The Impact of Development: The Ex-Desert of Northwest Mexico

Articles in Finance and Development generally deal with the world’s economic problems as they appear to the generals in the operations room, or to senior officials in the field. In this series of articles, an attempt is made to give some glimpses of development as it affects the lives of the private soldiers of development.


Articles in Finance and Development generally deal with the world’s economic problems as they appear to the generals in the operations room, or to senior officials in the field. In this series of articles, an attempt is made to give some glimpses of development as it affects the lives of the private soldiers of development.

David C. Fulton

CASH CROPS have largely replaced subsistence farming in the flat coastlands of Northwest Mexico, but on rare occasions the crops, though potentially profitable, are socially unacceptable. In the northern part of the State of Sinaloa last winter, a farmer lent a parcel of land to his cousin, who planted a fringe of corn around the edges, and another crop in the center. Though the corn was intended as a shield from prying eyes, and grew well, the other crop, in this land that has recently been rendered highly fertile, grew even faster, soon attaining a height that attracted attention. It was duly harvested—not by the farmer but by the police—and taken to a warehouse where the authorities had stored other such finds. Last February, in the presence of important federal officials and the Governor of the State, 1,000 tons of marijuana was ceremonially burned in the coastal resort city of Mazatlán. “The biggest cigarette ever smoked,” commented a local paper, “and the most expensive.”

The incident is hardly typical, but it is a striking illustration of the new-found fertility of Northwest Mexico and of the variety and abundance of its crops. The transformation of this desert into one of the world’s great farming areas is a major achievement.

Developing Mexico

Mexico is a vast, uneven, untidy, charming, and dynamic country. Traditional cultures exist side by side with modernity, but modernization—with its benefits and its problems—is daily encroaching on the old ways. Everywhere change is occurring, sometimes in halting steps, sometimes in strides. Sometimes the goal is missed, sometimes the result is not what was hoped or expected, but the push forward is relentless.

Among the nations of the world, Mexico ranks fourteenth in population; Mexicans are only a little less numerous than Frenchmen. The country is, of course, well known as offering one of the outstanding examples of successful development. In two decades Mexico has more than tripled its output of goods and services and has raised the real per capita income of its people by three fourths. Its industries are growing rapidly. Over the last ten years the average annual increase in gross national product has been of the order of 6 per cent. Mexico’s 46 million people, about equally divided between town and country, are increasing in numbers by 3.5 per cent each year—one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Although this rate is alarming to some demographers, it does not seem to disturb the Mexicans, whose pervasive sense of national destiny causes them to speak proudly of the day—not too far distant—when there will be 80 million Mexicans—the better to share in a future which looks full of promise.

Colonia Michoacán

In the late 1940’s, a group of farmers from the State of Michoacán in central Mexico packed such goods as they possessed, left their rocky little parcels of land, and began a long trek to the Northwest where, they had heard, things were better and there was promise of a new life. They came to start an ejido—a Mexican institution which has features of both a cooperative and a collective farm. “We spent the first summer camping under trees, suffering from the heat and wondering why we had ever come,” the Presidente (or mayor) of the village told me recently. “But,” he said, waving his arm in a 180-degree arc, “you can see that it was worth it.”

Indeed, it would seem that it was worth it. Colonia Michoacán—as the village is called—a community of about 300 families, lies on flat land ribbed by irrigation canals, about 30 kilometers from Culiacán, the state capital. Most of the villagers’ houses are built of stucco or cement blocks. The streets are straight and well canted for drainage. The best building in town is the school—from kindergarten through the sixth grade—and though most of the children leave after the sixth grade a few go on to the secondary school in Culiacán. Colonia Michoacán is electrified, has its own plant for purifying drinking water and has a machinery pool consisting of trucks, harvesters, tractors, and assorted implements. When the farmers need their crops dusted, they contract with a nearby agricultural flying service. The typical house is sparsely furnished, but many have electric refrigerators, irons, and fans, and almost all have electric light. Stoves fueled by bottled gas have for the most part replaced charcoal and kerosene cookers. And, if human progress can be measured by the ratio of television sets to population, it is perhaps worth noting that there are 17 television sets in the village.

The people—particularly the younger ones—look healthy. A medical clinic, operated by the Government, is 12 kilometers away. The villagers say that the care is good, but they complain about the time it takes to get an appointment. They also complain about inflation (they say the cost of living has increased 30 per cent in the last five years), the low price they got for rice this year, the high cost of credit, and about occasional shortages of irrigation water. But they are not badly off. The typical ejido member farms his own plot of 10 to 14 hectares (his land has increased in value from 3,000 pesos a hectare in 1963 to 10,000 pesos today), has a vegetable garden or some fruit trees in his back yard, and takes his family into Culiacán by bus once or twice a week to buy groceries and other needs. A few farmers have their own pickup trucks; many more have motorcycles. They are not rich, nor do they have much prospect of becoming so, but compared with their old life—a life still lived by many Mexican farmers—they are doing rather well. If this is not yet an affluent society, there are signs of affluence approaching. The Presidente had a motorboat mounted on a trailer in a shed beside his house; “The fishing here is awfully good,” he says.

Desert into Farmland

There are two kinds of farmers in Northwest Mexico—ejido members with plots of 10 to 14 hectares each, and small proprietors with holdings legally limited to 100 hectares within an irrigation district. Both have built their relative prosperity on the new infrastructure of improved road and rail service, electric power, and a highly efficient irrigation system. Together these basic facilities are enabling man to conquer what was, only a couple of decades ago, a vast stretch of inhospitable desert, punctuated here and there by small oases of farmland. These oases were made possible by water drawn from deep wells or pumped directly from the rivers by small, privately owned irrigation companies—a few going back to the 1920’s. Gradually, the extension of irrigated land increased, but population growth was slow, and the Northwest remained isolated and backward. And, although in the hot climate the irrigated land produced abundantly, a serious salinity problem also developed, because the irrigation water contains some salt. If fields are not drained properly after irrigation, salt concentrations develop, and after a few growing seasons the land goes out of production, reverting to desert.

Furthermore, the very remoteness of the area was a problem. Access to markets was largely lacking. There was a railroad running from Nogales, on the Arizona border, to Guadalajara, in the center of the country, but it was notoriously inefficient. Washouts, derailments, unexplained delays were the rule, and the railroad became the butt of many jokes. The roadbed was incredibly rough, the rolling stock was ancient, passengers traveled at their peril. “Maintenance” was not a word in the vocabulary of the private company which operated it.

At least the railroad existed. Roads did not. A dirt track ran from north to south. Only adventurers tried it, and then only in the dry season. The 1,000 kilometers from Culiacán to the U.S. border took ten days and a terrible toll in tire blowouts, breakdowns, and general driver frustration. The journey south to Guadalajara, was, if anything, worse, because the road eventually curved inland, twisting its way through rugged mountain country. Rivers and streams were crossed at fords, if at all, for after the rains they were impassible.

Elements of Change

This was the situation of the Northwest for the first half of the twentieth century, changing little, economically depressed, stagnating. But about the time the farmers from Michoacán moved to the north, the changes which were to transform the region began to occur. One was the establishment in 1947 of the Department of Hydraulic Resources—a cabinet-level government agency charged with planning and developing a system of irrigation for the whole of Mexico. Some of its earliest and most successful efforts have been in four of the river valleys of the Northwest—the Yaqui, the Mayo, the Fuerte, and the Culiacán.

Another harbinger of change was the highway, completed in 1952, giving the Northwest its first decent road communication with the outside world. Then, by 1955, the Mexican Government had taken over the railroad, much to the relief of its private owners, and with the help of a $61 million loan from the World Bank, began to reconstruct the roadbed and to replace the antiquated locomotives and cars with modern equipment.

Throughout the 1950’s another government agency—the Federal Electricity Commission—was also at work, and it too was receiving substantial World Bank financing. A thermal plant was built at Guaymas. As the Hydraulic Resources Department built its dams for storing irrigation water, the Federal Electricity Commission put in hydroelectric plants. Gradually old-fashioned and inefficient generating installations were retired, grids were interconnected, and lines were strung to towns and villages where previously the only electric power was provided by the generator for the local outdoor movie.

With the World Bank already involved in transport and power, in 1961 the Mexicans obtained the first of a series of loans for the irrigation program. The money earmarked for the Northwest—$15 million—helped to finance major extensions of irrigated land and also to reclaim fields contaminated by salt and lying idle. To do the work, the Department of Hydraulic Resources had assembled a corps of engineers and technicians, an elite body dedicated to the task at hand.

The irrigation districts of the Northwest have minor differences. More vegetables are grown in Culiacán, for example, than in Yaqui. There the big crop is wheat—the new, high-yielding strains developed in Mexico and now bringing about another agricultural revolution in Turkey, Pakistan, and India. Further north, in Mexi-cali, where last January the World Bank made another loan of $25 million to help to rehabilitate the Rio Colorado district, the major crop is cotton. But the differences are less important than the similarities. For purpose of description, Culiacán can be considered typical.


On its way out from the city, the road passes farm machinery distributors, fertilizer mixing plants, cotton gins, box-making plants, and storage facilities that bespeak big agriculture. There are great parking lots for refrigerated truck trailers, waiting to be loaded onto railroad flatcars, which go on their way to the produce dealers on the border in Nogales, who, in turn sell the fruits and vegetables to U.S. and Canadian buyers.

Traffic is constant along the highway, day and night. There are modern, air-conditioned buses well loaded with passengers bound for Tijuana or Mexico City; trucks of all sizes, shapes, and description; farm machinery cautiously hugging the bank along the roadside. Today the highway has two lanes. Soon it will be a four-lane divided freeway, to link with a new road being extended southward to the fast-growing tropical resort, Puerto Vallarta.

Past the Culiacán airport, newly extended to accommodate medium-range jets, one turns off the paved highway onto a graded dirt road. On one side, a big, concrete-lined canal carries water from the man-made lake in the foothills to the east. Secondary canals branch off from the main one, bringing water to the fields. Land levelers are at work preparing one field; combines are harvesting in another. In still another, a hundred plastic siphons bring water from the secondary canals to rows of newly planted tomatoes. There is green everywhere, in a spectrum ranging from near-yellow to dark almost blue. The variety is immense; tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, string beans, rice, lettuce, avocados, oranges and grapefruit, mangoes, corn, sorghum, and safflower, in a vast panorama stretching to the horizon. Deep, unlined ditches carry off the excess water, and helps to save the land from salinity.

The packing sheds in the Culiacán district are out in the fields, near the source of supply. There were 5 of them in 1963. Today there are 17, all big operations, a central plant surrounded by housing for the workers. Like most company housing, it leaves much to be desired, although the economic condition of the workers is relatively good.

One of the valley’s big packers is Alfredo Tribolet. He packs for the Mexican market as well as for the United States and Canada. At his plant, I watched a row of uniformed teen-age girls grading and sorting tomatoes. They work fast, because they are paid by the box; in one shift an expert worker can earn 50 pesos, twice the legal minimum for Mexican labor. The bigger tomatoes go into boxes with colorful labels printed in English. The smaller are sent on their way southward to the produce marts of Guadalajara and Mexico City. In busy times, Sr. Tribolet employs about 400 workers—half in the shed, the others in the fields. During the three or four months when the plant is not busy, most of the workers go back home to remote villages in the hills to the east—to the other world of Mexico.

A few miles down the road from Sr. Tribolet’s packing plant, Dr. Eduardo Alvarez (B.S., University of California at Davis, Ph.D., Cornell) is developing the first commercial enterprise in Mexico to produce genetically pure seeds for the Mexican market. Dr. Alvarez has laid out carefully planned, immaculately manicured fields where he produces seeds for a wide variety of vegetables, including, of course, the peppers for those sauces that are too hot for any but Mexican tastes. Producing seeds is a tricky business, and Dr. Alvarez presides over his plot every day, making sure that the field workers do not overfertilize. He says that the farmers in that part of Mexico frequently apply fertilizer overgenerously—in contrast to many other parts of the country where fertilizers are hardly known.

Reclaiming Salinified Land

Further westward toward the Gulf of California, the land changes. Much of it, once irrigated, is now out of production—covered by scrub desert plants and a scaly white crust. Here and there, a field stands under water. These are the salinified lands now being reclaimed or awaiting reclamation, effected by washing and draining. Depending on the seriousness of the problem, it can take as long as three or four years to reclaim contaminated fields. After agreeing with the owner on the program to be followed, the irrigation district surveys the land and brings in bulldozers to level it. Subsequently, dikes are built and the land is inundated. During the leaching process periodic tests are made to determine the progress of the decontamination program. Meanwhile, drainage canals are dug to carry off the irrigation water once the land is back in production, so that salinification will not recur. Landowners pay the irrigation district for its services, but the reclamation process has been slowed because farmers have been having difficulty in getting credit to finance the work. Medium-term and long-term loans for capital improvements are scarce in most developing countries. Mexico is no exception.

The farmers also get advice from the district on how to avoid future salinity. One way is to alternate fruit and vegetable crops, requiring intensive applications of water, with safflower, which requires less, and which allows the water table to drop. The district advisors are complemented by extension workers from the Ministry of Agriculture and experts from nearby government experiment stations. The irrigation districts also publish rather elaborate little magazines for circulation to their customers. They contain information about planting, harvesting, marketing, and the like. They have a question and answer column. They also publicize—somewhat in the manner of a rural chamber of commerce—the progress being made in the district in extending irrigation, reclaiming lands, and increasing yields. So far each year looks better than the one before.

Social Change

Today, thanks to the projects in the river valleys of the Northwest and others throughout the country, Mexico grows enough to feed itself and to export in substantial quantity. A third of the crops are produced on that 13 per cent of cultivable area now under irrigation. The engineers of Hydraulic Resources are proud of their achievements; they have the visual evidence and the statistics to prove the importance of their contribution to Mexico. There may, after all, be enough food to take care of those 80 million Mexicans they talk about having by the year 2000, or maybe before.

But modernization is never a wholly positive story. On the irrigation projects themselves there have been delays and occasional mistakes. They are by and large well-engineered and constructed, but there are instances in which concrete work has been faulty, in which maintenance has been poor, and in which the decontamination program of salt-logged lands has suffered delays. These are technical matters which are gradually being worked out.

One can question, too, some of the social side effects. With access to the outside world, and a money economy, some of the charms and traditional values of rural Mexico are disappearing. The village market, for example, is declining as an institution—as a social and communications center as well as a place to trade. Its replacement—the supermarket in town—could well be a supermarket anywhere. Colorful customs of dress are giving way to the styles featured by the apparel chain stores that now do a thriving business throughout the country. Regional differences disappear under the onslaught of television programs which are creating national tastes.

I talked with one of the irrigation engineers about the effects of the area’s emergence into twentieth century life. He claimed that Mexico was managing to avoid the neuroses of more complex societies. “We still don’t need psychiatrists,” he said. But shortly thereafter, on a walk through one of those bustling, prospering towns, I passed a new building which housed a mental health clinic.

The Problem of Education

For the last year, a Mexican-American anthropologist on the faculty of the University of California has been living in the Los Mochis irrigation district, attempting to measure the impact of the project on the people of the ejidos. We talked some about Mexico’s determination to educate its youth. Every ejido has its school, invariably the handsomest building in town. But most students stop at the sixth grade. They can read and write, add and subtract. They have an inkling of their country’s past. They will most probably stay in the ejido, and their lives are not likely to change dramatically. Most of them will confine their reading, if they read at all, to pulp fiction and comic books. The anthropologist wondered aloud, without answering the question, whether a nation like Mexico can really afford universal education to the sixth grade while there is a severe shortage of medium-level technicians in almost every field. Perhaps the hard question of universal education at a low level versus training of needed technicians will someday have to be faced.

In the end, a development project must be judged by whether it has improved the condition and quality of life in a country or an area. In the economic sense, improvement can be easily measured. It is far more difficult, and far more subjective, to try to assess the social effects of change. Here we are in unknown territory. Who is to say for certain? There are disturbing aspects to Northwest Mexico. There are problems created by shifting values, and some of the imports from other cultures do not strike me as either attractive or constructive. But the process of change will go on, because the Mexicans want it to go on. And life, on the whole, does really seem to have improved in that hot, sunbaked desert where water makes things grow.