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The pattern of farm sizes in Mexico: is there a north-south divide?

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Feb 242014

In 2007, INEGI census recorded 2.4 million “units of production” (farms) under 2 hectares in size. This number is 43.5% of all farms, and includes farms not being actively worked. 22.9% of farms were between 2 and 5 hectares in area and a further 23.4% between 5 and 20 hectares. In sum, almost 90% of all farms had an area of 20 hectares or less. At the other end of the size spectrum, 2.2% of farms were larger than 100 hectares.

In terms of land tenure, 68.5% of all farms were in ejidos (a form of collective farming), 28.5% held privately and the remaining 3% were other (communal, public, mixed). Almost three-quarters of all farms under 20 hectares in area are ejidos, whereas about three-quarters of all farms over 100 hectares in size are private.

Map of average farm size in Mexico, by state, 2007

Map of average farm size in Mexico, by state, 2007. Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton/Geo-Mexico

The choropleth map (above) shows the average size of farms (in hectares) by state. It is very clear that larger farms are concentrated in northern Mexico. All the states along the US border have average farm sizes in excess of 100 hectares. At the other extreme, a ring of states in central Mexico (centered on the Federal District) have average farm sizes that are below 5 hectares. The average farm size is slightly larger to the south of that ring of tiny farms, and significantly larger towards the east, including those states comprising the Yucatán Peninsula.

The general pattern is of a north-south division, which becomes even clearer when the average farm sizes are plotted as an isoline map. With minor exceptions, the “surface” represented by these isolines slopes steeply away form the highest values in north-western Mexico towards the south-east.

Average farm size in Mexico

Average farm size in Mexico. Data: INEGI Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

Classroom exercise

Having recognized this pattern in farm sizes, can you think of reasons that might explain it? The short answer is that farm sizes vary in response to a multitude of factors, These include historical, demographic, and socioeconomic factors as well as relief, climate, natural vegetation and soils.

Q1. Compare the maps in this post with maps for some of the factors you think might be important. (Try our Geo-Mexico Map Index as a starting point). For example, the northern area of Mexico, the area with largest farms, is primarily semi-arid or arid. Why might farms in arid and semi-arid areas be larger than in other areas?

Q2. Have a class discussion about the relative importance of the factors that have been identified or suggested.

Q3. Discuss the relative merits of the two mapping methods used in this post (choropleth and isoline) to portray average farm sizes.

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Geo-Mexico has many other agriculture-related posts (easily found via our tag system). They include posts about the geography of growing/producing Christmas trees, cacao, honey, sugarcane, coffee, chiles, floriculture, tomatoes, tequila, horticultural cropsand oranges. Also worth reading are:

Mexico and US agree to work together to fight trans-border wildfires

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Feb 222014

Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (Comisión Nacional Forestal, Conafor) and the US Forest Service have signed an agreement aimed to ensure more efficient fire-fighting when dealing with wildfires on the border of Sonora/Arizona. The agreement, the Bi-national Convention on Forest Fires (Convenio Binacional de Incendios Forestales) is designed to increase public safety on either side of the border, reduce habitat loss, and facilitate the exchange of information about wildfires, leading to improved preventative measures and firefighter training.

The Convention establishes that when a fire is detected in the municipalities of Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta or Santa Cruz, a united bi-national command can be established to ensure effective collaboration between the two countries’ firefighters. Firefighting brigades, together with supporting vehicles and aircraft, will be authorized to cross the border by up to 16 km (10 miles) in either direction when battling wildfires, provided they give prior notice to the relevant migration, security and customs agencies in the country concerned.

Coahuila wildfire, April 9, 2011 (Earth Observatory, Landsat-5)

Coahuila wildfire, April 9, 2011 (Earth Observatory, Landsat-5)

Mexico’s worst ever year for forest fires was in 1998, when 14,400 were recorded. In the past three years, 2011 was easily the most disastrous in terms of wildfires, with more than 12,000 fires reported:

  • 2011 – 12,113 fires, affecting  956 square km
  • 2012 –  7,170 fires, affecting 347 square km
  • 2013 – 10,406 fires, affecting 413 square km

In 2013, 99% of wildfires were attributed to “human actions”, with 36% of all fires resulting from deliberate agricultural burn-offs getting out of control.

The main wildfire season is from February to May each year. May is the critical month because it marks the end of the dry season in most of Mexico, the time when the natural landscape looks parched. During May, as the landscape waits for the start of the rainy season, precursor electrical storms are relatively common. Electrical storms can easily trigger wildfires if they ignite the tinder-dry vegetation.

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Mexico City’s Ecobici cycle rental system enters its fifth year

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Feb 202014

Mexico City’s Ecobici system for public bike rentals in and around the city’s historical center celebrated its fourth birthday in February 2014. The system, established in 2010, currently has more than 60,000 24,000 registered users; between them they have already surpassed 13.5 million short trips by Ecobici. City officials calculate that the system has saved 499 metric tons of CO2 since 2010.

Ecobici bike rack
Annual membership currently costs 400 pesos (about 31 dollars). It is also possible to buy membership for a single day (90 pesos), three days or by the week. The system is intended for short trips. With membership, the first 45 minutes of each ride is free.

There are 275 Ecobici cycle stations and 4,000 Ecobici bikes in circulation. The current level of usage is 25,000 trips each day. The average trip distance per ride is 8 kilometers (5 miles), the average trip time is 20-25 minutes; 80% of users are male, and the average ride saves 7.5 kg of atmospheric emissions. Four out of five riders start or end their trip with a ride by bus, taxi, car or metro. City authorities intend to add Ecobici to the Tarjeta Ciudad travel card that can be used to pay for other forms of city transport including the Metro and Metrobús networks.

Is there a down side?

Criticisms of Ecobici have been relatively minor. Initially, some riders complained that the cycle racks were sometimes completely full, meaning they had to cycle to an alternative cycle station where there was space to leave their bike, or that a cycle rack had no bikes to rent, in which case they had the inconvenience of finding another cycle station that did have bikes. Ecobici’s organizers regarded these issues as normal “teething problems” for any system of this scale, and this sort of complaint is now unusual. Authorities hope to implement a system at some point in the future which allows users to receive, via cell phone, real-time information about where bikes are available.

Other road users have complained that some of the Ecobici riders ignore traffic rules by, for example, cycling the wrong way down one-way streets, increasing the chance of an accident.

Area served by the Ecobici system

The 21 square kilometer area served by Ecobici includes the Historic Center of Mexico City and the following neighborhoods (colonias) in the Miguel Hidalgo and Cuauhtémoc districts (delegaciones):

  • Anzures
  • Condesa
  • Cuauhtémoc
  • Escandón
  • Guerrero
  • Juárez (including theZona Rosa)
  • Polanco
  • Roma Norte
  • Roma Sur
  • San Miguel Chapultepec
  • San Rafael
  • Tabacalera

Expansion plans

The city government is now expanding the system by 14 square kilometers into the Benito Juárez district, where 171 new bike stations will be located in 22 neighborhoods, including Del Valle and Narvarte. The new cycle stations being installed allow allow casual users and tourists to pay for each individual trip by credit card.

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Feb 152014

Kudos to The Economist for its short piece entitled “Old Mexico lives on” in which it points out that Mexicans and their descendents are gradually reoccupying the territory that the USA gained from Mexico in the nineteenth century. The evidence is provided by the map (below) showing “Mexican-origin population” by county for the USA. The definition is by ethnicity (origin), not citizenship.

Mexican-origin population living in USA. Source: Economist, 1 Feb 2014.

Mexican-origin population living in USA. Source: Economist, 1 Feb 2014. Click to enlarge.

In February 1848, Mexico was forced to cede more than half its territory to the USA. The area handed over included most of present-day Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, plus parts of several other states. (Texas had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836).

Note the close correlation between areas that were part of Mexico prior to 1848 and those that now have the highest numbers of residents of Mexican-origin. As The Economist points out, “communities have proved more durable than borders”. Mexican migrants have been preferentially attracted to areas that were originally Hispanic, and where some residents can “trace their roots to long before the map was redrawn”. As The Economist concludes, “They didn’t jump the border—it jumped them.”

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How well do you know Mexico? The geography of Mexico: Quiz 9

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Feb 132014

Welcome to our ninth quiz about the geography of Mexico.

How many of the following can you answer correctly?

If you answer a question incorrectly, you can have more attempts at each question before the answer is revealed.

Good Luck!

Geography of Mexico Quiz 9

Congratulations - you have completed Geography of Mexico Quiz 9. You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.

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World’s longest underground river flows deep beneath the Yucatán Peninsula

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Feb 102014

In January 2007, the world’s longest underground river was reported from Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. [Prior to that date, the honor was held by the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River in the Philippines]

The Sac Actun (“White Cave”) river system in the Yucatán Peninsula wanders for 153 km (95 miles) through a maze of underground limestone caves. It took British diver Stephen Bogaerts and his German colleague Robbie Schmittner four years to explore the caverns using underwater scooters and specially rigged gas cylinders, before they finally discovered a connection between the Yucatán region’s then second- and third-longest cave systems, known respectively as Sac Actun and Nohoch Nah Chich (“Giant Birdcage”). Following the discovery of a link, the entire system is now known as Sac Actun. The system has a total surveyed length (including dry caves) of 319 kilometers (198 mi), making it the longest cave system in Mexico, and the second longest worldwide. [The longest is the dry Mammoth Cave System, Kentucky, USA, which measures 643.7 km (400 mi) in length].

Sac-Actun cave system

Sac-Actun cave system

Vying with Sac Actun for the title of longest surveyed underwater cave system is the nearby Sistema Ox Bel Ha (“Three Paths of Water”), also in the Tulum municipality of Quintana Roo. As of August 2013, surveys had measured 256.7 kilometers (159.5 mi) of underwater passages.

The underground passages and caverns of the Yucatán Peninsula have been a favored site for cave explorers for decades. Formal mapping of the systems has taken more than 20 years of painstaking work. Access to the systems is via the hundreds of sinkholes (cenotes) that litter the surface of the Peninsula. The Sac Actun system alone includes more than 150 cenotes.

Water management was critical to the Maya as they developed their advanced civilization in this area, a region with very limited surface freshwater. Many of the cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula have archaeological importance and were utilized by the Maya for ceremonies. Perhaps the best-known (and most visited) cenote is the Sacred Cenote (cenote sagrado) at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza.

The caverns of the Yucatán Peninsula were formed as a result of the slow solution of limestone over thousands of years by percolating, slightly acidic, rainwater. In some cases, cave formations, such as stalactites and stalagmites, have later grown in the caves, formed drip-by-drip from the slow deposition of calcium carbonate from calcium-saturated ground water.

Because the average elevation of the Yucatán Peninsula is only a few meters above sea level, the water in many of the caves is “layered”, with a lens of freshwater overlying a layer of salt water. Rainwater that soaks into the ground becomes ground water, which then moves slowly along the watertable to eventually reach the ocean.

Cave researchers are worried that tourist developments in the Yucatán Peninsula will have adverse impacts on underground water systems, both in terms of water quantity (because of the amounts of fresh water extracted for domestic and tourist use) and in terms of water quality, because even point sources of water pollution (such as excess fertilizers from a golf course) could contaminate underground water supplies over a wide area.

Want to read more?

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Global literacy or geo-illiteracy? The latest entrant to our “North America” hall of shame

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Feb 042014

“Mastering Global Literacy” is a collection of short articles written to explain how “educators can cultivate globally literate learners while becoming globally connected themselves.” The book’s authors (Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar and Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano) “explore ways to bring global issues into the classroom and personalize them using new digital tools.” In addition, the advertising blurb promises that readers will find “strategies for implementing global-awareness studies into the traditional school curriculum, as well as creating new types of 21st century learning environments.”

mastering-global-literacyThe aims of this book are laudable, but sadly, in many ways, this book fails to live up to its hype. This is especially true of Chapter 5 (the concluding chapter), “Interdisciplinary Global Issues: A Curriculum for the 21st Century Learner”. The overly US-centric approach adopted in this book is nowhere more obvious than in this chapter. After defining what is meant by global literacy, the chapter considers how the (U.S.) National Geography Standards (NGS) can help educators plan courses that will promote it. The NGS certainly have considerable value in this regard, but (ironically) this chapter might have benefited from also considering a more global perspective such as that adopted by the geography curriculum of the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Program.

Many of the suggestions made in this book for how global literacy can be promoted are already being practiced (and have been for decades) by geography teachers in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. The idea that geography can be infused into other disciplines has been around for a long time, hence the proliferation of course titles (in many disciplines besides geography) including terms like “Global” and”World”. There is no need to reinvent this particular wheel in developing courses that promote global literacy, and little advantage to be gained from adopting new terminology, such as the proposals for “Geo-economics”, “Geocommunications”, “Geo-arts and literature”, “Geohealth”, “Geosports” and “Geo-education”.

This book is also the latest entrant in our “North America” hall of shame for its description of a “subject-specific strategy” that will boost global literacy in the classroom when “a globally connected educator facilitates the learning”. The strategy is based on a geography lesson in which “A middle school class is studying South America and following, via a blog and Twitter feed, a National Geographic-sponsored trip of a man traveling by bus from the United States to Antarctica. Students learn about the traveler’s different destinations throughout South America: Mexico, Guatemala, the Panama Canal, Colombia, Argentina, and finally, Cape Horn.”

“Houston, we have a problem!”. The suggestion that Mexico, Guatemala and the Panama Canal are located in South America is a classic example of geo-illiteracy and, as such, completely out of place in a book about global literacy.

Conclusion? While this book does have some valuable sections, it offers far less to geographers than its promotional materials would suggest. Given its title, the book’s failure to engage with modern geography (as practiced outside the USA) is a major limitation.

Mastering Global Literacy. Contributors: Veronica Boix Mansilla, Anthony W. Jackson, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, William Kist, Homa Sabet Tavangar, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano. 136 pages. Solution Tree. 2013.

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Energy reforms and Mexico-USA Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement

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Jan 302014

Mexico recently approved the most significant energy reforms since the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938. The reforms end the 75-year monopoly over the energy industry enjoyed by state oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), opening the way for private investment in petroleum exploration and production.

The proposals do not allow foreign ownership of mineral or oil resources, but do allow private sector firms to participate in refineries and distribution networks, as well as sign profit-sharing contracts with state oil giant Pemex and the Federal Electricity Commission. The reforms include a revised tax regime for Pemex, the world’s fifth-leading oil producer, and its reorganization into two subsidiaries.

Mexico’s oil production has risen recently to 2.5 million barrels/day (b/d) and is expected to reach 3 million b/d by 2018.

The Mexico-USA Transboundary Hydrocarbons Agreement (THA) has been approved by senators in Washington. The accord allows both countries to explore and develop crude reserves that straddle their exclusive economic zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It establishes “an environmentally safe and responsible framework to explore, develop, and share revenue from hydrocarbon resources that lie in waters beyond each country’s exclusive, economic zones,” according to White House National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden.

location of doughnut holes

The two “doughnut holes” where Mexican and US Exclusive Economic Zone claims overlap

The American Petroleum Institute has hailed the possibility of Mexico-USA joint projects in the Gulf of Mexico. The reserves in the maritime boundary region are believed to total more than 170 million barrels of oil and 15 million metric tons of natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

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Review of “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty”

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Jan 272014

Every so often a book comes along that shakes up established wisdom and forces us to rethink our viewpoints and beliefs. The latest such book to cross my desk is Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, published by publicaffairs in 2011.

poor-economicsThis is a worthy read for anyone interested in development theory, policy, practice and economics. The authors are professors of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and co-founded the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Their book reports on the effectiveness of solutions to global poverty using an evidence-based randomized control trial approach.

Banerjee and Duflo argue that many anti-poverty policies have failed over the years because of an inadequate understanding of poverty. They conclude that the battle against poverty can be won, but it will take patience, careful thinking and a willingness to learn from evidence.

The authors look at some of the unexpected questions related to poverty that empirical studies have thrown up, such as :

  • Why do the poor (those living on less than 99 cents a day) need to borrow in order to save?
  • Why do the poor miss out on free life-saving immunizations but pay for drugs that they do not need?
  • Why do the poor start many businesses but do not grow any of them?

The book is supported by an outstanding website that includes:

  • Introductions to each chapter
  • Maps showing cited studies with links to original sources
  • Data and figures used with interactive data tools
  • A “What Can You Do” page with links to major organizations working in the field or for the problem discussed in the chapter

The website’s links to research papers mentioned in the book include four studies related to Mexico:

1. Do Conditional Cash Transfers Affect Electoral Behavior? Evidence from a Randomized Experiment in Mexico, by Ana L. De La O.

The evidence comes from the pioneering Progresa, the original Mexican conditional cash transfer (CCT) program (since repackaged as Oportunidades).  This CCT program led to a 7% increase in turnout and a 16% increase in the  incumbent vote share, with clear implications for politicians in areas where CCT programs reach a large percentage of voters.

2 School Subsidies for the Poor: Evaluating the Mexican Progresa Poverty Program, by T. Paul Schultz of Yale University (August 2001).

This study considered how a CCT program affected school enrollment. The CCT program increased enrollment in school in grades 3 through 9, with the increase often greater for girls than boys. The cumulative effect was estimated to add 0.66 years to the baseline level of 6.80 years of schooling.

3 Experimental Evidence on Returns to Capital and Access to Finance in Mexico, by David McKenzie and Christopher Woodruff (March 2008)

Microenterprises are often unable to access suitable financing, even though they are responsible for employing a large portion of the total workforce. This experiment, which gave cash and in-kind grants to small retail firms, demonstrated that this additional capital generated large increases in profits, with the effects concentrated on those firms which were more financially constrained. The estimated return to capital was found to be at least 20 to 33 percent per month, three to five times higher than market interest rates.

4 Working for the Future: Female Factory Work and Child Health in Mexico, by David Atkin (April 2009)

Atkins’ paper found that children whose mothers lived in a town where a maquiladora (export factory) opened when the women were sixteen years old were much taller than those children born to mothers who did not have a similar opportunity. The effect was so large that “it can bridge the entire gap in height between a poor Mexican child and the “norm” for a well-fed American child.” (Poor Economics, 229)

The increase in height could not be fully explained by the changes in family income resulting from employment in a maquiladora. As Bannerjee and Duflo suggest, “Perhaps the sense of control over the future that people get from knowing that there will be an income coming in every month -and not just the income itself- is what allows these women to focus on building their own careers and those of their children. Perhaps this idea that there is a future is what makes the difference between the poor and the middle class.” (Poor Economics, 229)


Banerjee and Duflo’s positive message is that poverty can indeed be alleviated, but we need to take one small measurable step at a time with constant evaluation of whether or not particular policies are successful, based on evidence, not just on belief systems.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” deserves its place of honor alongside other such genuine classics as E.F. Schumaker’s “Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered” (1973). It is a must-read for geographers, regardless of your political persuasion.

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Passenger cable car for Mexico City

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Jan 252014

Update (20 January 2016): The 4.8-kilometer-long Mexicable cable car linking San Andrés de la Cañada (in the Sierra of Guadalupe) to Vía Morelos (in Ecatepec) should be in operation within a few weeks, according to latest press reports. The cable car will be Mexico’s first cable car system specifically aimed at public transit. Several locations in Mexico already have cable car systems designed for tourists.

The Mexicable line, which cost around $70 million to build, will have 190 10-passenger cars and be able to carry up to 6000 passengers an hour. It will reduce travel time between San Andrés de la Cañada and Vía Morelos from 45 minutes to less than 20 minutes. There are five intermediate stations in addition to the two terminals.

Original post (2014):

Work will begin shortly on building a 5-kilometer-long intraurban cable car in the Sierra de Guadalupe region of Mexico City. The cable car, formally known as “‘Teleférico Mexicable Sierra de Guadalupe” will link residents of the densely populated San Andrés de la Cañada settlement to Vía Morelos in Ecatepec.

cable-car-mexico-cityThe cable car system will be similar to tried and tested cable car systems that have proved successful in Zurich (Switzerland) and Medellin (Colombia).

The Sierra de Guadalupe cable car will have 190 cabins and 7 stations in total, including the 2 terminals. The 95-million-dollar system will benefit up to 300,000 people, and be able to carry 6000 people an hour. It will more than halve the current travel time of 45 minutes from one terminal to the other to less than 20 minutes.

The Via Morelos terminal will be close to the existing mass transit options such as line 4 of the city’s Mexibús system and the Mexico City metro. About 300 workers will be employed during construction which is scheduled to be completed by early 2015. Once completed, the system will provide about 40 permanent jobs. The standard fare on the system is expected to be 9 pesos (about 70 cents).

A similar project is still under consideration for a western section of Mexico City, linking Santa Fe to Chapultepec.

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