Local Mexican farmers and ranchers are unhappy about the expansive transformation of the desert by what they term illegal wells and have been mobilizing into organized groups to stop the development as production from their shallow wells has greatly diminished. According to reports, one such local farmer's organization, known as El Barzón, was targeted by unknown assailants last year. The group's leader and his wife were brutally assassinated, according to local newspaper accounts, after publicly speaking out against a Canadian well drilling operation near Flores Magón. And that wasn't the only violent incident associated with growing friction between agribusiness expansion and local farming families.

In the summer of 2012 a group of about 250 local farmers gathered at another well drilling operation and accused Mennonite farm operators of bribing local officials or forging well permits in order to expand drilling operations across the region. As protestors marched on the well location, shots rang out causing the group to abandon their protest efforts out of fear of violence. Local reports charged regional police were guilty of firing the shots, though those allegations could not be substantiated by government investigators.

When interviewed by local reporters, a spokesman for another farmers’ group said it is not just the expansion of Mennonite farms causing local farmers to suffer but also extended drought conditions caused by climate change. Local reports quickly tagged escalating tensions, marked by the assassination and the use of gunfire, as an indication the region is becoming the first example of spreading tensions and possibly the first of many conflicts to be caused by climate change and water shortages in the Americas.

As a result of these incidents and others, newly elected Mexican President Peña Nieto began an initiative called the Programa Nacional Contra La Sequía earlier this year, a cattle and crop insurance program designed to compensate local farmers and ranchers from losses caused by the extended drought.

But local farming operators say the government's effort falls short of bringing a lasting solution to the problem, namely, to stop deep well drilling which ultimately threatens to dry up the underground aquifer over the next several years, sending the region back to its desert state.

Meanwhile, as Mennonite farming operations continue to expand at a record pace, most of the members of the sect remain isolated from their Mexican counterparts in small colonias spread throughout the transformed desert. Here they work on their expansive farms, live in simple homes and strive to keep up with the changing tools of farming technology like bio-tech seed varieties, precision farming and chemical-assisted agronomy.

In spite of farm modernization, they continue to dress and act much the same as their ancestors who settled the Chihuahua desert a century before. The only visible difference is the modern machinery that transforms the desert where not long ago horse-drawn plows worked the dry sand and soil.

Mexico's new government points to another new initiative—a task force of government officials and farmer organizations working together to identify illegal wells and new drilling operations.

But local farmers have expressed grave concern, saying they doubt anything will change soon. Meanwhile, finding a way to sustain the expanding farming operations in the desert, protecting the rights of local farmers and solving the bigger issue of how to deal with climate change and a continuing drought and water availability problems remain a major political issue for Mexican officials.

While there seems to be a degree of sympathy on the government's part for local farmers, as one local politician noted, the Mennonites are legalized citizens with full voting rights, and they tend to vote as a group. As a result, political change in the region may be little more than dream.

As to how the drama in the Mexican desert is affecting or will affect Mexico's treaty obligation to deliver water to South Texas, no one on the Mexican side of the border seemed willing to speculate or even discuss the issue, leaving South Texans to reach their own conclusions.

For further reading: Border Lines, a publication of the Center for International Policy.

 

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