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Dec 162013
 

In October 2013, the protection status of the Nevado de Toluca, Mexico’s fourth highest peak, was downgraded from National Park to Wildlife Reserve (Area of Protection for Flora and Fauna).

On paper, this is a significant downgrade that may now open the door to greater economic activity in the former National Park area with adverse environmental consequences. In practice, it might turn out to be a blessing in disguise and herald the start of a more pragmatic approach to environmental protection.

Is this good news or bad? This post considers some of the possible implications of the volcano’s recent change of status.

El Volcán Nevado de Toluca

El Volcán Nevado de Toluca

Background:

The Nevado de Toluca (also known as Chicnautécatl) is Mexico’s fourth highest peak, with a summit elevation of 4680 m (15,354 ft) above sea level. Located in central Mexico, southwest of the city of Toluca (the capital of the state of Mexico) and 80 km (50 miles) from Mexico City, the Nevado de Toluca is one of the most accessible volcanic peaks in the country. During the warmer months, regular vehicles can be driven very close to the volcano’s crater with its small lakes. During cooler months, when snow blankets the top portions of the mountain, the access road is popular with Mexico City families wanting to show their children what snow looks and feels like.

The area was granted National Park status in 1936, during the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas, at a time when deforestation threatened to undermine the mountain’s ability to capture rainwater and be used as a water source for Mexico City and Toluca. (1936 was an important year in the history of environmental protection in Mexico because it was when the International Parks Commission was established which led to a series of protected areas–National Parks, Wildlife Areas and Forest Reserves–being established on either side of the Mexico-USA border).

The decree establishing the Nevado de Toluca National Park called for the expropriation of all the land around the volcano that was over 3000 m in elevation. The total area involved was about 536 sq. km. (207 square miles). While, for a variety of reasons, this expropriation was never fully implemented, deforestation of the volcano’s slopes was halted and tree-cutting banned.

In the succeeding decades, settlement expansion gradually ate away at the lower slopes with the result that the original National Park area now houses more than 5000 inhabitants in at least 16 distinct villages.

The newly designated Wildlife Reserve has a nucleus, centered on the crater, of 1.9 sq km, surrounded by a buffer zone of 51.7 sq. km.

A draft of the management plan for the Wildlife Reserve has been published by the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas, CNANP) and made available for public consultation. The statuary 60-day consultation period began in mid-November.

The draft management plan [Map and plan both dated 5/11/2013] has met with considerable criticism in the popular press. The main issue is whether or not any such plan, however well intentioned, will be effectively enforced.

Several journalists have highlighted the very real danger that the new status will allow changes of land use in the former park that could lead to serious environmental degradation. The possible expansion of mineral extraction and of tourism within the Wildlife Reserve are of particular concern.

Nevado de Toluca Crater June 1986.

Nevado de Toluca Crater, June 1986. Photo: copyright Christopher Kessler (Wikimedia Commons)

Mining

In “Se tolerará la minería dentro del Nevado de Toluca“, Paris Martínez looks at the situation of several mining operations in the former park currently quarrying volcanic sand and gravel. Only one of these companies apparently had the requisite permit from the State of Mexico to quarry within the National Park area. The draft management plan allows all the quarries to continue operating for at least five years. Effectively, as Martínez points out, the change of status of the Nevado de Toluca means that mining operations that were operating illegally within the park are now “regularized”, for at least five years.

The main existing sand and gravel quarries are: El Atorón and Loma Alta in the municipality of Zinacantepec La Loba, El Capulín, Las Lágrimas (the only one with a state permit) and El Varal in Temascaltepec.

There are also reported to be many smaller illegal quarries extracting tepojal, a volcanic deposit similar to pumice, used in the construction industry. Unsupervised and unauthorized extraction is especially prevalent on the southern and eastern sides of the Wildlife Reserve.

Local residents say that quarrying, together with the construction of the access roads required to access the quarries, has resulted in serious environmental damage to the slopes of the volcano. Specifically, quarrying activities have led to:

  • deforestation
  • erosion, soil loss, degraded hydrology
  • loss of soil water absorbing capacity
  • particle emissions
  • loss of slope stability
  • visual pollution

The impacts of quarrying are not confined to the slopes of the volcano. The increased erosion of the lower slopes has led to local streams having to cope with a higher sediment load, reducing their capacity to carry the heavy rainy-season precipitation. This has led to flooding damage downstream in municipalities such as Tenango del Valle, Calimaya and Rayón.

The management plan appears to lack a clear pathway for the regulation or limitation of quarrying activities. At the same time, it calls for short-term remediation of areas that have been subject to soil degradation, but only for former mining areas that are not currently being exploited. It does nothing to reduce soil impacts in areas where quarrying is ongoing.

While the management plan does not discuss how or when the quarries might be closed, it does propose establishing workshops to develop “alternative productive activities” for the owners of small quarries, to provide them with an alternative source of income. However, the workshops are only mentioned as part of the long-term plan, ie to be introduced at some point at least 5 years down the road.

What’s more, only one alternative productive activity – public use, open-air recreation and tourism- is actually mentioned in the plan, alongside those activities that would provide products or services for tourism. Surely the final version of the plan should also suggest other viable options?

The plan calls for compensation for the owners of property where quarrying is halted, and who opt for alternative activities. However, this too is only mentioned as part of the longer term plan, so many landowners may well be tempted to start mining in the interim, in order to be able to claim compensation in a few years’ time!

Tourism

The decision to change the protection status of the Nevado de Toluca was based on a commissioned study that showed the area had potential for “intensive tourism” and “private infrastructure”. The study identified potential “tourism nuclei” or “sites for intensive tourism” where the construction of cabins was considered “feasible”. Following criticism and opposition that included almost 30,000 signatures on a change-org petition, the draft Management Plan does not use terms like “intensive tourism” and states that “tourism developments and ski runs may NOT be built in the area”, nor may subdivisions, hotels, golf courses or weekend homes.

The draft plan calls for “low-impact tourism” which is environmentally aware, defined as being suitable for activities such as hiking trails, camping and bird-watching. The plan allows for this form of tourism to be developed in most of the core area of the crater of the Nevado de Toluca as well as in a 3-square-kilometer section on the slopes of the volcano. The plan also allows existing settlements (whose area is not precisely defined) to develop tourism infrastructure; this could easily result in some short-term land-grabbing. Equally, precisely what counts as tourism infrastructure is not clearly defined.

Accepting that the National Park was never adequately patrolled or regulated, then if the new Wildlife Reserve Management Plan is tightly written and backed up by effective monitoring and the enforcement of regulations, then the volcano’s change of status may yet prove to be the best way to preserve the mountain’s unique character.

The draft plan is a valuable step forward, but Geo-Mexico hopes that the final Management Plan will address the many concerns raised in the press, to the benefit of both the volcano itself and its local residents.

Thanks to Arq. Ricardo Warman for first alerting us to the Nevado de Toluca’s change of protected status.

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Dec 122013
 

Today is 12 December, the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the beloved indigenous patron saint of Mexico and much of the Americas. This seems like a good excuse, if ever one was needed, to revisit the “Gender Gap” in Mexico. The gender gap assesses the “gap” between females and males for a number of variables, but should not be taken as reflecting the quality of life of females in different countries.  For example, the gender gap between women in Japan and Japanese men is very large, even though Japanese women enjoy a relatively high quality of life.

In “The Global Gender Gap Report 2013″, the World Economic Forum (WEF), based in Geneva, Switzerland, placed Mexico 68th of the 136 nations included in the study. Between them, the 136 nations house 93% of the world population. Mexico has risen 16 places in the rankings since 2012, meaning that the gender gap in Mexico is narrowing, even if there is still a long way to go to reach gender equality. (It is worth noting that Mexico has been climbing steadily up the rankings for several years, from #98 in 2009, to #91 in 201, #89 in 2011 and #84 in 2012).

Of the 136 countries studied for the 2013 report, Iceland had the smallest gender gap, for the 5th year running, followed by Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Among Latin American nations, Nicaragua had the smallest gender gap (placing 10th in the world), with Cuba, which has the highest female participation in government, coming in 15th and Brazil remaining 62nd. Other notable placings were Germany 14th, and South Africa 17th.

gender gap graph for Mexico

How Mexico (country score) compares to other countries (sample average). Source: Gender Gap Report 2013

The Gender Gap Index is a composite index comprised of a number of variables grouped into four key areas:

  • health and survival
  • educational attainment
  • political empowerment
  • economic participation

As noted in our summary of the 2012 Gender Gap Report, Mexico ranks #1 in the world, tying with several other countries, for the health and survival subindex. This means that Mexican females are unsurpassed with respect to sex ratio at birth (female/male) combined with female life expectancy (female/male).

For the other subindexes, in 2013 Mexico ranked #36 for political empowerment and #70 for educational attainment, but a lowly #111 for economic participation.

Geo-Mexico agrees wholeheartedly with Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, who called for renewed efforts to ensure gender equality, saying that, “Countries will need to start thinking of human capital very differently – including how they integrate women into leadership roles. This shift in mindset and practice is not a goal for the future, it is an imperative today.”

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Mexico City explores deep water aquifer

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Dec 092013
 

Background: The Valley of Mexico is an interior basin about 9000 square km in area. The basin floor sits at an elevation of 2200 meters above sea level and is surrounded by mountains that rise up to more than 5000 meters above sea level. It receives around 700 mm of rainfall a year, with a rainy season from late May to September.

The basin was originally the site of several lakes and marshes, and much of it is underlain by lacustrine sediments up to 100 m thick, beneath which are alluvial sediments up to 500 m thick (see geological cross-section below). These sediments are interstratified with layers of volcanic basalt. Beneath the alluvial sediments are 100 m to 600 m of volcanic deposits, which form the principal Mexico City aquifer (found about 500 m to 1000 m below Mexico City).

As Mexico City has grown, and water demands have increased, this main aquifer has been greatly overexploited, leading to a drop in the level of the water table underground, accompanied by ground subsidence that has had serious consequences for Mexico City:

Feasibility study of a deep aquifer

The National Water Commission (CNA) and Mexico City Water System (SACM) are undertaking a 3-year, 23-million-dollar feasibility study to assess the potential of an aquifer that lies more than 2000 meters below Mexico City. (Our earlier, initial report about this aquifer is here).  The project includes experts from Pemex, CFE and UNAM’s Institute of Geophysics.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.

Schematic stratigraphy of the southern portion of the Basin of Mexico.
Source: Adapted from Mooser, 1990.

Initial exploratory wells have shown that the deep aquifer’s water quality is superior to that currently derived from the overexploited shallower wells that extend to depths of around 800m.

It is hoped that the feasibility study will confirm that water from the deep aquifer could be an additional viable source of freshwater for the city. Assuming the deep aquifer is hydrologically independent of the shallower aquifers, this  would not only reduce the need to pump water from the shallower aquifers, but would also avoid the ground subsidence resulting from continued shallow-water extraction. The feasibility study will assess whether or not the deep water aquifer is “fossil” water or is still being recharged from precipitation and underground throughflow. If it is being recharged, the experts will calculate its recharge rate to determine the aquifer’s maximum sustainable yield. (The maximum sustainable yield is the “additional groundwater output from the system which will cause minimal and acceptable levels of stress to the ecosystem with maximum benefits to the society and to the economy”).

The first test well is likely to be sunk in the Magdalena Mixhuca Sports City area, in the eastern part of Mexico City.

This potential deep aquifer source of freshwater could play a vital part in ensuring that future generations of Mexico City residents have a dependable and sustainable water supply.

Mexico’s consideration of utilizing deep water aquifers runs counter to the prevailing wisdom in the US where it has long been argued that deep water aquifers will be too costly to utilize for fresh water, will never be used, and are therefore more useful as a repository for waste and can be intentionally polluted.

As a result, as this Huffington Post article explains, “policy-makers often exempt these deep aquifers from clean water protections and allow energy and mining companies to inject pollutants directly into them.”  The article adds that, “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued more than 1,500 permits for companies to pollute such aquifers in some of the driest regions. Frequently, the reason was that the water lies too deep to be worth protecting.”

References:

Mooser, F. 1990. “Estratigrafía y estructura del Valle de México en el subseulo de la cuenca del Valle de México y su relacíon con la Ingeniería de cimentaciones, a cinco anos del sismo”, in Revista de la Sociedad Mexicana de Mecánica de Suelos. Mexico, D.F.

For a detailed description of Mexico City’s shallower aquifer and its exploitation, see Mexico City’s Water Supply: Improving the Outlook for Sustainability (1995) (viewable online or register for a free download)

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Example of a sixteenth century map

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Dec 072013
 

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish Court was determined to acquire accurate information about everything being encountered in New Spain. This led to a series of censuses and accounts, including the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic Accounts).

The basis for the Geographic Accounts was a 50-question survey, sent to New Spain in 1577. The authorities in each administrative center were instructed to call a meeting of the “Spaniards and other natives in the district”, to find out everything they could about the area’s geography, people and history.

Of the 191 known responses to the 1577 questionnaire, 167 have survived in archives to the present day. Most of the original responses are housed in Spain, in either the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville or the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, while a further 43 responses form part of the Benson Latin American Collection in the University of Texas library in Austin. (The library’s webpage about the Relaciones geográficas has several links to images of sample pages and maps).

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas (1577)

The accounts contain a wealth of information about population, relief, flora, fauna, economic activities and lifestyles. Some also include maps of the areas being described. However these early maps do not follow modern conventions in terms of having a uniform scale across the area being shown, or an orientation that is consistent in terms of compass directions. They are pictorial maps, where the scale varies across the map, and where areas are delimited, or places are linked, without apparent regard for direction.

One such map (see image above) depicts the area around Zempoala (Hidalgo). This is analyzed by Barbara E. Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History at Fordham University, in an online article, Mapping Babel: A Sixteenth-Century Indigenous Map from Mexico, published in The Appendix, a “journal of narrative and experimental history”. In the article, Mundy provides a detailed, step-by-step account of the map, with lots of additional related images and information.

Detail of map, showing Tepemayalco

Detail of map, showing Tepemaxalco

Mundy’s analysis reveals several “acts of translation” that have been made by the indigenous artist(s) presumed to be responsible for drawing the map.

For example, the artist(s) made the Spanish paper provided for the map more closely resemble its indigenous counterpart (bark paper), by joining sheets together to create the size they wanted for the map. In addition, unlike modern maps where the viewer is essentially static, with the map details arranged around them, indigenous maps demand changes of perspective, mobile viewers, who have to reorientate themselves depending where they are on the map in order to see things clearly.

Many of the images are a translation, perhaps of similar European images. For instance, like most towns on the map, Tepemaxalco is shown with “a conventional sign for a Christian chapel: a small building drawn in perspective with one side marked by a shadowing grey wash, topped with belfry and cross.”

The map also links the pictograph for each place name to its name written in alphabetic script. “The pictograph for Tepemaxalco (see image) registers some of its Nahuatl components: tepetl, ‘hill,’ maitl, ‘hand,’ xalli, ‘sand’ and co, ‘place of.’ Below, the name is written in alphabetic script, probably introduced by the Franciscans who evangelized this region.”

The dominant pictogram on this map is that for Zempoala (written “Cenpoballa” on the map). Mundy offers an interesting interpretation of this pictograph, which we hope to examine further in a future post.

Further reading

Barbara E Mundy. 2001. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas.

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Dec 052013
 

After studying 22 countries with sizable retirement communities, International Living (a consultancy group) rated Mexico as the fourth most attractive country for foreigners to retire to in 2013, after Ecuador, Panama and Malaysia. The study looked at eight factors: real estate, benefits for retired people, cost of living, integration, entertainment, health, infrastructure and climate.

According to the US Census Bureau, there are 41 million people of retirement age in the USA. More than half of them have annual incomes of between 70,000 and 150,000 dollars, and they are expected, on average, to live to the age of 83; 80% are home owners. This number will swell to 72.8 million by 2030, 40% of whom may have difficulties maintaining their previous lifestyles during retirement. Given its proximity, this makes Mexico an attractive destination for many baby-boomers seeking a comfortable retirement lifestyle.

But where in Mexico will these retirees choose to live?

According to this analysis by the consultancy Aregional, there are 36 specific areas in Mexico where the real estate market is targeting US baby boomers seeking a place to retire. About half of these locations (see map) are in central and western Mexico. Locations in these regions include Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende (both in the state of Guanajuato), Colima, Comala and Manzanillo (Colima); Chapala, Ajijic and Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco); and Nuevo Vallarta and Punta Mita (Nayarit).

Locations of retiree real estate developments. Credit: Aregional

Locations of retiree real estate developments. Credit: Aregional

Locations in northern Mexico important for retiree real estate include Rosarito, Ensenada and Los Algodones (Baja California); Los Cabos, La Paz and Loreto (Baja California Sur); Puerto Peñasco (Sonora) and Mazatlán (Sinaloa). [Kudos to RickS for noticing that Puerto Peñasco is not located very accurately!]

Retiree real estate is also prominent in several places in the south and south-east of Mexico, including  Acapulco and Punta Ixtapa (Guerrero); Huatulco (Oaxaca); Playa del Carmen and Cancún  (Quintana Roo); Puerto Progreso (Yucatán), as well as the cities of Campeche and Veracruz.

It is not known how many US retirees have already chosen to live in Mexico. While it is relatively easy to quantify the number of retiree tourists (those staying more than one night, but less than six months), it is impossible to accurately quantify the number of non-working, non-Mexicans who have chosen to relocate full-time to Mexico. Technically, these “residential tourists” are not really tourists at all but longer-term migrants holding residency visas.

Residential tourists already form a very distinct group in several Mexican towns and cities, with lifestyle needs and spending patterns that are very different from those of regular tourists. Their additional economic impact is believed to exceed $500 million a year.

A case study of residential tourism, and its pros and cons, in Chapala-Ajijic on the northern shore of Lake Chapala is an integral part of chapter 19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.

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Mexico’s Pemex is one of the most competitive oil firms in the world

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Dec 022013
 

Despite the criticisms regularly leveled at it, Mexico’s oil giant Pemex is actually one of the most competitive oil firms in the world.

First, its costs of exploration and production are much lower than those of most other major oil companies. Pemex’s production costs in 2012 averaged 6.84 dollars/barrel (d/b) of oil equivalent, well below the costs incurred by international rivals Exxon (9.91 d/b), Chevron (15.16), Total (8.17), Shell (12.47) and British Petroleum (12.50).

pemexPemex’s exploration and development costs are also among the world’s lowest. They fell from 16.13 d/b in 2011 to 13.77 d/b in 2012, mainly due to the discovery of several new reserves. Among major players, only Shell had lower costs (11.75 d/b), with Pemex well ahead of British Petroleum (17.37 d/b), Exxon (19.31), Total (22.68) and Chevron (28.81).

Thirdly, as new fields are fully explored, Mexico’s proven oil reserves are expected to continue to rise for a number of years, from the current level of 13.87 billion barrels to 14.92 billion barrels by 2018. (During this period, Pemex will extract an estimated 6.64 billion barrels, but they will be more than replaced by anticipated new discoveries)

How important is Pemex to the Mexican economy?

One third of Mexico’s national budget comes from the petro industry, which accounted for 7.6% of GDP in 2012.

In 2012, Pemex invested 23.9 billion dollars in Mexico, appreciably more than the 19.2 billion dollars invested that year by América Móvil, Femsa, Walmart, Frisco, Cemex, Liverpool, Alfa and Mexichem, combined.

In terms of revenues, Pemex had revenues in 2012 of 142.4 billion dollars, greater than the 139.1 billion dollars in revenues of América Móvil, WalMart, Femsa, Alfa and Cemex combined.

According to a Bloomberg analysis, between 1973 and 2012, Pemex generated a cash flow (before tax and depreciation) that was 63% higher than the total cash flow of all the firms listed on the Mexican Stock Market. In 2012, the Ebitda (Earnings before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortization) of Pemex was 88.2 billion dolalrs, compared to the combined 54.2 billion dolalrs of Ebitda for América Móvil, Banorte, Femsa, Walmart de México, Grupo Modelo, Cemex, Kof, Televisa, Peñoles and Alfa.

How important is Pemex in the worldwide picture?

According to Petroleum Intelligence Weekly, U.S. Energy Information Administration and U.S. Crude Oil Imports by Country, Pemex is one of the world’s five most important crude oil producers, after Aramco (Sauid Arabia), NIOC (Iran), CNPC (China) and KPC (Kuwait).

Pemex is the third largest oil exporter to the USA, after Canada and Saudi Arabia, but ahead of Venezuela and Nigeria.

Pemex installations in Mexico. (Adapted from Fig 15.5 of Geo-Mexico). All rights reserved.

Pemex installations in Mexico. (Adapted from Fig 15.5 of Geo-Mexico). All rights reserved.

Mexico has the world’s 13th largest crude oil reserves and Pemex has the world’s 15th highest oil company revenues.

Mexico’s proposed energy reforms, which will allow private sector firms more access to some parts of the oil and gas sector, will only serve to boost the competitiveness of Mexico’s oil industry. The major problems facing Pemex are not directly related to revenues or to competitiveness, but are the persistence of corruption and a lack of transparency.

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Many Mexican Bracero workers still trying to claim their pay

 Excerpts from Geo-Mexico, Updates to Geo-Mexico  Comments Off on Many Mexican Bracero workers still trying to claim their pay
Nov 302013
 

In response to severe labor needs during the second world war, the governments of Mexico and the USA initiated the Bracero guest worker program in 1942. The program enabled Mexico to contribute to the war effort by sending temporary agricultural workers to the USA. Mexicans were granted renewable six month visas to work on selected farms. Most migrants under the Bracero program came from the same three states, Michoacán, Jalisco and Guanajuato. They worked mostly in California and other states along the Mexican border.

Los BracerosAs a result of the Bracero program, some farmers in the USA became very dependent on relatively cheap Mexican labor. The program was considered a great success by farmers. Unfortunately mistreatment of Bracero laborers was widespread. In protest, the Mexican Government threatened to stop the flow of migrants. During the war many Mexicans who were not recruited under the Bracero program entered the USA illegally looking for work. Tolerance for unauthorized migration developed on both sides of the border. With a large dependency in the USA on Mexican farm workers and a large supply in Mexico, there was virtually no way to put a halt to this migration stream.

Labor unions, churches and Latino groups in the USA opposed the Bracero program on the grounds that it held down farm wages and impeded the upward mobility of US Hispanics. They convinced the US Congress to halt the Bracero program in 1964. Between 1942 and 1964 an estimated 4.5 million Mexican Bracero workers entered the USA. At its height in the late 1950s more than 500,000 workers migrated each year. Most were temporary migrants who returned to Mexico within a year, often settling in larger cities, exacerbating the flow of migrants from rural areas to the growing cities. The Bracero program set the stage for the continued high volume of Mexican labor migration to the USA.

In an effort to ensure that the Bracero workers were only temporary migrants to the USA, the US government withheld 10% of all their earnings. The US government then remitted this amount to the Mexican government for payment to the workers on their return home. More than 70 years after the Bracero program started, many braceros are still trying to claim money that they earned legitimately years ago and that is still owed to them by the Mexican government.

The struggles of temporary bracero workers who were never repaid the 10% that had been withheld, are detailed in a short October 2013 article entitled “Bracero Guestworkers, Unpaid”, written by Adam Goodman and Verónica Zapata Rivera (history doctorate students at, respectively, the University of Pennsylvania and Mexico’s National Autonomous University).

The article also describes some of the other injustices faced by Bracero workers, including forced whole-body fumigation with DDT as they crossed the US border.

For more information about the Bracero program, see The Bracero Archive

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How does Mexico’s unemployment rate compare to that of other countries?

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Nov 212013
 

In a recent post, we looked at The pattern of unemployment in Mexico in 2013 and saw how states in northern Mexico have significantly higher unemployment rates than most of southern Mexico. In this post we consider international comparisons. How does the rate of unemployment in Mexico compare to the rates in other countries?

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) publishes harmonised unemployment rates for its 31 member countries. The OECD calculates Mexico’s harmonised unemployment rate for the third quarter of 2013 at 4.9%. This is quite encouraging, since the average for OECD countries is 7.9%. (Note that these figures do not include “underemployment”.) Mexico’s unemployment rate is more favorable than that of its NAFTA partners, Canada (currently 7.1%) and the USA (7.6%).

The OECD members with the highest unemployment rates are Greece (27.4%), Spain (26.6%),, Portugal (16.4%), the Slovak Republic (14.0%) and Ireland (13.8%).

Among OECD members, only South Korea (3.1%)  Japan (4.0%) and Austria (4.1%) have a lower harmonised unemployment rate than Mexico.

 

Nov 162013
 

In an alliance with the Sonoran Institute, the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations helped the region’s communities create the first transborder Geotourism MapGuide, covering northern Sonora and southern Arizona. The mapguide was published in 2007:

The maps  have vignettes of information about history, culture, geology and many other aspects of the region, making it a useful guide for geo-tourists. While some might argue about the choice of locations and attractions described on the maps, this is a useful addition to the background reading for anyone thinking of traveling to this region with some time on their hands to explore.

Surprisingly, the map has only a very brief and somewhat dismissive mention of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de  Altar Biosphere Reserve:

“Stand at the rim of this mile-wide volcanic crater and you may feel as if you’re on the moon. This land of ancient lava, sand, and cinder cones is sacred to the O’Odham people. Today, those on the Sonora side of the border call themselves “Pápago.”

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Nov 142013
 

About 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Guadalajara as the crow flies is a wild and inhospitable arm of the Western Sierra Madre called the Sierra of Bolaños, a rugged northern extension of Jalisco most easily reached by light aircraft. The one way trip by road requires driving more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) from Guadalajara, half the distance being inside the adjacent state of Zacatecas. The Bolaños region has for centuries been an important silver mining area, and British capital and engineers left an indelible mark on the towns there.

Bolaños, the setting.

Bolaños, the setting. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

The once-grand colonial mining town of Bolaños fits snugly between the river and the rocky cliffs into which the first mine shafts were sunk. Its numerous old stone buildings, often with ornately carved doorways and windows, make it a fascinating place to wander around. With judicious restoration, Bolaños could undoubtedly find its way onto anyone’s list of Mexico’s top mining towns to visit. The town’s hanging bridge (puente colgante) links Bolaños, on the edge of mestizo territory, with the Huichol Indian villages in the mountains on the far side of the river. Huichol artwork, including colorful beadwork, is on sale in several stores in the town and it is common to see traditionally-dressed Huichol Indians in the streets.

Map of Jalisco state

Map of Jalisco. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Mineral riches

Relatively little is known of the pre-Columbian history of the Sierra of Bolaños but the area was probably only sparsely peopled, perhaps by Tepecano Indians. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Spanish adventurers had founded the town of Chimaltitán which later served as their base for both subduing the natives militarily and converting them to Christianity. They later founded the towns of Bolaños, a short distance to the north, and San Martín de Bolaños to the south.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Spanish were in complete control and the Bolaños mines were producing between 2 and 3 million pesos worth of silver per year, or about 25% of the silver production in the whole of New Spain—a very considerable amount, bearing in mind that each peso was then worth about a dollar.

By the 1760s, 16,000 people lived here. Overlooking an attractive small park in Bolaños is the rococo Guadalupe Chapel (the church of San José), a gift to the town from Antonio de Vivanco, owner of several mines. In 1789, de Vivanco became Marquis Vivanco, Viscount of Bolaños.The prosperity of these times is reflected in the sumptuous architecture of the buildings in Bolaños that date from this period. Two particularly fine examples are the Casa de la Condesa, and Antonio de Vivanco’s former home, with its unusual frescoes, both on the street which parallels the river. Bolaños even boasted a two-story Royal Mint, with a lovely facade. Built on one side of the main plaza in the 1750s, this partially restored gem has an Austrian Hapsburg two-headed eagle carved in the stone above its main door. This royal crest may have inspired the local Huichol Indians to use two and even four-headed eagles (a head for each cardinal direction) in their handicrafts.

Main plaza in Bolaños

Main plaza in Bolaños. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

But the boom times of the 1750s were not to last for ever. Following a series of floods (the most serious of which occurred in 1757 and 1781), land disputes, the ever-increasing quantities of costly mercury required for smelting, and disagreements over mining rights, Bolaños’s first boom period came to an abrupt end. By 1798 the town was virtually abandoned. Its largest church, begun in 1778, still stands half-finished; today, this is probably the only place in the world where you can play basketball under floodlights in the shell of an ancient church!

A new company and British miners

British influence in Mexico quickly gained momentum following Mexico’s Independence in 1821. On 27 September 1821, Agustín de Iturbide entered Mexico City in triumph. Most gachupines (Spanish-born residents of Mexico) had fled with whatever assets they could muster back to Spain. The rest were expelled in 1829. Iturbide desperately needed funds, to pay his 80,000-strong army and to set up an administration but, after eleven years of war and chaotic politics, the nation was fatigued and the Treasury empty.

In order to stimulate the Mexican economy, Iturbide needed to revive the mines, many of which had been abandoned during the Independence War. However, the mines had drainage problems and needed large investments of capital. Mexico’s need, coupled with the aspirations and greed of England’s capitalists, proved to be an unstoppable combination. Between 1820 and 1824, no fewer than seven different mining corporations relying on U.K. capital were formed in Mexico. One of these was the Venture Company of the Mines of Bolaños.

The Bolaños Company commissioned a full inspection of their mines. This concluded that, given “modern technology”, a fortune in silver was awaiting exploration, with a potential profit of over a million dollars. The firm’s investors were happy to pour money into bringing British machinery and the ingenuity of expert tin miners from Cornwall to back up their intentions.

In the early days, it was difficult and even dangerous to travel to the mines. No fewer than 15 of the 45 Cornish miners who accompanied the first shipment of machinery for Bolaños in 1825, died through accidents or disease before taking up their posts.

Mine owners had their own agenda. Most insisted that their miners worked completely naked in an effort to thwart any attempted pilfering of ore. Miners grew ever more ingenious in trying to circumvent the rules. They were discovered concealing silver ore in their hair, hollowed-out hammer handles, their mouths and ears, and even, on one occasion, inside the disemboweled body of an overseer killed in an accident!

Despite all the problems the British were determined to succeed. They built a reservoir above the village of Tepec and then a five kilometer long canal, much of it underground, to bring water to the town of Bolaños. On the east side of the small church in Tepec, a camposanto (cemetery) was built specifically for the English miners and their descendants since they were not Catholics and should not therefore be buried in the town’s main graveyard.

To assist in drainage, the British assembled two massive hydraulic wheels, one 12 meters, and the other 14 meters in diameter. Their most important contribution, though, was to import a 32-ton steam engine from the U.K. It took 106 days for this engine to be hauled over the mountains from Veracruz. Locals say that the reason the San José church now has only small bells is because the large ones were melted down to make wheel rims to help move the steam engine.

Bolaños grew into a town of more than 30,000 people, with seven major mines in production, employing thousands of workers. However, despite the mammoth injection of British capital and technology, the company failed to extract enough silver to obtain any return on its investment. In 1842, amidst political rumblings after several accidents and a fire which cost the lives of more than 150 miners, and with the Mexican government delaying payments for silver bars “bought” by the Mint, the company was wound up and Bolaños once again echoed to the sounds of bird-song rather than of hammer, chisel and steam engine.

The town’s population declined to fewer than 5000. It became a ghost town, another casualty of the ever-changing fortunes of mining centers around the world. Various attempts to revive the mines in the late nineteenth century by North American interests came to nothing. At the end of the last century, a U.S.-Mexico joint venture mined successfully for some years but finally went out of production in about 1998. Today, Bolaños is still a small town, a mere shadow of its former self, though one offering a few small hotels and ample opportunities for adventure, eco- and cultural tourism.

Twenty kilometers south of Bolaños, down the valley and past Chimaltitán, is San Martín de Bolaños. The El Pilón mine, near San Martín, opened in the 1980s, is the only mine currently operating in the valley. By 2007, it had produced over 30 million ounces of silver, as well as some ancillary gold.

A visit to this remote corner of Jalisco provokes deep feelings of admiration for the courage and audacity of all those who chose to settle here, including the nineteenth century British immigrants who left a Europe torn by upheaval, in search of fame and fortune in Mexico.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 23 of my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (4th edition, 2013)

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