MAGUARICHI, MEXICO — Each year, Artemio Montenegro Montaño used to leave his family and his idyllic town of Maguarichi, nestled amid the crags and ravines of the Sierra Tarahumara. There was no work to be found at home, so Montenegro and other men in Maguarichi would seek work elsewhere in the state, as seasonal laborers at orchards and farms.
Across Mexico, some 3 million people work as agricultural day laborers. A large proportion are internal migrants, many compelled to work for agroindustrial producers in the north because they have insufficient or no land of their own to subsist on. Nearly a quarter of day laborers — three times the national rate — speak an indigenous language, as does Montenegro, who is Rarámuri. Chihuahua, which produces the highest amount of apples, walnuts, seed cotton and onions in the country, as well as large quantities of peaches and watermelons, relies on this seasonal labor, from within the state and from others such as Guerrero and Chiapas.
Since 2020, however, this way of life — predicated on seasonal migration — is changing in towns like Maguarichi.
“My son doesn’t go out to look for work anymore,” María Enriqueta Montaño Rivas says. “Now that it has rained, he’s planting corn and beans with his father. Plus, he just finished enrolling in the Sembrando Vida program — and his little bit of money has already begun coming in.”
Montaño is referring to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s flagship program — “Planting Life” in English — which aims to tackle rural poverty and environmental degradation by incentivizing agroforestry. The initiative, rolled out in Chihuahua state in 2020 with nearly 20,000 beneficiaries at present, targets rural Mexicans living below the poverty line who have 2.5 hectares (6 acres) of land. Each participant receives a monthly stipend of 6,000 Mexican pesos ($326) to grow trees or plants on their land, with the aim of rehabilitating the environment.
While mothers like Montaño are happy to keep their sons close — “It is no life for a mother to be away from a child,” she says — industrial farms are facing a serious shortage of workers.
“They’re going to the maquilas, to the narcos. Some get hired to work in the United States,” says Arnulfo Ordóñez, a beekeeper in the state. “But to top it off, the ones left available are getting federal support and now they aren’t coming to work anymore.” Maquilas refers to maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories in northern Mexico, where low-paid workers assemble imported parts into products for export. The problem has become so concerning for the industry, Ordóñez says, that it was brought up at a recent meeting of the state agriculture council. (The council did not respond to requests for comment.)
Farm owners say that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, especially during lockdowns, which made travel difficult, they have found it challenging to find day laborers. The shortage has become more pronounced as more households become beneficiaries of Sembrando Vida. “They’re already getting a little stable money,” says Cornelius Letkeman Banman, a cotton farmer. “Even though it isn’t much, they say, ‘Well, I have this now. It’s better to stay here and not work.’” Ordóñez, who also has beekeeping operations in Aguascalientes, Michoacán and Yucatán, says he faces similar issues in those states. Sembrando Vida does not operate in Aguascalientes.
Chihuahua’s labor and social welfare ministry says it isn’t aware of this issue facing the state’s agricultural sector.
Farm owners insist that they offer competitive rates to day laborers. Mundo Mendoza, who operates an apple orchard in Cuauhtémoc, says the daily compensation — 400 pesos ($21) — is higher than at most other jobs in the city, but may be less appealing because it offers no benefits. Moreover, the work is seasonal. Jesús Bustillos Carrillo, who worked at an apple orchard this past harvest season and now works as a watchman at a bodega in Chihuahua city, agrees that the pay was good but that he is looking for a job that will last all year.
Lilette A. Contreras, GPJ Mexico
According to the Red Nacional de Jornaleros y Jornaleras Agrícolas, a network that campaigns for day laborers nationwide, only 3% of seasonal workers receive written contracts. The overwhelming majority work on an informal basis, without access to legal benefits or social security. Living conditions are often dire: cramped, unhygienic, poorly ventilated and lacking drinking water. Pests are a frequent problem. In interviews with Global Press Journal, day laborers described shelters built like warehouses, with cement walls and high tin roofs and hundreds of beds so close, they seem glued together. María Cruz, 50, who works as an apple picker with her 20-year-old daughter, Virginia, described living in rooms for 30 pesos ($1.63) a night, 10 people to a room, without beds.
Occupancy rates have dwindled recently, says Félix Chávez, who manages a hostel for migrant laborers in Cuauhtémoc. “This year, there have been days and weeks when it has been very empty,” he says. “They’re not coming in like they used to before. They’re working their own land, rather than other people’s.”
Margarita Núñez, the local representative for Sembrando Vida in Maguarichi — where 204 of 1,302 total residents are beneficiaries — says not everyone is pleased with the program. The work is grueling: It takes the residents of Maguarichi about two hours to traverse 4 to 5 kilometers (2.5 to 3 miles) on foot to reach their lands each day. For each day of work missed, even for sick leave, 150 pesos ($8) are docked from their monthly stipend.
“Not everyone is happy with the work, but they prefer it because they don’t want to leave,” she says. Núñez never worked in the apple orchards, like other Maguarichi residents — she was employed at a maquila in Chihuahua, where the hours were similarly long but workers were indoors and didn’t have to brave the elements. Still, she returned after a year. The pull of home and family was too strong.