All Borlaug’s Children

Last night, I had the chance to be on a panel with Brahm Ahmadi, Vini Bhansali and a new friend, Jeff Conant.

Jeff told a fantastic story, from his experience with the Yaqui indigenous people. They were the original recipients of Green Revolution technology, when Norman Borlaug was busy inventing hybrid corn. So what news from the people who’ve been living with the Green Revolution the longest? They’re dying. The apocalyptic ecology, and economics, of the Green Revolution has hit them hard. And their deaths weren’t remembered, or even mentioned, when Norman Borlaug shuffled off his mortal coil.

Jeff continues the story below…

From Lip Magazine
September 02, 2006
Rivers of Poison in the Desert: a Visit to Yaqui Country

by Jeff Conant

This June I had the opportunity to travel to the Yaqui Indian pueblo of Potam in Sonora, Mexico, with a group from the International Indian Treaty Council. The goal of the trip was to hold a series of workshops and discussions to help the people of Potam and seven other Yaqui pueblos confront an epidemic of agrochemical poisoning that is literally draining the life from their communities and their culture.

I was invited to join the trip on the basis of my work with Hesperian Foundation developing the booklet Pesticides are Poison. The Treaty Council had been using the booklet in their communities, and this was an opportunity for me to work with them on the ground, and to use some of the educational activities I had written into the booklet.

Over the last several decades, the Yaqui pueblos – small, dusty villages of low concrete and thatch houses – have become surrounded by vast agricultural fields growing cotton and wheat for export. This was the cuna, the womb, of the Green Revolution – when massive technochemical farming became the way to “feed the world”™ (and win hearts and minds to boot) — and one of the many hidden costs of that effort has been the complete obliteration of a place, and of a people.

After years of living with the effects of chronic pesticide exposure, from aerial spraying and from working in the fields themselves, many Yaquis are becoming sick. More worrisome still, children are being born with all the miserable telltale signs of chemical poisoning, from spinal column defects to weak bones to learning and developmental disabilities.

I will describe one part of what I saw, and did, in Potam pueblo. But for the straight story, as it were, Indian Country Today published an article on the workshops in Potam. And for a better background, in terms of both Green Revolution history and the current toxicological threat to the Yaqui people, Margaret Reeves of Pesticide Action Network, who was at the gathering, wrote a terrifically informative article.

From this point in the story it would seem to be a case of pesticide poisoning we are talking about. But in fact, from a certain vantage point, it all seems to start from the water.

Reclaiming the Yaqui River Valley for Agribusiness

The Yaqui, like all indigenous peoples of the Americas, have a tragic history marked by invasion, displacement, disease, massacre, and ultimately, abandonment to the market and the whims of a corrupt and exploitive government. Famous in Mexico for being the last indigenous group to surrender to Mexican state rule, they have paid the price for their resistance. (And if you ever travel in Sonora, terrible irony notwithstanding, you’ll notice the silhouette of a Yaqui deer dancer everywhere, from the highway signs to the state license plate, from the Sonora bus line to the Museum of Culture in Ciudad Obregon.

The Yaqui had lived since time before time along the Rio Yaqui, which runs through Sonora State to empty in the Sea of Cortez. In 1952, the first dam on the Yaqui River was inaugurated. The Alvaro Obregon Dam, the world’s ninth highest (not biggest) dam, was an enormous feat for Mexico, and, as large dams were everywhere, was a crucial part of the nation’s road to modernity. Consequently it was a death knell for the Yaqui, who depended on the river that bore their name. By 1958, two more dams had been completed on the river, ushering in massive agricultural development and the establishment of this unlikely desert as the breadbasket of Mexico.

According to one of the Yaqui I spoke with in Potam, a presidential decree at the time of the dams’ completion guaranteed half of the run-off from the reservoirs on the Rio Yaqui to the Yaqui themselves for farming and domestic use. But it was not long before the enormous irrigation canals were built, eventually covering 650,000 acres of floodplain and low scrub desert, and the Yaquis found that of the water they were guaranteed they were to receive exactly…none.

This land had been the Yaqui homeland for centuries or longer, and much of it had been titled to the Yaqui communities since the agrarian reform of President Lazaro Cardenas in the 1940’s. But under pressure from the land barons and agribusiness companies that were moving in, many Yaqui began to rent their land out. At the same time, they were hired, at day labor wages, to work the fields, planting, harvesting and spraying.

Due to the backbreaking labor and the massive application of agrochemicals, farm work is recognized as the leading cause of occupational injuries worldwide. Aside from the daily exposure to pesticides in the course of working their expropriated lands, the Yaqui suffer an additional and possibly far greater exposure: a steady diet of poisoned drinking water.

I cannot report on water conditions in the other seven Yaqui villages, but in Potam pueblo there is no consistent source of potable drinking water. The most common source of water for drinking is the riochuelos and arroyos that are fed by runoff from the irrigation canals. In short, the place where all of the agrochemicals end up.

One of the members of our group visiting Potam Pueblo was anthropologist Elizabeth Guillette. Back in 1993, Guillette had done research in the Yaqui Valley which clearly shows that children exposed to agricultural pesticides, “exhibit more neuromuscular and mental defects. They were less proficient at catching a ball, reflecting poor eye-hand co-ordination. Stamina levels were also lower. Also the exposed children had symptoms of illness three to four times the rate of the unexposed, with a high rate of upper respiratory infections, suggesting suppressed immune systems.”

Doctor Guillette published her findings in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives:, and since then her methods have been adopted to study human pesticide exposures in Kerala, India and elsewhere.

Thanks to Doctor Guillette’s study and the work of the International Indian Treaty Council, many people in Potam were aware of the ongoing poisoning. But, while this knowledge is an important first step, the capability to change their situation will take work, and time, and hope. Of all of these, hope is the most difficult to conjure up – and this was the goal of our visit.

There are of course many challenges to bringing about an active response on the part of the Yaquis. Intractable poverty, malnutrition, and the inertia of generations make change – any change – difficult to conceive of. Wealthy landowners, corrupt government officials, a racist police force and the indifference of the rest of the nation don’t help either. But, as a first step to addressing these issues, our goal, as laid out by Andrea Carmen, the director of the International Indian Treaty Council, and Angel Valencia, her husband (both Yaqui), was to address the particular challenge of the Yaqui traditional authorities.

Authority changes hands once a year in these pueblos, and nothing can be undertaken without the consent of the council of village governors. Unfortunately, few of the governors seemed to be motivated to make change, or even to understand the depth of the problem. So, after many talks and demonstrations by the rest of our team, it fell to me to run a workshop and discussion with the authorities to help raise the collective consciousness to recognize that something had to be done.

Without going into great detail, I led a workshop using Hesperian’s booklet Pesticides are Poison, and simultaneous workshops were led by Sarah Mendoza, of the Los Angeles Indigenous People’s Alliance and Rene Cordoba of the Red Fronteriza Para Salud y Medioambiente (Border Network on Health and the Environment). At the end of a day of workshops, discussions and debate, the Yaqui authorities — under pressure form the rest of the community – reluctantly agreed to begin to make some changes. Where this goes, we shall see.

But, during the course of the workshop, as we focused on safety equipment for farm workers, banning overhead spraying, and other occupational health approaches, it dawned on me that, if nothing is done to improve the water situation, everything that is done will be in vain.

Where does the water come from?

After the workshops, I asked to look at the village water system, and was given quite a shock. Luckily, the person I asked to discuss water with me was the midwife of Potam pueblo, Maria de Los Angeles. As the midwife, she knew of all the community’s health problems and cited that, over the last 8 years she had attended the births of 3 children born without brains, 8 children born with jelly baby syndrome and 2 stillbirths. She also reported 3 deaths of leukemia in children under 10 years old.

When I asked her what she thought was the cause, she said she had been told it was “genetic,” but she refused to believe it. The fact that many animals were also born with these conditions was evidence enough that soemthing in the environment was causing these defects. I asked her if it could have something to do with the water, and she said “Andele!” So we took a walk to look at the water conditions.

It turned out that the village has a deep well, an electric pump, and pipes running to almost every house – but that, in the fashion of the Mexican Water Commission (CONAGUA), the pump is broken and there is not enough lift to fill the pipes and distribute the water. A short walk from the pump-house, Maria pointed out something astonishing: the Water Commission had built an enormous water tower not 500 meters from the well – but had failed to connect it. After years of complaints, the water commission returned to Potam. But rather than connecting the tank to the well to allow for gravity-fed water distribution, they built a second tank! Now, Potam pueblo, once situated on the wide banks of the Rio Yaqui, has the luxury of two water tanks, and no water.

Pesticide Action Network and others are continuing to work with the Treaty Council and the people of Potam Pueblo to develop strategies to reduce pesticide exposure. For my part, I am convinced that the water has everything to do with it, and, time and life permitting, I’m hoping to go back eventually to help work on improvements to the water system. (And if anyone reading this has resources to offer to make this happen, get in touch….)

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