At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Tarahumara were hunter‑gatherer‑cultivators, collecting what they could from local trees and plants, and using a version of shifting agriculture to produce crops of corn (maize), beans and squash. Their methods of farming were probably well‑ adjusted to the then-prevailing environmental conditions in the Copper Canyon region and caused little soil degradation.
With the arrival of the Spanish, the Tarahumara were forced to occupy progressively more marginal land where their traditional methods were unable to supply enough food for their numbers. However, the Spanish introduced them to new crops, new animals (goats, cows, sheep) and new techniques, principally the plow. Adopting these innovations enabled them to survive despite being deprived of their best land.
A reduction in the arable area available prevented them from continuing to grow crops by shifting cultivation. On the other hand, their newly acquired animals afforded them the possibility of adding manure to their farming plots on a regular basis, keeping them under cultivation more continuously than was previously possible.
For manuring purposes, herds of 15‑50 goats are penned into square enclosures (6 m x 6 m in size) each night for four nights. The pen is then moved. The method is slow but effective. Plots of land fertilized by this method give good yields for between 4 and 6 years. Cattle (5‑15 at a time) are also used to supply fertilizer but have to be kept on the same area for 15 nights, for an effect which lasts about three years.
In wintertime, stock is usually confined to caves or covered enclosures. The manure deposited is collected and transported in sacks to the farming plots in spring. A simple rotation system is used with about 25% of available land left uncultivated in any one year. Animals may be loaned out to other families for the purposes of land fertilization, or pooled together to ensure effective results.
The Tarahumara tilled their plots using a simple digging‑stick, which could be used with minimal risk on tiny plots of land, even on steep slopes. Following the adoption of the plow, it was much easier to cultivate larger fields on lower angle slopes, rather than smaller, steeper plots, principally because the plow disturbed the soil far more “efficiently” and to greater depth than the digging‑stick. On the other hand, the vegetation of the steep hillsides was subsequently left undisturbed.
Given the terrain, pasture is hard to find. Near the smaller settlements (ranchos), natural pasture exists only for a very short time during the rainy season. At other times the herds have to be taken ever greater distances in search of richer pickings. This has traditionally been done by the children, leaving the adults free for other tasks. Trips to find suitable pasture may last two or three days at a time.
Despite the difficulties of providing livestock with sufficient food, the animals provide a hedge against starvation, and are a measure of Tarahumara wealth. The balance between crops and livestock is critical to the Indians’ well‑being. This was not the case before the mestizos moved in and pushed the Tarahumara onto more marginal land, but it is today.
The yearly farming cycle
The Tarahumara agricultural calendar lasts about seven months, beginning with planting, at the end of April or in early May, and ending with harvesting, during late October, early November.
The planting date is determined by the phase of the moon, rumors of rain, offers of help, and by personal tradition. For a good maize crop, the plants should be about 30 cm high when the first heavy rains fall. The timing and duration of the rainy season is crucial to the success of the crop. Climatic uncertainty is compounded by the effects of pests and diseases. Many plants are damaged by a kind of worm but the Tarahumara believe they should be left alone since otherwise the entire crop will be lost. Immediately before the rains, many families are down to their last reserves of food, and many animals have to be slaughtered both for survival and to placate the Gods.
The young plants need a lot of vigilance to prevent animals from destroying them. This responsibility is shared among family members since the individual plots of land belonging to one family are so widely scattered. The adults will occupy themselves with mending and craft‑making while keeping an eye on the crops.
Towards the end of July, the young corn is weeded in a communal work effort, amidst general merriment, a sign of relief that next year’s food supply is well on its way. Beans are planted in early August. Harvesting takes place in late October, early November. When about half of the maize has been harvested, corn beer (tesgüino) is prepared, the rest of the harvest becoming a communal or cooperative effort.
Some Tarahumara practice transhumance, moving down to the canyon floors in winter for better shelter and access to pasture. However, many Tarahumara, especially the more Mexicanized, stay in one place all year, lighting fires and wearing warmer clothes as their protection against the cold. The winter time is when men make musical instruments (guitars, violins and mouth harps), and the family collects firewood, tends the goats and make baskets and other items, some of which will be sold to tourists.
- The Transformation of Tarahumara Agriculture in Chihuahua, Mexico [Joshua Rudow, Department of Geography and the Environment, The University of Texas at Austin]
Sources / Bibliography:
- Bennett, W. and Zingg, R. (1935) The Tarahumara. Univ. of Chicago Press. Reprinted by Rio Grande Press, 1976.
- Kennedy, J.G. (1978) Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre; Beer, Ecology and Social Organization, AHM Publishing Corp, Arlington Heights, Illinois. Republished, as The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge in 1996.
- Pennington, C. (1963) The Tarahumar of Mexico, their environment and material culture. Univ. of Utah Press. Reprint by Editorial Agata, Guadalajara, 1996.
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