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Apr 162012
 

In just 20 years, Mexico has gone from a nation that needed to import less than 400,000 metric tons of corn (maize) a year in order to satisfy its domestic market to one where, in the 2011-12 season, it will need to import almost 10,000,000 tons.

One producers’ organization, Mexico’s National Confederation of Maize Growers (CNPAMM), argues that this reliance on imports has relegated the work done by its members to a relatively minor role in providing the nation with food. The growers claim that the price they receive for corn (post-NAFTA) has declined in the face of cheaper imports, jeopardizing their livelihoods. (For one view of the changes post-NAFTA, see NAFTA Truth and Consequences: Corn).

On the other hand, in the past few years, the costs of imported corn have risen sharply, meaning that consumers have to pay more for their tortillas. In order to preserve some stability, the Mexican government has bought corn futures which guarantee corn prices for a period of time.

How is it possible that the country that gave the world corn is now so dependent on imports of corn, almost all of which come from the USA? According to the CNPAMM, it is the result of speculation, market distortion and failures in Mexico’s economic policy. Héctor Carlos Salazar, the president of CNPAMM, called on maize growers to demand better prices, a reduction in imports, and some guarantees from the politicians fighting this year’s federal elections that they will take steps to ensure Mexico’s self-sufficiency in foodstuffs.

Salazar has been quoted in the press as offering some interesting statistics for the impacts of every additional ton of corn that Mexico imports from abroad. He claims that each ton imported reduces agricultural employment by 4.54 man-hours. It also reduces other inputs: diesel by 6 liters, fertilizers by about 100 kg, insecticides by 1 liter, pesticides by 3 liters and improved seeds by about 4 kg.

The bottom line is that it is not just the food security, particularly of Mexico’s poorest, that is threatened by rising corn imports, it is also Mexico’s economy.

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Apr 142012
 

Mexico’s 3P (proven, probable and possible) reserves remained unchanged last year (2011) as new discoveries, mainly in the Chicontepec field, offset oil extraction. The Chicontepec field alone holds about 17,000 million barrels of oil equivalent (BOE), almost 40% of Mexico’s total 3P reserves of more than 43 million BOE (see graph). Mexico’s total 3P reserves are sufficient for about 32 years at current rates of extraction.

Mexico's oil reserves

Mexico's oil reserves have shown a steady downward trend until recently. Note: Green = Proven (Probadas), orange = Probable (Probables), yellow = Possible (Posibles)

Mexico has proven reserves of 13,810 million BOE, sufficient for 10.2 years. The size of these reserves compares favorably with proven reserves in the USA, which will last 11 years at current rates, or in the U.K. and Norway, where proven reserves will be exhausted within a decade.

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Apr 122012
 

In a previous post, we identified the tectonic plates that affect Mexico. In this piece, we look at some of the major impacts of Mexico lying on or close to so many different plates.

To the east of Mexico, in the last 100 million years, outward expansion from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (a divergent boundary) first pushed South America ever further apart from Africa, and then (slightly more recently) forced the North American plate (and Mexico) away from Eurasia. The Atlantic Ocean continues to widen, expanding the separation between the New World and the Old World, by about 2.5 cm (1 in) each year.

Mexico's position in relation to tectonic plates

Mexico's position in relation to tectonic plates.Map: Geo-Mexico.com; all rights reserved

Meanwhile, to the west of Mexico, an analogous situation is occurring in the Pacific Ocean, where the Cocos plate is being forced eastwards away from the massive Pacific plate, again as a result of mid-ocean activity. The Cocos plate is effectively caught in a gigantic vice, its western edge being forced ever further eastwards while its leading eastern edge smacks into the North American plate.

The junction between the Cocos and North American plates is a classic example of a convergent plate boundary. The collision zone is marked by a deep ocean trench, variously known as the Middle America trench or the Acapulco trench. Off the coast of Chiapas, this trench is a staggering 6662 m (21,857 ft) deep. The trench is formed where the Cocos plate is forced to dive beneath the North American plate.

As the Cocos plate is subducted, its leading edge fractures, breaks and is partly re-melted into the surrounding mantle. Any cracks in the overlying North American plate are exploited by the molten magma, which is under immense pressure, and as the magma is forced to the surface, volcanoes form. The movement of the plates also gives rise to earthquakes. The depth of these earthquakes will vary with distance from the deep ocean trench. Those close to the trench will be relatively shallow, whereas those occurring further away from the trench (where the subducting plate is deeper) will have deeper points of origin.

As the plates move together, sediments, washed by erosion from the continent, collect in the continental shallows before being crushed upwards into fold mountains as the plates continue to come together. A line of fold mountains stretches almost continuously along the west coast of the Americas from the Rocky Mountains in Canada past the Western and Southern Sierra Madres in Mexico to the Andes in South America. Almost all Mexico’s major mountain ranges—including the Western Sierra Madre, the Eastern Sierra Madre and the Southern Sierra Madre—formed as a result of these processes during the Mesozoic Era, from 245 to 65 million years ago.

However, no sooner had they formed than another momentous event shook Mexico. About 65 million years ago, a giant iridium-rich asteroid slammed into the Gulf of Mexico, close to the Yucatán Peninsula, causing the Chicxulub Crater, and probably hastening the demise of the dinosaurs. An estimated 200,000 cubic km of crust was pulverized; most of it was thrown into the air. The resulting dust cloud is thought to have contributed to the extinction of up to 50% of all the species then on Earth. Not only did this event have an enormous impact on all life forms on Earth, it also left a legacy in the Yucatán. The impact crater is about 200 km (125 mi) across. Its outer edge is marked by a ring of sinkholes (locally known as cenotes) and springs where the fractured crust provided easy access to ground water. These locations include the ria (drowned river valley) of Celestún (now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), where fresh water springs mingle with salt water to create an especially rich habitat for birdlife.

In the 65 million years since the asteroid impact (the Cenozoic period), the remainder of Mexico has been formed, including many of the plateaus and plains, and the noteworthy Volcanic Axis, which owes its origin to still-on-going tectonic activity at the junction of the North American and Cocos plates.

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Apr 092012
 

A recent report from researchers at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM) confirms that the height of the water table below Mexico City is dropping by about one meter a year, as more water is pumped out of the aquifer than the natural replenishment rate from rainfall. About 60% of Mexico City’s drinking water comes from wells, with the remainder piped into the city, mainly via the Cutzamala system. The researchers say that up to 65% more water is taken from some parts of the Mexico City aquifer than the amount replaced each year by natural recharge.

As we reported in a previous post – Why are some parts of Mexico City sinking into the old lakebed? – this has resulted in parts of Mexico City sinking more than seven meters (23 ft) since 1891, with implications for water pipelines, drainage systems, building foundations and the city’s metro network, as well as an increased incidence of ground subsidence.

According to this latest research, the clay soil of the former lake bed below the city is sinking by between 6 and 28 cm/yr in most places, with rates in the southeast part of the city (where numerous wells have been drilled in recent years) sinking by up to 35 cm/yr.

How can the problem of sinking ground be resolved?

The report emphasizes the importance of conserving as much green space as possible within the city, to reduce runoff (and demands on the city’s drainage system) while simultaneously recharging aquifers. The three major alternatives, some combination of which is needed to resolve the problem are:

  • introduce more water-saving strategies so that demand does not continue to increase
  • bring more water from outside the Valley of Mexico (this would be costly and unpopular)
  • feed more wastewater back into the underground aquifers via “surface soaks”. As one example, the National Water Commission (Conagua) has announced plans to build a 200-million-dollar wastewater treatment plant (“El Caracol”) that will inject water back into the aquifer after treatment. It would be Mexico’s first ever large-scale reinjection project.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Mexico City residents pay more for their water than users anywhere else in the country, with an average water rate of US$1.23/cubic meter. Elsewhere, the two states sharing the arid Baja California Peninsula also have higher than average rates of $1.05/cubic meter (Baja California Sur) and $0.94/cubic meter (Baja California). The lowest rate in the country, well below the true cost of supplying water, is in Nayarit, and is just $0.25/cubic meter.

Within Mexico City, access to potable water is far from equally/fairly distributed across the city, as revealed by this thought-provoking quote :

In a study of water access in Mexico City, geographer Erik Swyngedouw found that “60 per cent of all urban potable water is distributed to three per cent of the households, whereas 50 per cent of the inhabitants make do on five per cent of the water”. Critical geographers like Swyngedouw ask us to take note of the spatial nature of power imbalances revealed in patterns of city design and growth: “mechanisms of exclusion… manifest the power relationships through which the geography of cities is shaped and transformed.”  [quote comes from page 31 of Nature's Revenge: Reclaiming Sustainability in an Age of Corporate Globalization ; the reference is to Erik Swyngedouw's Social Power and the Urbanization of Water: Flows of Power (OUP 2004).]

This grossly unequal distribution of potable water remains a critical problem that successive administrations in Mexico City and the surrounding State of México have done little to resolve.

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Apr 052012
 

Greenpeace activists chose the Juanacatlán Falls (“The Niagara of Mexico”) for their latest protest to call attention to the poor quality of Mexico’s rivers and lakes. They cited government statistics that show 70% of Mexico’s surface water is contaminated. Most of the pollution comes from industrial dumping, rather than municipal sewage.

It is hard to imagine a better choice. The activists, clad in protective clothing and wearing masks to avoid inhaling toxic gases, paddled kayaks into the River Santiago immediately below the malodorous falls and unfurled banners with slogans such as “Mexican rivers, toxic rivers” (see image).

Greenpeace activists at El Salto de Juanacatlán, 22 March 2012. Photo: Greenpeace.

The activists called on the government to commit to a policy of zero dumping of toxic substances into rivers and lakes by 2020, with sanctions for actions leading to pollution and its effects.

In a coordinated action, thirty NGOs in Jalisco announced the creation of the “Broad Front in Defense of Water and Against Privatization ”, demanding actions towards a fully sustainable use of water. They asked government to take the lead in cleaning up the Santiago River and provide urgent medical attention for residents of communities affected by its high level of pollution (see this blog post). They also called for an end to the privatization of water services.

José Luis Luege, the head of Mexico’s National Water Commission (Conagua), the government body overseeing all Mexico’s water resources, recently presented a portfolio of programs for the country’s 13 water regions which are designed to make Mexico’s water usage sustainable.

Conagua calculates that Mexico currently uses 78.4 million cubic meters of water a year. Of this amount, 66.9 billion cubic meters is taken from surface and underground sources (and is fully sustainable), while about 11.5 billion cubic meters come from the unsustainable use of aquifers, where the rates of abstraction exceeds replenishment. The new programs are designed to reduce and eventually end unsustainable aquifer use, replacing it by a mixture of water-saving programs and by building the necessary infrastructure to obtain more water from sources believed to be fully sustainable.

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Apr 022012
 

The theory of plate tectonics suggests that the earth’s crust or lithosphere is from 5 to 65 km (3 to 40 mi) thick and divided into about a dozen large tectonic plates, tabular blocks that drift across the Earth in different directions and at various speeds (up to a few centimeters or inches per year), probably as a result of thermal convection currents in the Earth’s molten mantle. Most plates consist of a combination of both ocean floor and continent, though some are entirely ocean floor.

Each tectonic plate is moving relative to other plates. The movements are not independent because the plates smash into and scrape against one another. Areas in the center of tectonic plates, far from the boundaries, have relatively little seismic activity, but the boundaries between plates are seismically very active, creating earthquakes and volcanoes. The level of seismic activity depends on the relative speed and direction of the plates at the boundary.

There are three distinct kinds of boundaries between plates. At divergent boundaries, along mid-ocean ridges, plates are being steadily pushed apart, with new crust being added by volcanic activity to the rear of each plate as it moves. At convergent boundaries, plates collide and parts of the plates either buckle or fracture or are subducted back down into the molten mantle. The third kind of boundary is where plates are neither created nor destroyed but are moving side by side. The resulting friction as they rub against each other can produce large earthquakes.

Almost all of Mexico sits atop the south-west corner of the massive North American plate (see map). Immediately to the south is the much smaller Caribbean plate. The North American plate extends westwards from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs through Iceland and down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to the western edge of North America. In a north-south direction, it extends from close to the North Pole as far south as the Caribbean.

Mexico's position in relation to tectonic plates

Mexico's position in relation to tectonic plates.Map: Geo-Mexico.com; all rights reserved

While most of Mexico rests on the North American plate, it is also influenced by several other plates.

The Baja California Peninsula is on the gigantic Pacific plate, which is moving northwest and under the North American plate. The intersection of these plates under the Gulf of California causes parallel faults which are part of the famous San Andreas Fault system. Thus, the Gulf of California is an area of heavy seismic activity.

The small Rivera plate, between Puerto Vallarta and the southern tip of Baja California, is moving in a southeasterly direction and rubbing against the Pacific plate; it, too, is moving under the North American plate.

The Cocos plate and tiny Orozco plate are ocean crust plates located off the south coast of Mexico. The collision of the Cocos plate and the North American plate has had several far-reaching consequences, including both the disastrous 1985 earthquakes that caused such severe loss of life and damage in Mexico City and the much more recent 2012 earthquake that, fortunately, was far less destructive.

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Mar 312012
 

In a few months time, Mexicans go to the polls to elect a new President. Just how does the Mexican political system work? As a build-up to the important federal elections coming shortly, this post looks at the background to Mexico’s political system and provides a quick summary of the federal level of government. A future post will look at the state and municipal levels.

The current political system in Mexico derives from the Constitution of 1917 which emerged from the Mexican Revolution. The Constitution is a sweeping document that captures the ideals of the Revolution, but also reflects three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. The Constitution is “revolutionary” in that it aggressively protects the rights of workers, peasants and their organizations. It guarantees the right to organize, an eight-hour work day, the rights of female and child workers, and the payment of a minimum wage sufficient to satisfy the necessities of life. The colonial influences are evidenced by highly codified civil law, acceptance of heavy state involvement in civic affairs and business, and the relative strength of the executive over other branches of government. Another important influence is Mexico’s 19th century history which included foreign military occupations, loss of half the national territory and several virtual dictatorships.

The government of the United Mexican States has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial.

The executive branch is by far the most important and most powerful. The President serves a six-year term, may never be re-elected, and appoints the 18 cabinet secretaries who run their respective secretariats or ministries. The full cabinet meets only rarely. Legislation must be signed by the President to become law. Though the legislature may override a veto, the Constitution dictates that laws can only be enacted after being signed by the President. The President has the power to issue basic rules (reglamentos) independent of the legislature. In fact, most Presidents unilaterally issue more Mexican laws than are passed by the legislature.

The legislature consists of a Senate and a Chamber of Deputies. The 128 senators serve the same six-year term as the President and cannot be re-elected. Each state and the Federal District has two senators from the party getting the most votes in that state and one from the party getting the second most votes.

These 96 senators do not represent equal numbers of constituents. Smaller states have greater representation. For example, in the State of Mexico there are about 4.7 million people per senator whereas in Baja California Sur there are only about 170,000 people per senator. The remaining 32 senators are elected by proportional representation based on the percentage of the national vote obtained by each party. These senators do not have geographical constituents.

There are 500 deputies in the Chamber. Geographic districts directly elect 300 deputies; the remaining 200 are elected by proportional representation. A party must win at least 2% of the national vote to get a deputy in the Chamber. They serve three-year terms and cannot be re-elected.

The ban against re-election means that every three years there is an entirely new Chamber of Deputies. Every six years Mexico has a new President and all new legislators. The ban on re-election diminishes the continuity as well as the overall experience and expertise of Mexican government at all levels.

The judiciary is divided into federal courts and state courts. The federal courts have jurisdiction over constitutional issues, most civil cases (contracts, labor issues, banking and commerce) as well as major felonies (bank robberies, kidnapping), except murder. State courts handle murders, divorces and minor felonies. The Supreme Court consists of 26 judges, selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Legally, they serve for life but actually submit their resignation to the new President every six years. Below the Supreme Court are four chambers of judges dealing with criminal, civil, labor and administrative issues. There are 16 federal circuit courts and 68 district courts.

Mar 282012
 

Not all volcanoes give any warning of impending activity. Exactly thirty years ago, just before midnight 28/29 March 1982, the El Chichón volcano in Chiapas erupted completely without warning and with unexpected fury.  Two further eruptions followed in early April. The lack of warning caused heavy loss of life among local villagers who had been unable to evacuate their villages. About 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Palenque covered in ash following the eruption of El Chichón

Palenque covered in ash following the eruption of El Chichón. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Ash from El Chichón fell over a wide area of southern Mexico. The nearby Mayan archaeological site of Palenque (set on the edge of what is normally a luxuriant, tropical-green jungle) was covered in ash (see photo above).

Concerned about the potential for the ash to combine with rainfall and form an acidic solution that might erase delicate and intricately carved stones, workers at the site engaged in a major clean up, even before all the ash had stopped falling. The second photo (below) shows a worker on top of one of Palenque’s distinctive roof combs sweeping the recently-fallen ash off the structure.

Sweeping ash off Palenque following the eruption of El Chichón

Sweeping ash off Palenque following the eruption of El Chichón. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved.

Vulcanologists later worked out that the last previous eruption of El Chichón had been 1200 years earlier. The eruption “left behind a brooding, sulfuric, acidic lake that formed when the dome collapsed into a crater and filled with water.” (Ref).

Aztec glyph for a "hill that smokes"

El Chichón forced more than 7 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20 million tons of particulate material into the stratosphere. The resultant cloud of volcanic gases circled the Earth in three weeks and was still dissipating three years later. It was expected that the additional particulates in the atmosphere would reduce the solar radiation reaching the earth and cause the following summer to be cooler than usual. However, in an unlikely coincidence, an El Niño event began that same year, negating any significant cooling effect from the volcano’s particulates.

The El Chichón eruption was one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, exceeded only by the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in terms of the amount of volcanic gases and particulates entering the stratosphere. Ash fell over a wide area, from Campeche to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas.

By the time the eruption was over, the volcano, whose summit had been 1260 m (4134 ft) prior to the eruption, had lost 200 m in height. The Chiapanecan Volcanic Arc, which includes El Chichón, falls outside Mexico’s Volcanic Axis (the location of almost all Mexico’s volcanoes) and is thought to be related to the subduction of the edge of the Cocos Plate underneath the North American plate.

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Mar 262012
 

Scale matters, especially when two countries or regions are going to be compared. A case in point is depicted on this Mexican airmail stamp from 1977 issued to celebrate the resumption of diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain. Mexico had broken off relations with Spain in 1939 at the end of the Spanish Civil War when Francisco Franco gained control. Following that war, more than 30,000 Spaniards sought refuge in Mexico, giving a significant boost to the country’s entrepreneurs. It took until 28 March 1977 for diplomatic relations between Mexico and Spain to be restored.

The outline maps on the stamp show Mexico and Spain as having approximately the same area. Presumably this was to ensure that the stamp would be seen as politically-correct, even if not spatially-correct, and would make the two countries look like equal partners. In real life, or on any equal-area map projection,  Mexico (almost 2 million square kilometers) is about four times as large as Spain (close to 50,000  square kilometers).

If the maps were drawn proportional to population, then Mexico would be more than twice as large, since its population of about 112 million (2010) is more than double that of Spain (48 million in the same year). This difference is widening with the years, since Spain’s population growth rate has fallen to about 0.6%/year, while Mexico’s (which has also fallen) remains significantly higher at about 1.1%/year.

Mar 242012
 

What do Mexican suburbs look like? What is their function? As the country’s towns and cities continue to expand, new suburbs appear on their outer edge. Some are gated communities, generally aimed at high income families; these suburbs sometimes include private schools and sports clubs. Other suburbs offer smaller homes aimed at low-income families.

Photographer Alejandro Cartagena lives in the Monterrey Metropolitan Area, which includes nine different municipalities in the state of Nuevo León: Monterrey, Guadalupe, San Nicolás, San Pedro, Santa Catarina, Escobedo, Apodaca, García and Juárez.

Cartagena spent years exploring the edge of the city to document the manifestations of “suburbia mexicana” through photographs. The suburbs he depicts are mainly low-income suburbs, some still being constructed. Cartagena recognized that change was happening at a very rapid pace, and often by developers with more lust for profit than desire to improve the local community. Since 2001, more than 300,000 new homes have been built in the Monterrey Metropolitan Area. Many suburbs were badly planned, as some of Cartagena’s photos clearly reveal. Considerations of roads, parks and public transport are often ignored in the decision-making of these developers.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena; all rights reserved. Image from "suburbia mexicana"; reproduced by kind permission.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena. Image from "suburbia mexicana". Reproduced by kind permission.

“Suburbia mexicana” includes five series of images, each briefly described below. For fuller descriptions of Cartagena’s ideas, please use the links from the title of each series to visit his relevant section of his website:

Fragmented Cities explores what the homes look like, as if being photographed for a real estate brochure.

Lost Rivers looks at the “environmental problems that stem from excessive urban and suburban development such as dried up and polluted rivers and streams.”

The Other Distance attempts to “connect the wealthy with the new-middle and low class urbanization models” by looking at San Pedro Garza García, which is one of the richest municipalities in Mexico, and easily the wealthiest part of the Monterrey Metro Area. Quoting geographer David Harvey on the “inter-connectivity between urbanization and capital accumulation”, Cartagena explores the economic contrasts that have created two distinct spaces (based on wealth), one that lacks specific “social cohesion space” such as parks, not designed to take into account “infrastructure, hospitals or education centers”, and one occupied by the wealthy sectors of society where such things are considered their “right”. Cartagena recognizes that both these spaces have an interdependent symbiotic relationship.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena; all rights reserved. Image from "suburbia mexicana"; reproduced by kind permission.

Copyright: Alejandro Cartagena. Image from "suburbia mexicana". Reproduced by kind permission.

Urban Holes depicts abandoned spaces in downtown Monterrey, so “highly overpriced by market speculation” that “investors look to un-urbanized land to create new developments that are lacking all kinds of infrastructure”.

The People of Suburbia, the final section, is based on a return to some of the areas photographed previously, including the municipality of Juárez, where urbanization has led to the population tripling since 2002. It is a “visual study of the unending capitalist endeavor of urban growth”.

In Cartagena’s own words, the photos of “suburbia mexicana” “depict a global issue from a local perspective” and one his intentions is “to point out the struggle our contemporary world faces between the ideals of capitalism and the striving and desire for fairer and more equal cities in which to live.” As such, this splendid collection of photographs certainly deserves the widest possible audience.

If you like Alejandro Cartagena’s work, you may like to know that he has published a book of “suburbia mexicana”, available via his website.

For more details about the Monterrey Metropolitan Area, see this 2008 paper by Dr. Peter Ward: