An American Sahara - Page 2

Mexico is milking its northern deserts dry

In Sonora, a border state whose badlands blend into the brutal Arizona desert, Governor Eduardo Bours, Mexico's chicken king, has permits that allow his Bachocho corporation (the major supplier for Pepsico's KFC) to exploit 600 million liters annually in a largely waterless state. Fox's old stomping ground, the Coca Cola Corporation of Atlanta Georgia, sucks up ground water that could otherwise provide two liters a day for 14.5 million Mexicans, to formulate its noxious brew. In San Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas, "La Coca" sucks up five liters every second from the Huitepec aquifer where the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has installed an encampment to protest the selling off of precious water.

Big timber has so denuded northern Zacatecas with clear-cuts that the region is losing 150,000 hectares to encroaching desertification every year and another 300,000 hectares are so critically eroded that springtime "tolaveras" or whirlwinds fill the air with choking red-brown dirt. University of Zacatecas agronomists calculate that 20 tons of earth is being moved every spring and dunes now rise where once farmers eked out a living growing corn and beans.

The poor of the region have paid the price for clear-cuts and the corporate evisceration of aquifers. Marginalized desert communities wage wars over what little liquid is left in the ground - 59 out of Mexico's poorest municipalities are located in desert zones. Emaciated kids are strung along the federal highway outside Matahualpa San Luis Potosi selling desert iguanas and begging coins from passing motorists. Farmers abandon their dying fields and flee into the cities and across the northern border, leaving behind abandoned ghost towns.

Even the first peoples to inhabit these inhospitable lands - 15 desert Indian cultures - are having a harder time surviving in an environment that is seriously out of balance. Chakoko Aniko, a 76 year-old Kikapoo Indian shaman from El Nascimiento Coahuila, rues the disappearance of his peoples' sacred deer without which Kikapoo culture cannot continue. "When the deer dies, the Kikapoos will die too" he laments to La Jornada reporter Laura Poy.

As their habitat dries out and sacred species disappear - cactus rustling puts a big hurt on native cultures - the young men and women abandon the old ways and native speakers among the Indians of Mexico's northern desert now number in the dozens.

Mexico's North is just one corner of the global desert. At least 41% of the planet's surface is now in danger of going dry - 20% is already desert - directly impacting 250,000.000 people and threatening 1.5 billion more, according to numbers presented by Doctor Zafar Abdeel at the 2005 United Nations conference on the degradation of arid lands. Some 60 million sub-Saharans will be forced off ancestral lands in the next 20 years and migrate in search of work and water as the desert takes over. Wherever they go, the desert will not be far behind.

"We have lived on these lands since history began" the Kikapoo shaman Chakoko Anika recalls plaintively, "where else can we go?"

John Ross is back in Mexico after months on the road in America del Norte. You can contact him at for further information on his comings and goings.