Filler Hell--With Flowers

Drought Punishes Tarahumara Country.
By Gregory McNamee

DON PORFIRIO WAS crying when Kim Clifton met him on the road to Batopilas last month. His land was no good any more, Don Porfirio said. Mexicanos had taken away the few productive hectares he had left. His daughters had moved away, and he had no one to look after him. His cows were dead.

But for the old Tarahumara, the worst indignity of all was the last: The grocer in Batopilas, a mountain village in Chihuahua, had raised the price of beans to 15 pesos a kilo, about a dollar a pound. Only the week before, Don Porfirio said, he had paid four pesos in Creel, and even that seemed too much.

The Mexican grocer, Clifton discovered, had been acting on a rumor that the government was quadrupling the price of beans, and he meant to score an early profit. (And what of it, the grocer said. He had the only supply of beans in town. The indios could pay his price or not eat.) Clifton browbeat the grocer into giving Don Porfirio the pre-rumor price, and the old man went back into the Sierra satisfied.

Times are hard for the Tarahumara, small victories notwithstanding. Times have been hard since the Spanish came; now that roads are carving up the Sierra Madre, bringing in logging trucks, bulldozers and mine cars, life is even tougher for the Tarahumara, for whom the government of Mexico offers no protection from such encroachments, and who are daily being displaced from their homeland by all kinds of development. Lately the Sierra Madre, prime country for Marijuana cultivation, has also been invaded by drogueros, who think nothing of clearing the land of its original owners by force. In the last few years dozens of Indians have been murdered so that gringos can enjoy cheap Mexican dope.

Times are harder now. Northern Mexico is suffering its worst drought in more than a century, possibly the worst in 1,000 years. For the last three years, scarcely a drop of rain has fallen on the eastern flank of the Sierra Madre, the heart of Tarahumara country; drinking water is now trucked in to villages in canyons where abundant streams and springs once flowed. The drought has meant a succession of failing crops, of dead livestock throughout the state of Chihuahua, where, by one estimate, nearly half a million head of cattle have died since 1992.

Late in April, nearly all the cattle in La Bufa, the village near which Clifton has lived for the last 13 years, fell victim to starvation. His Tarahumara neighbors, Clifton fears, may soon follow them.

Don Porfirio probably will not be one of them; he is a master builder of Tarahumara fiddles, the box-like violins that tourists visiting the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon) buy by the score, and he brings in enough cash to feed himself. "People who know arts and crafts are getting by," says Clifton. "Those who don't are the ones having a hard time, especially the ones who don't have family to take care of them--old people, orphans, outsiders."

Hardest hit by the drought are thousands of Tarahumara, the temporales, who rely on seasonal highlands agriculture for their sustenance. In winter, these people live in the depths of the Sierra's steep canyons, below the snowline. In summer, they climb to the summits, plant corn, beans, and squash, and let nature do the rest, trusting that enough rain will fall to nurse their crops to maturity. Elderly temporales have it hardest of all, for, as anthropologist Diana Hadley observes, "The Tarahumara have no cultural tradition of taking care of the old."

Working with the Tucson-based Drylands Institute, Clifton, an artist who hopes to develop ecotourism in the Barranca, has established an emergency food-relief project to assist the temporales and other victims of the drought in the Barranca. So far he has raised only a little more than $1,000 from private donors, but, he points out, that kind of money goes a long way in the Sierra. His intention is to buy food from vendors in Chihuahua rather than import supplies from north of the border, keeping the spending close to the local economy.

The relief project faces several difficulties. One is a matter of simple logistics: No one is quite sure how many Tarahumaras are affected by the drought, or even how many Tarahumaras there are. (William Merrill, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution, guesses at 50,000, but says the census data for the Tarahumara are unreliable.) For another, much of the Sierra is so remote that food supplies can be brought in only on muleback. And for yet another, government officials and traders involved in other relief efforts, like those now operating in the civil war-torn state of Chiapas, have happily helped themselves to goods meant for the indios, depredations that Clifton fears may be visited on his efforts. Clifton plans to begin distributing food in early June and to press on with relief efforts for as long as they are needed. He foresees needing to supply food for at least the rest of the year.

Drought or no, Clifton plans as well to remain in the Sierra. "It's a fantastically beautiful place," he says. "But the people are starving everywhere you look. I call it hell with flowers."

Donations can be made to the Tarahumara Relief Project, 2509 N. Campbell Ave. No. 405, Tucson 85719. TW

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