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close this bookDiversity, Globalization, and the Ways of Nature (IDRC, 1995, 234 p.)
close this folder11. Latin America and the Caribbean: A history of environmental degradation
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIndigenous cultures
View the documentThe colonial period
View the documentExploitation of natural resources after independence
View the documentEffects of globalization on the environment
View the documentThe maquiladora phenomenon


Environmental changes in Latin America and the Caribbean during the last few centuries are probably unparalleled in other parts of the world. During this period, the continent has experienced widespread and increasingly dense human occupation of formerly sparsely populated areas and a general process of urbanization that catapulted provincialsized cities into huge megalopolises of many millions.

As a result of these changes, most indigenous ecosystems were profoundly transformed: forests became savannas and farmlands; grasslands became crops or forests; deserts were irrigated; aquifers were depleted; rivers, lakes, and coastal waters were contaminated; biodiversity has been under constant attack; and quality of life has deteriorated or is under threat. Thus, one of the richest continents in natural and cultural diversities, with the strongest resource base, has been losing all of it at an alarming rate. The most serious concern is that the process is not slowing; on the contrary, it seems to be accelerating daily.

What caused this situation? Where are the problems most acute? What are the effects of globalization? What can be done to prevent fur’ ther degradation? The answers to these questions are not simple or straightforward; they are the result of a peculiar historical evolution and a unique natural geography.

Indigenous cultures

Human occupation of the American continents took place at a relatively late stage in the evolution of humankind, perhaps as late as 30 thousand years ago. Animal species in African and Eurasian ecosystems, where humans had been evolving for a long time, adapted to this effective mammal, and in most cases managed to survive. In America, humans found a different fauna, composed of animals not adapted to human presence and, frequently, an easy target for the arriving hunters and gatherers. Some of the large mammals (several species of Glyptodon, Toxodon, Mylodon, and Mastodon) were hunted to extinction in a few millennia. Therefore, from the beginning, humans provoked a profound upheaval in American ecosystems.

“Paleo-lndian” groups were soon forced to adapt to the changes that they themselves had produced. After many generations of migration and technological and social development, the new societies gradually developed sustainable social and environmental models, which, in general, conserved the main ecosystems without major changes for several millennia. A whole spectrum of cultures evolved in the various environments of the Americas and, by the time the European conquerors arrived, they were well established throughout the continents.

In the high valleys of the central Andes and Central America, numerous farming societies were organized into relatively large kingdoms or empires, such as those of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Tahuantisuyu in Peru. The Mexican states were organized around the cultivation of corn, chili peppers, and tomatoes, and the raising of turkeys and dogs. Their capital, at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards, was the large island-city of Tenochtitlan. The Peruvian states of western South America based their economy mainly on potato, corn, and quinoa farming and raising llamas; their capital was the large Andean city of Cuzco.

In the northern Andes, the high valleys were occupied by agricultural societies (the Chibchas) who had also developed impressive skills in metallurgy. Chibcha groups were organized into small states ruled by a chieftain.

In the Yucatan and Guatemala, relatively prosperous farming towns have been established by the Mayas, who were in the process of economic and political decline when the Europeans arrived. Several larger towns were abandoned and apparently some of their inhabitants settled in the mountains not far from present-day Guatemala City.

The Caribbean islands had been occupied by many farming and fishing communities - originally the Arawaks, who had been displaced by the Caribs on some islands. Arawaks and Caribs were also present throughout the forests of South America.

The huge South American forests were the territory of the Tupi-Guarani cultures, who gradually became well adapted to these rich, but difficult, ecosystems. The Tupi-Guaranis extended from the Amazon to the Rio de la Plata and from the Andes foothills to the Atlantic Ocean. Their subsistence was based on itinerant farming of corn and cassava and various extractive activities, such as hunting, fishing, and the gathering of plants and small animals.

The grasslands of South America were inhabited by nonfarming groups of hunter-gatherer-fishers who lived by hunting the venado (a small South American deer), ostriches, and armadillos. These societies were organized politically in small groups and confederations. Similar groups, but larger and better organized politically, existed in the prairies of North America, where they relied on buffalo hunting and other extractive activities.

Finally, the cooler regions at the extremes of the continents were inhabited by various groups of hunters and fishers, such as the Tehuelches, the Onas, and the Fueguinos in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America, and the Inuit, Dene, and Algonquins in the northern regions of North America.

In general’ indigenous societies were adapted to the specific conditions in local ecosystems; the ones that did not adapt, disappeared. In the rain-forest ecosystems, complex land-use systems developed. They included small plots for slash-and-bum farming, specific areas reserved for medicinal plants or animals, and zones for social activities and various religious or “magic” rites. On the whole, this system constituted a sustainable approach to forest management.

In the grasslands, hunting practices included taboos and respect for “totems,” ensuring that indiscriminate killing could not endanger the survival of the resource species. Both in southern and in northern grasslands, hunting groups followed the herds, which were extensive. There are many historical references to the huge numbers of buffalo roaming the North American central plains. Similar references exist on the abundance of venado in the Uruguayan grasslands; according to the Portuguese explorer, de Souza, in 1532 they “covered the land to the horizon.” Their numbers were more or less stable.

Farming activities in the mountain societies were also carried out in a sustainable manner. The farming systems in the Altiplano were (and still are) complex, including cultivation of several different types of crops at the same time and a rotation system, ensuring maximum production without irreversible losses of fertility or incidence of plagues.

The colonial period

After 1492, when the first Spanish expedition arrived, a dramatic change occurred. Before the end of the 15th century, the first Spanish explorers became conquerors, settling in several islands of the Caribbean - Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, etc. - and, shortly after this, the Portuguese founded their first colonies in Brazil. In Santo Domingo, the Spaniards treated the indigenous population as slaves, raped native women, and did not hesitate to kill whole communities when they offered resistance. After 50 years of Spanish occupation, only a few hundred indigenous people had survived these genocidal practices and the deadly European diseases. Finally, widespread suicide among the survivors resulted in the early disappearance of these ethnic groups. Similar developments occurred in the other Caribbean islands controlled by the Spaniards. In Brazil, the behaviour of the Portuguese was not much different. Thousands of indigenous people were put to work as slaves, and expeditions set out from the settled areas on the coast into the interior to obtain more labourers.

In the 16th century, the main purpose of the Europeans was to obtain precious metals and gemstones, such as gold, silver, and emeralds. The Spaniards invested much effort in exploiting existing mines and opening new ones. They developed silver and gold mines in Potosi, in upper Peru (present-day Bolivia), Taxco, Mexico, and many other areas. The financial gains from these mining activities funded a massive colonization effort.

Spaniards and Portuguese settlers reproduced the European feudal system in America. The settlers were awarded encomiendas, the equivalent of European fiefdoms. The production systems introduced by the Europeans were extractive and damaging. Widespread mineral exploitation and indiscriminate deforestation, overcultivation, and overgrazing without concern for sustainability were the rule. The impact was severe in many areas, and some ecosystems were destroyed beyond repair. Because of the limited number of settlers, however, a major portion of the natural environment remained relatively untouched.

In Andean farming areas, the landowners controlled large numbers of indigenous peasants who continued farming, more or less as before. except for having to work for long periods, sometimes many years, in the mines. In the grasslands, the land was awarded to settlers to raise cattle, which were introduced in southern South America in the 16th century. Cattle replaced the venado and other herbivorous prairie and’ mars, some of which became more and more scarce and, in a few cases, came close to extinction.

Exploitation of natural resources after independence

At the beginning of the 19th century, most Spanish colonies declared independence, taking advantage of Spain’s preoccupation with Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula. About 20 new countries were formed in Hispanic America. A few years later, in 1822, the Portuguese colonies in Brazil also became an independent monarchy. Cuba and Puerto Rico remained under colonial rule until the end of the 19th century.

However, the old feudal-style colonial exploitation persisted in the recently formed countries. The new criollo elites were often the largest landowners, and the old social structure remained intact. Large farms and ranches were the successors of the old encomiendas and continued producing in much the same way as the old Spanish and Portuguese plantations had.

During the 19th century, countries of Latin America and the Caribbean fumed to the processing of various raw materials and food products for export, mainly to Europe and, especially during the last decades of the century, the United States. Exploitation of natural resources was ruthless, with little concern for environmental effects. In areas of high population density, such as mountain valleys or coastal zones, deforestation was intense, mining and quarrying proceeded at an ever faster pace, hunting drove many wild animals to the brink of extinction, and soil erosion was common in farming areas.

In the 20th century, these trends increased. Lands belonging to indigenous peoples were occupied with little recognition of their rights, and environmental damage continued. The economies of Latin American and Caribbean countries, which were export-oriented from colonial times, became even more so because of the establishment of railroads and the growth of major ports.

In Argentina and Uruguay, economic growth was based on beef, leather, wool, and wheat. The railway system of Argentina converged on the main export port, Buenos Aires. This city had grown very quickly in both population and commercial activity. In 1870, it had a population of more than 100 thousand; in the 1950s, it had “town to 8 million people. In Uruguay, the railroad system radiated from Montevideo, the only exporting centre, which also grew rapidly from 50 thousand inhabitants in 1860, to 300 thousand in 1900, to 1 million by 1960. This demographic growth was the result of a continuing influx of immigrants, mainly from Europe, which in large measure determined the ethnic makeup of these cities.

In Brazil, the export market was based in Sao Paulo and its port, Santos, and in Rio de Janeiro, which was the capital until the 1960s. The main exports from the Sao Paulo area were coffee, sugarcane, and timber (Brazil pine). From Bahia and the northeast, cocoa, copra, sugarcane, and bananas were exported from the main ports: Salvador and Recife. The Amazon region specialized in the production of rubber, particularly near the port city of Manaus. This product was an important source of revenue for several decades, until the rubber tree was introduced in Malaysia and Brazilian production declined.

Recently, the Amazon has witnessed a widespread gold rush. The garimpeiros (small gold miners) have moved into many potentially gold-rich areas, seriously affecting formerly pristine environments. River sediments are dredged and treated with quicksilver (mercury) to separate the gold. Mercury is carried by the rivers and eventually concentrates in plant and animal tissues. In several Amazon rivers, fish systematically show high mercury levels; their human consumers with similar symptoms. In the fishing community of Rainha, on the Tapajoz, hair samples from local villagers have shown mercury levels much higher than the WHO standard maximum of 6 ppm (Serril 1994). Similar conditions are routinely found in the Madeira, Xingu, and Negro subbasins. Amazonian indigenous groups, which largely depend on fish for their survival, are often the first victims of this process of contamination and poisoning.

The Pacific coast countries and Bolivia, which were exporters of precious metals (mainly silver) in colonial times, continued to produce minerals, such as copper and nitrates in Chile and tin in Bolivia. In this region, centralization was less marked. This was primarily because of the region’s geography - a long mountain range or ranges bordering narrow coastal plains and valleys. The main export outlets were the two oldest colonial ports: Valparaiso in Chile and Lima, Peru.

In Central America, the Caribbean, and the northern coast of Colombia, the main products were bananas, coffee, and copra. Often, export activities were carried out by American-owned companies that controlled production and access to foreign markets. The United Fruit Company, which was extremely powerful in Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, used its influence to change governments or induce American military interventions. The Central American republics at that time were, ironically, called “Banana Republics.”

In Mexico, the drive to export was somewhat slowed during the revolution of the 1910s, when dictator Porfirio Diaz was overthrown by a peasant revolution headed by Emiliano Zapata in the south and Pancho Villa in the north. This revolution radically changed the structure of land ownership in the country. By the end of the 1930s, with the nationalization of the petroleum industry by Lazaro Cardenas, Mexico’s main export product became nationally owned.

At the same time, the main cities of the continent began developing an important industrial base. In Argentina, Uruguay, and southern Brazil, exporting enterprises, such as textile plants, slaughterhouses, and tanneries developed. In other cases, industries were geared to national markets, and were usually sheltered from foreign competition by protectionist policies. The main industrial cities were Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Mexico City, but industrial areas also became established in Havana, Santiago, Montevideo, Bogota, and Lima.

This widespread economic trend toward exports and increasing industrial activities had a very strong effect on the already-damaged Latin American and Caribbean environment. Elimination of the forests and the spread of monospecific plantations increased the vulnerability of soils to water and wind erosion, and hydrological regimes changed everywhere, increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. The increase in urban and industrial activities produced a cumulative deterioration of natural water systems. Small rivers near the cities became open sewers, larger rivers and lakes received considerable volumes of contaminants, and aquifers became saline or polluted.

Effects of globalization on the environment

Recent globalization processes have intensified the widespread degradation. The largest cities hold 10 to 20 million people; industrial activities, previously confined to the agro-exporting sector, have already expanded or are now expanding to other sectors, such as automobile and chemical production. A large-scale invasion of maquiladora-type industries is taking place in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, with deleterious effects on the environment because of the lack of standards in these countries or their inadequate enforcement.

Macroeconomic trends are promoting deforestation in Mato Grosso, Santa Cruz (Bolivia), and Paraguay to make way for soybean plantations. Chilean native forests are being eliminated to plant exotic trees for production of timber or paper pulp. These new monospecific plantations are responsible for a large number of side effects on native ecosystems and hydrological regimes, resulting in loss of diversity and significant social upheaval.

Grassland ecosystems and associated farmlands are being taken over by huge forestry investments in exotic tree species, which are promoting the spread of new plagues, reducing agricultural competitiveness, and damaging the future potential of prairie soils. Rivers are becoming loaded with sediments as a result of the destruction of ecosystems in their headwaters.

These environmental problems are taking their toll on the quality of life of the populations. Old waterborne diseases, such as cholera, that had disappeared or were largely unknown, have made a startling comeback almost everywhere. The poor air quality in the main metropolitan areas is increasing the incidence of respiratory diseases. Geological hazards, such as landslides and floods, are becoming more frequent because of the encroachment of settlements in hazardous areas.

Models of development in Latin America and the Caribbean have proved to be unsustainable. Alternatives must ensure that economic activities and populations are decentralized, the, only sustainable production systems are adopted, and that these systems are based, as much as possible, on indigenous plants and animals.

The exploitation of natural resources should not continue indiscriminately; the biological diversity of native ecosystems must be protected. Adequate policies defining strict environmental standards for the disposal of solid wastes and effluent and gaseous emissions must be formulated and enforced. Overall, everyone must be made aware that other development alternatives, more sustainable, more diverse, and more indigenous, can be successfully defined and implemented.

The maquiladora phenomenon

Maquiladoras are offshore plants that carry out part or all of the phases of an industrial process for the parent company. Customs duties charged by the country of origin of the industry are usually calculated only on the value added outside its borders. The host country (where the maquiladoras are located) extends free-port status to industries willing to invest. In most cases, this means that the host country does not charge duties (or charges only nominal amounts) on the raw materials, partly completed products, or merchandise related to the specific industrial process when they cross the border in either direction.

Carrying out industrial operations offshore under this system reduces costs of production for the entrepreneur. In appropriate situations, costs of labour, energy, water, raw materials, environmental expenditures, and taxes can be reduced by establishing maquiladora factories. This system is being used in various forms in several countries throughout the world, but the major growing maquiladora region is probably the United States - Mexico border area.

Development in the border region

The border between Mexico and the United States (Figure 4) extends for more than 1 500 kilometres through a territory of steppes and deserts where, traditionally, the population density was low. Historically, only limited settlement occurred in this zone because its climate is unsuitable for rainfed agriculture and surface water resources are too meagre for use in irrigated farming. Before 1900, except for Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey, there were only a few small towns scattered near the border area; their economic activity was-restricted to low-productivity agriculture, marginal animal production, and cross-border trade (both legal and illegal).

During the 20th century, economic and demographic growth in the border area was mainly related to increased traffic and commerce between the two countries, and to the development of irrigated farming projects on both sides of the border. On the Mexican side, the federal government supported drilling and groundwater pumping; on the US side, new water sources were developed by constructing an aqueduct system from neighbouring rivers. Coupled with the availability of inexpensive migrant labour and cheap land, these improvements allowed the development of a powerful farming industry.

Figure 4. Maquiladora country: the border region between Mexico and the United States.

Industrial development began in the 1950s in Monterrey and, in the 1970s and 1980s, in the remaining border areas as a consequence of the maquiladora phenomenon. From the outset, these factories had profound effects on the economy and demography of the border region. The populations of existing cities increased rapidly. “Sleepy towns” became large cities in a matter of a few years. The social and environmental impact of this growth continue today.

The metropolitan area of Tijuana, which had a population of 461 thousand in 1980, grew to 748 thousand by 1990 (Secretaria de Desarrollo Social 1993, p. 301). Nearby, Mexicali’s population increased from 511 to 602 thousand in the same period; Reynosa’s from 295 to 377 thousand; Matamoros’ from 239 to 303 thousand; and

Ciudad Juarez’s from 567 to 798 thousand. During the 1980s, the number of people in the whole urban border area increased from 2.8 to 3.8 million (Secretaria de Desarrollo Social 1993, pp. 197-198).

The evolution of the maquiladora phenomenon is illustrated in Table 7. In 1994, there were more than 2 500 factories providing jobs for 1 million people or about 15% of all those employed in industry in the country. In 1975, the total annual value added by the maquiladora industries was $332.4 million; this increased to more than $2.5 billion by early 1989 and, in 1994, it was expected to exceed $5 billion.

Tijuana contains the largest number of maquiladora plants; by 1992, 530 industries of this type were located there. Other cities near the Californian border also host a large number of factories Mexicali, 154; Tecate, 86; Ensenada, 33; and San Luis Colorado, 12. Along the Arizona-Sonora boundary, the main centre is Nogales, with 73 plants. On the Texas border, the main concentrations are in Matamoros, 94; Nuevo Laredo, 83; Reynosa, 71; and Monterrey, 70.

Table 7. Growth in maquiladora’s near the US - Mexico border.


No. factories

No. workers

% of total industrial employment





























































Source: CIDAC (1991,p.119).

Wages in Mexico are low: in 1992, they averaged $1.22 per hour, compared with $3.67 per hour in South Korea and $4.63 per hour in Taiwan. At the same time, average hourly wages in the United States and Canada exceeded $17 (Bettson 1993). This level of wage differential promotes the “migration” of labour-intensive industries to the inexpensive side of the border.

An additional factor promoting the installation of factories in Mexico is the absence of a powerful trade-union movement there. In effect, the main workers’ union, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Mexico, is largely under the control of the governing party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), making it difficult for industrial workers to organize strikes or press for better working conditions or pay.

In addition, rnaquiladoras tend to hire more women than men. In Mexico, women, who are at a social disadvantage, see the prospect of working in factories as “liberation” from a male-chauvinist society. Entrepreneurs take advantage of this situation. After some time, however, women become tired of the repetitive, nonthinking jobs and long hours. Trade-union movements have begun several times as workers struggle for higher wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. In response, some companies have simply vacated their premises during a weekend and left the country. This “reduced responsibility” of employers in Mexico is an “advantage” that some industries are using to their benefit.

Environmental problems

According to the environmental report of Secretaria de Desarrollo Social (1993, p. 197), of the 1 929 maquiladora plants, only 206 (11%) had treatment systems. In addition, 1 094 plants (57%) emitted pollutants into the atmosphere; 1 254 (65%) of them did not have a system for reducing the contaminant content of their emissions. About 55% of the industrial plants (821) produce hazardous solid wastes. Of the 821 maquiladoras operating near the US-Mexico border that generate hazardous wastes, only 71% had reported these wastes by mid-1992.

Maquiladoras are a source of environmental problems for several reasons. First, environmental laws and controls in Mexico are much less strict than in the rest of North America, promoting the relocation of many industries that are looking to reduce costs (not only labour, but also environmental costs). Second, industries experiencing problems with occupational health and safety can expect related costs to decrease when then move south of the border. Finally, the excessive concentration and fast growth of the maquiladora cities make it difficult for the Mexican authorities to build or provide the required infrastructure and services (see box 8).

8. The ease of Ciudad Juarez

By late 1992, Ciudad Juarez, in the central border region, contained 330 maquilodoros, the second largest concentration in the country (after Tijuana). Because of these industries, the city grew from a medium-sized town of 400 thousand people in the 1970s to twice that number in the early 1990s. Many new suburban neighbourhoods developed, making it difficult for municipal and state authorities to provide essential services. The city is across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, which is also a fast-growing city (with a population of more than 400 thousand).

Before the maquiladora revolution, Ciudad Juarez was known for fast divorces and inexpensive dental work. Today, many major US-based, Japanese, and other transnational companies - General Electric, Northern Telecom, Phillips, Toshiba, TDK, Honeywell, and RCA - have factories there.

According to Bettson (1993), the metropolitan area of El Paso is the seventh most polluted metropolitan area in the United States. Atmospheric data show high levels of ozone, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, and lead.

The people who are most affected by environmental problems in the Juarez - El Paso region are those living in the new suburbs near the factories. Tuberculosis, hepatitis, skin diseases, gastrointestinal problems, miscarriages, and cancer are all unusually high in these areas compared with the rest of Mexico. Cases of anencephaly (babies born without a brain), normally a rare condition, have become frequent (163 cases in 4 years) and are attributed to exposure to toxic substances used in the maquiladoras (Bettson 1993).

The redistribution of economic roles

The maquiladora phenomenon is only one aspect of the effect on Mexico of the world redistribution of economic roles. Some Mexican industrial exports to the United States increased significantly between 1986 and 1989 (Table 8).

Most (over 60%) of the investment behind this industrial expansion, which to a large degree complemented the maquiladora phenomenon, originated in the United States. Other countries with interests in Mexico include the United Kingdom (contributing 6.7% of foreign investment in 1989), Germany (6.3%), Japan (5.3%), and Switzerland (4.4%) (CIDAC 1991, p. 165).

According to El Universal in Mexico City (Cortes 1993, p. 3), by mid-1993, the maquiladora sector had overtaken the petroleum sector as the main generator of foreign currency. The rate of increase in added value as a result of the maquiladoras had been 13% for the last 5 months (April to August 1993). During the same period, employment in the factories increased by 9%. By May 1993, the sector provided employment to almost 546 thousand workers. In Baja California alone, where there were 809 plants, inputs to the maquiladoras and exporting industries reached $2.7 billion in 1992. For the whole country, the value of inputs was $14 billion, representing a significant contribution to the Mexican economy.

Table 8. Rate of increase (%) in Mexico’s exports, 1986 to 1989.


























Source: CIDAC (1991, p.146). a To October.

Farming on both sides of the border

These economic trends had an important impact on farming in northern Mexico. California has traditionally been an important farming state. Recently, however, as a result of decreased availability and increased cost of water and labour and environmental restrictions, the state is importing more farm products from Mexico and other Latin American countries, such as Chile. Mexico’s exports of fruit to the United States increased by 20.1% in 1986, 30.5% in 1987, and 0.2% in 1988; vegetable exports grew by 22.4% in 1986, 20.2% in 1987, and 12.5% in 1988 (CIDAC 1991).

California has always been a fruit producing and exporting state. The fact that it is now importing some produce from Mexico is striking. The main reason for this trend is the lower cost of labour in Mexico, despite the much higher agricultural yields in the United States. From 1986 to 1988, comparative yields (tonnes per hectare) in the United States and Mexico, respectively, were as follows: potatoes, 33 613 and 13 000; tomatoes (industrial), 56 234 and 25 182; lettuce, 33 396 and 30 360 (Gomez Cruz et al. 1992, p. 52).

Productivity is also generally much lower in Mexico. The difference is particularly evident in the case of some basic grains. To produce 1 tonne of corn, Mexican farmers work 17.84 days, whereas US farmers require only 0.14 days (slightly more than 1 hour of work). Therefore, labour input for corn production is 127 times lower in the United States than in Mexico. Similarly, to produce I tonne of beans, it is necessary to work 50.60 days in Mexico, but only 0.60 days in the United States. Rice requires 33.14 days per tonne in Mexico and 0.23 days per tonne in the United States. Wheat production is less demanding in terms of labour 3.17 days per tonne in Mexico, 0.33 days per tonne in the United States, and only 0.13 days per tonne in Canada (Calve Tellez 1992, p. 27).

Despite the much lower costs for agricultural labour in Mexico, the large differences in productivity are reduced when the actual cost of grain production is calculated; production costs remain substantially higher in Mexico. Producing corn costs $258.62 per tonne in Mexico and only $92.74 per tonne in the United States; for beans, the costs are

$641.17 and $219.53 per tonne respectively. The costs of rice production are not substantially different ($224.20 per tonne in Mexico and $189.89 per tonne in the United States). Wheat production costs are much lower in Canada ($93.11 per tonne) than in the United States ($143.71 per tonne) and Mexico ($152.51 per tonne) (Calve Tellez 1992, p. 26).

The cost of producing animal feed is also higher in Mexico. For example, 1 tonne of sorghum costs $152.79 to produce in Mexico and $89.25 in the United States; 1 tonne of barley costs $222.09 in Mexico, $153.50 in the United States, and only $69.95 in Canada; and 1 tonne of soybeans costs $324.64 in Mexico and $184.26 in the United States (Calve Tellez 1992, p. 27).

These figures show that, at least for some crops, US farmers are in a more competitive position than their Mexican counterparts. For many labour- and water-intensive crops, however, depending on rainfall and demand, Mexican produce can be marketed at a lower cost than US products. This is the case for some irrigated crops, such as broccoli and asparagus, that are normally produced south of the border and sold in the United States. California’s growing scarcity of water is favouring Mexican encroachment into the US market.

In Mexico, pumping of deep groundwater for irrigation is promoted by farmers being charged for power at rates far below actual costs. These rates were introduced by the former president of Mexico, Lazaro Cardenas, in 1936. They were eliminated in 1992 by C. Salinas, but reintroduced later as a result of the serious financial problems that its removal produced among northern farmers.

Pumping costs increase as the level of the water table drops; therefore, the deeper the water level, the greater the subsidy to farmers. This policy contributes to overuse of aquifers beyond their capacities. In northern Mexico, there is a risk that some aquifers will be depleted and some others may deteriorate as saline or other low-quality water enters them. Inexpensive electricity and federal support for hydroelectric works are the framework on which agricultural expansion in northern Mexico is based.

In brief, farming is heavily subsidized by the federal governments on both sides of the border. In the United States, the price of water does not include the cost of the water systems that were built to reach otherwise dry, semi-desert regions. In Mexico, not only are the infrastructures financed by the government, but there is also an additional subsidy extended through artificially low rates for the electricity used for pumping water.

Again, as in other areas of the world, the border region between the United States and Mexico is developing rapidly, but based on very fragile environmental and social models. New and imaginative solutions must be found if this and similar areas are to enjoy a stable and prosperous future.