Dec 152014
 

A week ago, we highlighted the first of a series of four articles in the LA Times about the living and working conditions faced by migrant farmworkers in Mexico as they harvest crops that end up on dinner tables not only in Mexico, but also in the USA. The other three articles in the series are just as disturbing, but make for compelling reading.

la-mexico-farm-labor-map-alejandrina-2014-1212

The pilgrimage of 12-year-old Alejandrina Castillo during a single year as she accompanies her migrant farmworker parents. Credit: LA Times

The journalist and photographer responsible for this series of articles deserve high praise for their persistence and determination in exposing some of the “dirty little secrets” of Mexico’s agribusiness sector.

Links to the full series on the LA Times website:

Part 1: Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables – Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers. But for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.

Part 2: Desperate workers on a Mexican mega-farm: ‘They treated us like slaves’ – A raid exposes brutal conditions at Bioparques, one of Mexico’s biggest tomato exporters, which was a Wal-Mart supplier. But the effort to hold the grower accountable is looking more like a tale of impunity.

Part 3: Company stores trap Mexican farmworkers in a cycle of debt – The company store is supposed to be a lifeline for migrant farm laborers. But inflated prices drive people deep into debt. Many go home penniless, obliged to work off their debts at the next harvest.

Part 4: Children harvest crops and sacrifice dreams in Mexico’s fields- About 100,000 children under 14 pick crops for pay at small- and mid-size farms across Mexico, where child labor is illegal. Some of the produce they harvest reaches American consumers, helping to power an export boom.

Related posts:

Dec 082014
 

Every so often, a news article comes along which rattles our perceptions, causes us to think, and begs us to discuss big issues. This is one of those times.

Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photojournalist Don Bartletti traveled across nine Mexican states, observing conditions and interviewing workers at some of the mega-farms that have powered the country’s agricultural export boom.

The resulting article, the first of a four-part series, was published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, and offers lots of potential for serious discussions in geography classes around the world about agribusiness practices, supply chains, the persistence of inequalities, and a host of other issues. The article is accompanied by some great photographs and short, informative videos.

la-times-article

In “Hardship on Mexico’s farms, a bounty for U.S. tables“, Marosi and Bartletti find that thousands of laborers at Mexico’s mega-farms endure harsh conditions and exploitation while supplying produce for American consumers.

This is a must-read series for anyone interested in the Geography of Mexico, and we can’t wait to see the next three parts of this series.

Related posts:

Oct 042014
 

Mexico is the world’s largest producer and exporter of avocados. The avocado harvest for the 2013/14 season was close to 1.5 million metric tons, a new record. More than 90% of Mexico’s avocados are grown in the state of Michoacán, where 12% of all agricultural land is currently under avocado orchards.

Avocado-growing states

Avocado-growing states

Mexico produces about 1.5 million metric tons of avocados a year, on 170,000 hectares in 27 states. The principal producing states are Michoacán 1.2 million tons, Jalisco 87,000; State of México 56,000; Nayarit 34,000; Morelos 27,000; Guerrero 14,000.

Avocado exports have risen sharply and, in the first half of 2014, totaled 353,000 metric tons, worth 800 million dollars, 29% higher than for the same period a year earlier. The most important markets for Mexican avocados are the U.S., Japan, Canada, Central America and Europe, but demand for avocados in Asia, especially China, is rising very quickly.  Exports to China rose 724% for the period to 1,260 metric tons, worth 3 million dollars.

Exports to the USA of avocados were worth 651 million dollars, 31% higher than a year ago; exports to Japan reached 62 million dollars, up 29%; and to Canada 41 million dollars, up 33%.

Related posts

Jun 052014
 

This index page lists the major posts on Geo-Mexico related to agriculture, farming and food production. Additional agriculture-related posts can easily be found via our tag system.

Enjoy!

General posts related to agriculture and agricultural products:

Individual crops and products:

Other Geo-Mexico index pages:

Apr 142014
 

Food activist Jill Richardson, author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It, has a blog called La Vida Locavore. (Locavores are people interested in eating food that is locally produced, and has not traveled long distances.)

Richardson, who serves on the policy advisory board of the Organic Consumers Association, visited Mexico twice in 2010 and has published an interesting online diary of her trips. Richardson visited the two contrasting states of Jalisco and Chiapas. In the former wealthy state, she was able to spend some time in the agricultural community of Cuquio. Her purpose on this trip was “to learn about the impacts of the Green Revolution and NAFTA on corn production there.” Later in the year she visited Chiapas, a far less wealthy state, during the time of the coffee and corn harvests, “working with and learning about the Zapatistas (an indigenous insurgent group).”

Educational level of farmers in Mexico, 2007

Educational level of farmers in Mexico, 2007. Credit: LaVidaLocavore.com

Following her trips, Richardson compiled a page summarizing agricultural statistics for Chiapas, Jalisco and Cuquio, based on Mexico’s 2007 Agricultural Census. The page has numerous tables and graphs about everything from crops grown and machinery used to irrigation, access to insurance, living conditions and other sources of household income.

Agriculture in Cuquio, 2010

Agriculture in Cuquio, 2007. Credit: LaVidaLocovore.com

Richardson’s passion for produce that is organic and locally produced is admirable. The anecdotes in her diary entries are well told, and raise important issues about the overuse/abuse of pesticides and fertilizers,the exploitation of farmers, microlending and a host of other factors that caught her attention. While her diaries are certainly not a comprehensive analysis of agriculture in the areas she visited, they do shed some light on some of the important issues facing farmers there. The diary entries are worth reading for the many examples and photographs included.

Her diary entries include:

I should note that despite Richardson’s impassioned and persuasive writing, I’m not actually in agreement with her advocacy for locavorism. I find myself more in agreement with the reviewer of her book who wrote that, “The author’s rabid advocacy of locavorism is especially myopic; she brushes past the costliness and impracticality—When buying eggs I ask the farmer how many chickens they own and if these chickens are on pasture—and ignores critics who argue that locavorism is an energy-inefficient fad.” (See The energy efficiency of farming in Mexico and elsewhere.)

That said, Richardson’s online diary is a very useful resource and likely to be a valuable starting point for many classroom discussions.

Related posts

Geo-Mexico has many other agriculture-related posts (easily found via our tag system). They include posts about the geography of growing/producing cacao, honey, sugarcane, coffeeChristmas trees, chiles, floriculture, tomatoes, tequila, horticultural crops and oranges.

Apr 052014
 

How are bananas grown commercially?

Banana plants (their lack of a central woody stem means they are plants, not trees) can grow to heights of 10 meters (30 ft), with leaves up to 4 meters (12 ft) in length. Banana plants grown commercially are usually much lower in height for ease of management and to limit wind damage.

Each individual plant produces a single stem. Each stem contains six to nine clusters of bananas (“hands”), each with 10 to 20 individual bananas (“fingers”). Commercial banana stems each produce six or seven hands with 150 to 200 bananas. Each stem weights between 20 and 50 kg.

A typical banana plant grows to a size with harvestable fruit in nine to 18 months. Harvesting bananas is often done by workers in pairs, with one cutting the fruit off the stem and the other catching the bananas to prevent them striking the ground and being damaged.

After the fruit is harvested, the stalk dies or is cut down. In its place one of more “daughter” (or “ratoon”) plants will sprout from the same underground rhizome that produced the mother plant. These shoots are genetic clones of the parent plant.

Banana plants require rich soil, nine to 12 months of sunshine and frequent heavy rains (2000-4000 mm/yr), generally more than can be provided by irrigation. Bananas are either spayed with pesticides or wrapped in plastic for protection from insects. Wrapping the fruit also reduces the bruising caused by friction with leaves in windy conditions.

Bananas are easily bruised and damaged in transit, but can be picked green (unripe) and ripened quickly at destination. They are generally picked and packed on or close to the plantation.

Commercial plantations of bananas often use very large areas of land, with 2000-2400 plants/hectare. Good access to transportation routes (roads or railways) is essential in order to avoid damage after packaging. Banana cultivation is very labor intensive. Banana plants are often used as shade for crops such as cacao or coffee.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Banana packing plant. Credit: Sagarpa.

Challenges for the commercial cultivation of bananas

Weather and climatic hazards

Banana plants can easily be damaged by strong wind and entire plantations can be destroyed by tropical storms and hurricanes.

Disease

Bananas are susceptible to a wide variety of pests and diseases. For example, Panama disease (aka Black Wilt), an infection in the soil, ravaged banana plantations throughout the Caribbean and Central American in the 1950s, virtually wiping out the Gros Michel variety cultivated at that time. The more fragile Cavendish bananas proved resistant, though they required more specialist packing. A new strain of Panama disease (Tropical race 4) capable of killing Cavendish bananas has emerged in Asia, but has yet to reach Latin
America.

Fungal diseases such as black sigatoka are one of the current major issues faced by banana producers. To combat black sigatoka, plantations may be aerially sprayed with pesticides from helicopters. Black sigatoka has already reduced banana yields in some parts of the world by up to 50%. Fighting this disease apparently now accounts for about 30% of Chiquita’s costs.

Commercial bananas have limited genetic variability and limited resistance to disease. This has led some experts to argue that fungal diseases may wipe out commercial banana plantations permanently, though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) disagrees. The FAO argues that export varieties of bananas make up only about 10% of the total world banana crop, and that considerable genetic diversity remains in the plants grown for local consumption by small-scale farmers in developing countries.

Pesticide applications and pollution

Numerous studies have suggested that commercial banana production is often accompanied by high levels of pollution, both of the soil and of water courses. For example, the authors of “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico” studied an area of 10,450 hectares in Tabasco where the “agricultural activities are primarily banana production and agro forestry plantations (Spanish cedar and bananas).”

The area had been sprayed weekly with the pesticide Mancozeb for a decade at an application rate of 2.5 kg/ha/week. The study monitored soil, surface, subsurface and groundwater pollution. It found that there was a “severe” accumulation of manganese in the soil, while surface and subsurface water was “highly polluted” with ethylene thiourea, the main metabolite of Mancozeb. The authors concluded that “The level of pollution in the region presents a worrisome risk for aquatic life and for human health.”

Banana research

In Latin America, the Honduran Foundation for Agricultural Research is a leading banana breeding center and the source of many promising hybrids, including some that can either be cooked when green (like plantains) or eaten as ripe bananas. It usually takes decades to develop and introduce a new hybrid. Scientists are also working on genetically-engineered (GE) bananas that will remain ripe longer, and are trying to develop dwarf hybrids that produce large amounts of fruit for their weight, are easy to work, and less susceptible to storm damage.

Sources for science of cultivation methods and issues:

  • Morton, Julia. 1987. Banana, chapter in Fruits of warm climates.
  • Violette Geissen, Franzisco Que Ramos, Pedro de J. Bastidas-Bastidas, Gilberto Díaz-González, Ricardo Bello-Mendoza, Esperanza Huerta-Lwanga, and Luz E. Ruiz-Suárez, 2010. “Soil and Water Pollution in a Banana Production Region in Tropical Mexico”, in Bull. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, October 2010, 407–413.

Related posts:

Mar 202014
 

In an earlier post, The geography of banana production in Mexico, we provided an overview of banana production in Mexico. Eight different kinds of bananas are grown in Mexico (see graphic). The harvesting of bananas is mainly in the third quarter of each year. A series of maps showing the distribution of each of the eight types can be accessed via the tabs on this page.

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico

Eight kinds of bananas grown in Mexico. Click to enlarge. Credit: SAGARPA

The eight main types of bananas grown in Mexico are:

  • Cavendish gigante – thick skin, milder taste, the most popular of the smaller varieties, 55% of national production, half of it from Tabasco
  • Macho – plantains, best eaten cooked; about 15% of national production, mainly in Chiapas (municipalities of Suchiate and Acapetahua), Tabasco (Centro and Cunduacán) and Veracruz (Otatitlán and Tlacojalpan)
  • Tabasco – high quality, medium sized fruit with excellent flavor. About 7% of national production
  • Valery – less firm fruit, consistency more like a cherry (4%)
  • Dominico – short, squat, relatively straight and sweet-tasting (3%)
  • Pera – fat, slightly curved, and up to 24 cm in length. Each finger can weigh 300 grams (2%)
  • Manzano – long rhizomes, pleasant taste and smell (1%)
  • Morado – disease resistant, stronger tasting, orange-tinted skin (0.5%)

Mexican banana and plantain recipes (from MexConnect)

Related posts:

Mar 132014
 

Having noted in previous posts that farm sizes in southern Mexico are smaller (on average) than in northern Mexico, and that farm size is affected by socio-economic factors, and that farmers of smallholdings are unable to generate a decent profit, it is interesting to consider the relationship between farm size and marginalization.

Mexico’s National Population Commission (Conapo) has formulated a compound indicator of “marginalization” and publishes its “marginalization index” at regular intervals. Data are available at both the state and the municipal level for the entire country. This discussion relies on the state level data.

Scatter graph showing average farm size and marginalization index

Scatter graph showing average farm size and marginalization index. Data: INEGI, Conapo. Credit: Geo-Mexico

Each dot on this scatter plot represents a state. For the 32 points, the statistical correlation (Spearman’s Rank Correlation Coefficient) is –0.483. This negative correlation (significant at the 95% level) means that marginalization is inversely associated with farm size  (i.e. the greater the marginalization, the smaller the likely farm size).

In short, the north-south divide that we found when looking at the pattern of farm sizes in Mexico is closely linked to the north-south economic divide that characterizes the country.

Related posts:

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 crops and oranges. Also worth reading are:

Mar 082014
 

Bananas are the world’s fourth most important dietary staple after rice, wheat and corn (maize). They are a major source of nutrition (low in fat, but rich in potassium and vitamins A, B, C and G) for people living in tropical areas. Of the 80 million tons of bananas produced globally each year, less than 20% enters international trade; the remainder is eaten locally. Bananas that are ripe and eaten raw are called desert bananas; those that are cooked are called plantains.

India is the world’s largest banana producer (31% of the world total) but is not an important exporter. Other leading producers include China (10%) and the Philippines (9%). Mexico (2%) is the world’s tenth largest producer, and the world’s 13th largest exporter. The world’s leading exporters of bananas (in dollar terms) are Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia and the Philippines.

How did bananas reach Mexico?

The banana plant is thought to have originated in southern Asia, possibly in the Mekong Delta area. Though the details are sketchy, banana plants were carried from there to Indonesia, Borneo, Philippines and Pacific Islands, including Hawaii. By AD650, bananas had reached Egypt and the Mediterranean coast. In the fiteenth century, Portuguese navigators and slave traders carried bananas to the Canary Islands. By the early sixteenth century, bananas had been introduced by Spanish missionaries to Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola in the “New World”.

Bananas reached Mexico for the first time in 1554 when Bishop Vasco de Quiroga (the first Bishop of Michoacán), returning from Europe, brought some plants back with him from his short layover in Santo Domingo.

FAO statistics for the past few years show that Mexico has about 75,000 ha planted with bananas. Total production is close to 2.2 million metric tons a year, giving an average yield of about 30 metric tons/ha. The yield is trending slowly upwards. The yield under irrigation (38.3 tons/ha) is 55% higher than that from rainfed farms. As a result, while irrigated farms account for just under 40% of the total acreage of bananas, they supply 50% of total production. Commercial banana growing provides about 100,000 direct jobs in Mexico and 150,000 indirect jobs.

Mexico's banana-growing states

Mexico’s banana-growing states [corrected]

The main banana producing states (see map) in Mexico are:

  • Chiapas (35% of national production), especially the municipality of Tapachula
  • Tabasco (25%), where average price per metric ton is lower. Mexico’s largest banana exporting company, San Carlos Tropical Exports, is based in Tabasco.
  • Veracruz (13%), especially in the municipalities of Martínez de la Torre, Atzalán, Tlapacoyán, Nautla and Papantla
  • Michoacán and Colima (6.5% each)

Bananas are also grown, on a smaller scale, in Jalisco (4.5%), Guerrero and Oaxaca (3% each) and Nayarit (2%).

Maps showing banana cultivation areas in individual states can be generated via SIAP, the Agriculture Secretariat’s online database system.

Trade in bananas

The world’s major importers are the USA (bananas are the single most widely eaten fruit in that country), Germany, Japan, Russia, UK, Italy, France, Sweden and China.

Bananas were first introduced into US diets (from Cuba) in the early 19th century. The earliest large-scale shipments of bananas to the USA were from Jamaica in the 1870s, and were organized by Lorenzo Dow Baker, who later founded the Boston Fruit Company, which later became the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International.

Banana exports from Mexico have risen rapidly in recent years and reached 307,000 metric tons in 2012 (compared to 60,000 tons in 2005), worth about 140 million dollars. The USA is the world’s largest importer of bananas and Mexico’s main foreign market, receiving 80% of all exports of Mexican bananas.

Source for history of bananas:

  • Jenkins, Virginia S. Bananas: An American History. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2000

Other posts related to agricultural products:

Mar 032014
 

The uneven distribution of farmland in Mexico was one of the fundamental causes of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, but by no means the only one. Landless campesinos (peasant farmers) lacked any way to control their own supplies of food. Revolutionary leaders called for the expropriation of the large estates or haciendas, which had been the principal means of agricultural production since colonial times, and the redistribution of land among the rural poor. A law governing this radical change in the land tenure system came into force in 1917 and the process has continued, albeit sporadically, into modern times.

About half of all cultivated land in Mexico was converted from large estates into ejidos, a form of collective farming. In most ejidos, each individual ejidatario has the rights to use between 4 and 20 hectares (10-50 acres) of land, depending on soil quality and whether or not it is irrigated. In addition, members of the ejido share collective rights over the use of local pasture and woodland.

By 1970 land redistribution had been more or less completed. Even so, most farming land still remained in the hands of a very small minority of farmers (Figure 15.2). Only 1% of farms were larger than 5000 hectares (12,355 acres) but between them they shared 47% of all farm land. Meanwhile, 66% of farms were smaller than 10 hectares (25 acres) yet they shared only 2% of all farm land.

Have things improved since then?

The 2007 farm census (see graphic) revealed that two-thirds (66.4%) of all farms are under 5 hectares (12.4 acres) in area; this percentage has remained roughly the same over the past 40 years. Between them, they farm just 6.2% of Mexico’s total farmland.

The number and size of farms, 2007

The number and size of farms, 2007 (updated Figure 15.2 of Geo-Mexico). Data: INEGI. Credit: Tony Burton / Geo-Mexico

The number of small farms has increased since 1970, but so has the total number of farms. Between 1991 and 2007, there was a 55.2% increase in the number of farms under 2 hectares in area, and a 45.4% increase in the total area they worked.

There is no solid data for why the number of microfarms has increased, but it may be partially explained by larger farms being split into smaller pieces (one for each family member) following the death of their original owner.

Most tiny farms are likely to be family-run, producing crops largely for subsistence, rather than for market. Small plots of land are likely to prove uneconomic and unsustainable to farm; it is impossible to generate sufficient profit from them for a family to enjoy a decent livelihood.

In one study, Enrique de la Madrid Cordero, writing for Financiera Rural, calculated that a typical smallholding of 5 hectares, planted with corn (maize) could generate a profit for the owner of about $4000 pesos. This profit represents 6 months work. At the time of his study, someone earning minimum wage for the same six months would have received a total of almost $10,000 pesos. The precise numbers vary, depending on average yields and the crops planted, but cultivating a smallholding is obviously not an easy way to make a living.

These same farmers are unable to advance since they have no means of accessing credit, having no suitable assets to offer as collateral, even if they could ever afford to pay the interest! Similarly, they do not have the savings to invest in improved equipment, higher cost seeds or to introduce new techniques or technology. They are, essentially, trapped in a cycle of poverty.

At the other end of the scale, a very small percentage of farms in Mexico are very large indeed. Nationwide, 2.2% of farms account for 65.1% of the total area farmed in the country. Larger farms are commercial operations, sometimes multinational operations. Their size and profitability ensures they have ready access to credit, and can adopt new technologies and methods relatively quickly.

The uneven distribution of land in Mexico clearly remains an issue, one that is likely to impact social justice agricultural output and productivity for decades to come.

Related posts:

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 crops and oranges. Also worth reading are: