that all of the work of preparing the land would begin at the end of February, March and April,” Sánchez says. “Because in May, when the rains begin, we would need to go plant so that the corn could grow.”

In my family, we are worried because not only will we not have corn to sell, but we also will not have corn to make our food. Everyday we eat tortillas made from corn and pozol, and now we won’t have corn for that.

In 2015, farmers say, Chiapas experienced an irregular rain cycle, with long periods of drought and short periods of torrential downpours, which affected those who rely on the seasons for their agricultural production. Farmers there say they’re still grappling with uncertainty. Instead of managing their crops in the same ways they always have, they’re adapting their farming techniques to match the changes.

Precipitation maps from the Comisión Nacional del Agua, Mexico’s water commission, show the region was drier in 2015 than it was in 2014.

“With the lack of rain, my harvest was very poor, a lot of the corn didn’t come up,” Sánchez says. “I more or less lost 40 to 50 percent of my harvest.”

For corn farmer Manuel Pérez, 39, last year’s lack of rainwater means a meager harvest.

“I planted in May when the first rains fell,” Pérez says. “From there, it stopped. So, the little plants that were already coming, some dried out; they couldn’t handle the heat. Besides not raining like before, now the sun burns more than before.”

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The cornfields in the Chiapas Highlands in Mexico’s southernmost state are dry, and some farmers say they will have to, for the first time, buy corn for their families.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

The variation in the rains, as well as the changes in temperature in the region, are part of the process experienced throughout the world, says Gontran Villalobos, a geographer and regional adviser at the United Nations Development Programme.

“There are meteorological phenomena like El Niño, La Niña, or climate change that jeopardizes producers who base their productive processes and harvest on cycles determined by nature, like seasons or periods of rain,” Villalobos says. “A radicalization in temperature, or in rain cycles, exists. Lots of cold, lots of heat, drought or lots of rain, and this is a tendency in the whole world.”

Sánchez says the region is hotter now at certain hours, which has affected his work schedule.

“We have to go to work in the field earlier; the sun burns much more than before,” Sánchez says. “Now even [our] heads hurt when we work. It’s better we wait and stop working until the heat drops, or until another day, which makes it so we also yield less.”

The rains aren’t constant like in the past, but rather there are large periods of drought combined with intense periods of rain, which makes it so the farmer no longer knows when to plant, or when to harvest or how to tackle new diseases or plagues.

Antonino García García, an agronomist and researcher at the Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, a university in the state of Mexico, says the challenges that farmers in Los Altos de Chiapas face are profound, since the majority of them still depend on the seasons.

“The rains aren’t constant like in the past, but rather there are large periods of drought combined with intense periods of rain, which makes it so the farmer no longer knows when to plant, or when to harvest or how to tackle new diseases or plagues,” García García says.

In corn farmer Alonso Ruíz’s experience, the heat, change in the rain and excessive cold or heat during the same day make the earth produce less; existing plagues become more resistant, or new ones appear.

“By not having rain, the corn becomes weak, it’s small and catches any disease,” Ruíz, 56, says.

This means less income for farmers.

“In my family, we are worried because not only will we not have corn to sell, but we also will not have corn to make our food,” Sánchez says. “Everyday we eat tortillas made from corn and pozol, and now we won’t have corn for that.”

Pozol is a fermented corn dough also used to make a beverage of the same name.

Ruíz says he’ll have to buy corn for his family this year, for the first time ever.

García García says he is fearful the scarce rain, and the resulting food shortage, will bring insecurity to the villages. Because corn generally isn’t planted alone, but rather with a series of grains, legumes, vegetables and plants, this year’s weak harvest could have detrimental effects.

“If the corn doesn’t have water, then the rest of the vegetables don’t either, generating a huge loss for the farmers,” García García says.

These farmers have no other choice but to adapt and innovate, Villalobos says.

“Not only should they improve their cultivation techniques, but also canalization methods and water capture, or adapt to the new rain cycles,” Villalobos says.

Ruíz, Pérez and Sánchez say they have already begun using some techniques, like looking for native seeds that are resistant to drought, modifying planting times, and organizing the best planting times and staggering the processes according to the sun.

“Plant a little in May, another little bit in June and another little bit in July; something has to come up if we don’t plant everything together,” Sánchez says. “But the most important thing is to work in a collective. For example, if we join together, among everyone we can work together and, if the harvest turns out good, well, we all have food.”

For Ruíz, the challenge is getting used to the drastic changes.

“There is a lot of cold in the morning, or there is a lot of heat, or a lot of rain or no rain,” Ruíz says. “It’s no longer like before where the weather could be predicted. Now we have to be alert to the radio, because there they tell us now when it will rain a lot or when it will rain less. We have to be more alert to the information.”

Sánchez says that the best innovation this year is to get more information.

“We hear about climate change on the radio or on the television, or in the schools to the kids, and now we see that also affects our harvests, our times of planting,” Sánchez says. “Time has changed a lot now.”


Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.