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close this bookRegions at risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environments (UNU, 1995, 588 pages)
close this folder6. The Ilano Estacado of the American southern high plains
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe Ilano Estacado
View the documentChanges in the pre-european ecosystem
View the documentDevelopment of the southern high plains: a social and agricultural history
View the documentHuman driving forces: commodity specialization in cotton
View the documentThe vulnerability of the cotton economy of the Ilano Estacado
View the documentSocial responses to environmental change and economic vulnerability
View the documentThe future of the southern high plains
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences
View the documentInterviews


Institutional support for maintaining the settlements of the Llano Estacado enjoys a long-standing tradition, dating from the earliest attempts to establish permanent agriculture-based communities. The social history of the Southern High Plains is essentially a history of institutional and technological devices to overcome what was environmentally untenable - rainfall-based agriculture. From the Four Sections Act in 1887, to the Agricultural Assistance Administration in 1933 and the price-support programmes and federal farm subsidies in the 1970s and 1980s, federal and state agencies have buttressed and enabled the process of environmental change. Farm credit programmes, with their beginnings in the farm relief programmes of the 1930s, have been especially critical for maintaining agriculture.

Farmers followed a fairly typical pattern of agriculturalists in the Great Plains. Their first attempts at sod-busting and crop production failed during every drought. Many left the area; some stayed. But, over time, irrigation, transportation, storage, production and marketing technologies, extension services, and credit formed the basis for economic success and market competitiveness. With higher fuel costs, less water, more competitors, smaller market shares, and lower soil fertility, that comparative advantage has slipped. The region is now one of the most technologically advanced agricultural systems in the United States. Many of the farmers have college degrees, and only the best managers have survived the 1980s. Even so, farm credit delinquencies, foreclosures, and bankruptcies are increasing. At the end of 1990, over 40 per cent of all Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) loans for the Southern High Plains were delinquent, and the majority of these were emergency loans (South Plains Association of Governments 1991). Meanwhile there is nowhere else to move, no extra margin for the moment.

The transformation of the environment from a complex mature grassland to a monocropped agricultural/social landscape on the verge of collapse took very little time. In less than a generation, the change has become evident. The transformation took vast amounts of capital, technological development, institutional support, and human endeavour. If the history of the pre-European settlement of the Southern High Plains is a portrait of a stable, evolved, plant-wildlife ecosystem, with and without human occupancy, then the history of post-European settlement is really a history of forced adjustment, transplantation, and extinction.

A major outcome of the Dust Bowl era is the full institutionalization of a way of life on the Llano Estacado. A policy and support infrastructure has propped up a farming-based culture, a regional economy, and a community network in an agriculturally marginal area. The environmental consequences, several of which are quite serious, serve to remind us that, despite all the human creativity and perseverance in building a life on the Southern High Plains, the effective curtailment of the technological inputs due to a dearth of investment capital and the scaling-back or outright removal of institutional interventions have propelled the region rapidly toward greater endangerment and risk of overall regional collapse.