Archive for February, 2006

Climate Change and Mexican Farms

Tuesday, February 28th, 2006
A horse, a Mexican, a bike, a tent

   As I have ridden through the center of Mexico over the past few weeks, I have stayed in many small villages. In these villages, almost every household has a plot of land that they use to grow corn or beans, and most families make their own tortillas. The mother of a family in Minita de Cedro remarked ‘no one buys tortillas here!’ as she showed me how she made tortillas. If there is extra corn, it is fed to the chickens (‘everyone has chickens here’ ‘do you own chickens?’), which are then also eaten or used for eggs.

A small maize farm in the state of Oaxaca
Plowing the fields

   What does a changing climate mean for these farmers? The results from over a decade of crop modeling and estimates seem to agree: while the food production of the world as a whole may not change much, massive shifts in agriculture will result and the production of poorer, developing countries, which already have a warmer climate, will decline. In other words, climate change will have little or an even beneficial effect on the farms of the northern U.S. and Canada, but it will hurt these small farms in Mexico.

   Warmer temperatures in already warm regions generally decrease yields. A friend of mine at Stanford studied wheat production in northern Mexico, and he found that warmer years resulted in lower yields. And this appears to be the story of climate change and agriculture in the tropics – many places in the tropics are near their limit of heat tolerance, and a warmer climate will hurt crops. For instance, India recently experienced warmer than normal temperatures and also lower yields.

Farmers near Puebla, Mexico
Corn for sale on the street in Cholula

   On the flip side, plants use carbon dioxide to grow, and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help some crops. This effect, however, is most likely to be strongest in northern latitudes, and not here, in Mexico. Also, most of the estimates of this CO2 effect (see graphs here ) are based on greenhouse experiments, and a number of field studies (such as the one I worked on at Jasper Ridge at Stanford ) suggest that the effects of higher CO2 on plants are less than expected. Also, the CO2 effect is going to be far less for corn than for other crops, and corn is the most important crop – both culturally and economically – here in Mexico.

   Global warming will likely result in big shifts in agriculture. For instance, the corn in the U.S. Midwest may be replaced by wheat, and Napa Valley may no longer be suitable for wine grapes. Switching from one crop type to another will take investment, and perhaps even genetic engineering to adapt crops to new climates. Rich northern countries will be able to make these investments, while developing nations will likely struggle.

They make 500 tortillas 5 times a week (over 100,000 a year)
Field of Corn

   As I look at the agriculture on these hillsides in Mexico, where most of the knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next, I wonder how easy it will be to change the way these people grow their crops, or even the types of crops they grow. In Presa de Bravo, where I watched these two woman make tortillas (movie left – same movie as before), I asked how they had purchased the land to grow their corn. I was told it was owned by their ancestors, and passed down through the family.

Francisco was up at dawn to collect stalks of his corn to sell as animal feed.

   Finally, climate change may make weather more variable – meaning both more good years and more bad years, and fewer average years. If you are a subsistence farmer, you care just as much about consistent yields as you do about the average yield. In every town I stop in, I ask what they do if there is a bad year for corn. Francisco in La Mojada, who is going to sell that wheelbarrow full of corn stalks for $2 for animal feed (photo left), gave me the same answer that everyone else has given me. They have to buy food, and it is very hard. Many of the people move elsewhere when they can’t find work, and a huge percentage of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. are people from these small Mexican villages who were unable to make ends meet. (I asked in one small town how many people in the town were in the U.S., and I was told 10%.)

A farm and donkey in the state of Oaxaca

   Right now, there are 800 million people who do not get enough food every day (only a small number of these are in Mexico – most are in Africa or Asia). This a huge problem, and probably deserves its own continent-crossing-awareness-raising bike ride. Helping these people eat enough, though, is often a task of improving agricultural output in these poorer regions. Climate change will only make this more difficult.

Mexico City to Oaxaca – 8 days, 351 miles

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006
Sunset over Cholula and Popocatepetl

   After two days of bicycling from Mexico City, and crossing over a 12,000 ft pass between two volcanoes, I arrived in the town of Cholula, a suburb of the large city of Puebla and the site of a major pre-Colombian city. In the center of Cholula, ruins of a giant pyramid are covered by dirt and now appear to be a large hill, with, of course, a church on top (see photo left). I gave four presentations for the American School of Puebla, and stayed two days with a teacher at the school.

Ancient Pyramids (burried under earth) with church on top in Cholula
American School of Puebla, Secondario Students
American School of Puebla, Colegio
Santa Maria Tutla - I camped here for a night
Biking through these mountains was really hard - state of Oaxaca

   Heading south, I rode four days to Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hawk-ah) through some of the most mountainous terrain yet. The first two days I traveled through dry desert country that, further south, gave way to pine forests. I camped one night on the roadside, one night in the small town of Santa Maria Tutla (photo right), and one night in the small town of Monte Frio.

   In Monte Frio, a town of no more than a thousand upon a ridgetop, I camped next to the municipal building, where the mayor and a whole host of kids stood and watched me cook dinner. Afterwards, I joined about 10 local kids in a game of soccer (video center), which we played until the ball was kicked over a cliff. Then we played basketball. Afterwards, one of the kids asked me to help him translate a book he had in English. I agreed, and he soon returned with his homework. This is a small town, with little available work, and most of the people, like the other small towns I have visited, eat the corn they grow on their fields. Also, many go to the U.S. to look for work. More on this later.

Mayor, officials, children of Monte Frio, Oaxaca
Playing Soccer in Monte Frio
Campsite, Monte Frio in state of Oaxaca

   I biked into Oaxaca, where, before I could ride to the city’s center, I was accosted by a man who had seen me on television and now demanded I stay at his house and be well fed. I agreed, and then today talked at a local University (Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Oaxaca) and a private high school (Instituto Carlos Gracida). Oaxaca, a city of 600,000, is in one of the poorer regions of Mexico, with a large indigenous population. It has a very nice downtown, though, and is full of tourists. Impressive ancient ruins, dating to hundreds of years before Christ, sit atop a mountain overlooking the Oaxaca valley.

Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Oaxaca
Instituto Carlos Gracida, Oaxaca
Ancient ruins on mountaintop, Monte Alban, Oaxaca

Mexico City and Bicycles

Wednesday, February 15th, 2006
The Outskirts of Mexico City

   Following a route suggested by a local cyclist, I biked into the valley where Mexico City, the world’s third largest metropolitan area, sits in a cloud of smog, people, and cars. Despite warnings of traffic and thieves, I stayed in the city over a week, enjoying the different colonial centers, parks, and people. Mexico city is huge, with both shacks and multimillionaire homes crawling up the sides of the valley. In my week in the city, I biked over 120 miles, stayed with three different people/families, managed to get in two major newspapers, visited a school (Logos middle school), and was interviewed by a local television station (which has subsequently flooded my inbox with emails from Mexicans excited about my trip).

Logos School in Mexico City
The Metro
The bike in the main square
That's a 'Mexico city bike lane' behind me
I am the fastest vehicle on the road.

   In comparison to Los Angeles, I felt safer biking in Mexico City as the cars are smaller, they travel slower, and there are far more small alternative routes. Entering the city during rush hour, I found I was the fastest vehicle on the road, happily following the makeshift ‘bike lane’ that appeared between the rows of cars stopped at a traffic light. It was a sweet type of revenge, and I enjoyed, perhaps too much, weaving in and around the multiple green buses and taxis. To be sure, it was exhausting. A map big enough to cover the city required a 200-page book, and I frequently stopped to extract it from my pannier in attempts to find alternate routes. The pollution stung my lungs and eyes the first day, but I seemed to adapt afterwards.

   Joining forces with the local bike activists, I rode Wednesday night with the Bicitekas, a group advocating expanded bike rights within the city. Starting at 9:30PM, a team of almost 100 cyclists took over two lanes of traffic and rode through the city until 1AM. Watch the two videos on the left to get a sense of the ride. The following day, I visited a sustainable-transportation organization where one of the cyclists I met works, and I watched a presentation on potential future bike lanes in the city.

The Bicitekas - a bicycle revolution
Someone got a flat, so all the bicitekas stopped
Jesus suggests a bicycle network through Mexico City

   To be sure, some people do use bicycles in the city. I have a running survey going. When I pass a cyclist, I ask them why they ride, and why there aren’t more cyclists on the roads, and if they have been in an accident. Most say they ride because it is faster for short distances, and that others don’t ride because they are scared, don’t think of it, or are just plain lazy. Most also say they have gotten in some type of accident with a car. Other people, like one man biking and carrying a ladder, replied, ‘can’t you see I’m trying to work right now?’ and kept cycling.

Man on street, calling for naked bicycling.

   While biking around town, I did meet one man promoting a naked bike ride in June. I’m not sure how this will help the cause.

   Bicycles are not for everyone, but they are for more people than currently use them. We are supposed to get some form of exercise every day. What if we used this exercise for part of our daily errand running? Biking to town or walking to the store? Not only would we use far less gasoline, but we would be healthier, and we would actually have more time, as we would be combining exercise and commuting. Americans are far overweight, and Mexicans are following us. I ask you this: support bicycle lanes and other bike-friendly infrastructure in your town, even if you plan not to use it. (You can read a scientific paper showing how much better off we would be here).

   I also visited the National Institute of Ecology, where I talked to those working with the government to account for Mexico’s greenhouse gas emissions. Mexico, unlike the U.S., has signed the Kyoto Protocal, but does not yet have to reduce emissions because it is a poorer country. At the institute, I met with a woman who is in charge of categorizing the ‘co-benefits’ of reduced use of fossil fuels. In other words, there are many benefits other than a better climate from reducing our use of fossil fuels. The health benefits I listed above are one co-benefit. Another is the ability to improve the horrible air-quality in Mexico City. And the political benefits of not needing oil are also great (I’ll talk about that in Venezuela).

Mexico City used to be an island

   I spent my last three days in the city as a tourist. Mexico City was built by the Spaniards on top of a seasonal lake and the ruins of the Aztec civilization. I visited the ruins of the former Aztec temple, I walked through the anthropology museum, and I visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan (photo on right). Now the descendents of these civilizations walk the streets here in Mexico City, mixed with the descendents of the Spanish conquerors. There is something strange about a massive city that has entirely covered both a natural lake and a former civilization. The reporter I stayed with the last three nights claimed that this gave the city a unique energy.

At the National Anthropology Museum
Ruins of Aztec Temple next to the Mexico City Cathedral
Teotihuacan Ruins - Pyramid of the Sun, taken from the Pyramid of the Moon
Smog makes sunsets prettier

   I finally left Mexico City, departing on a road that cuts between two 18,000 ft volcanoes (named Popocatepetl and Iztacihuatl). Almost 500 years earlier, Hernan Cortez, the Spanish conquistador, traveled over this pass with a small army and invaded the Aztec capital. Now the pass is a nice place to bicycle.

Monarchs, Deforestation, Poverty, and Climate Change

Friday, February 10th, 2006

   The butterflies I visited last week congregate in the millions at the tops of mountains in the center of Mexico. They choose these places because they have the perfect conditions for surviving the winter – conditions that are now threatened.

These trees are covered by monarch butterflies.  yes.

   The butterflies that are wintering here are mostly hibernating. While the skies were full of butterflies, there were even more (believe it or not) hanging motionless on the trees. What they need is a cool dry climate to survive these winter months, before returning to northeastern North America in the spring. (Read more about their life cycle.)

   According to a recent study (read a less technical summary here), it is likely that in this region of Mexico, there will be more winter rain. Winter rain is currently extremely uncommon (like rain in the summer in California). It is cold at 11,000 feet, and moisture with freezing conditions kills the butterflies. In 2002, a January storm killed over 70% of the butterflies, and conditions bad enough to destroy all butterfly habitats may be prevalent by 2050.

   This study relies on predictions of future rainfall, which are not as reliable as predictions of future temperatures – the rain predictions may be wrong. If the butterflies have to move to a new place to find conditions where they can survive the winter, however, they may be in big trouble, as people are likely to be already living there.

Forests threatened


   Indeed, the butterflies are threatened by deforestation as well, most of it illegal, as this region is, in theory, protected. On the ride up the mountains, I saw a number of electric saws turning trees into furniture.

   It is more complicated. The people living near the butterflies are poor. The trail entrance to the butterfly sanctuary was full of shops pedaling trinkets and young children begging for money. It was actually the least safe place I have felt yet on this trip, and I asked to camp inside the park instead of at the entrance where most people camp. Camped less than a kilometer from the butterflies, I heard a subwoofer down the hill beating out a baseline, suggesting that the area was not well protected. The next day, I was surprised how poorly maintained the trail to the butterflies was, as thousands of tourists trampled random trails down a steep mountain side.

Children begging for money at the entrance to the butterfly sanctuary
Scene near at the entrance to the butterfly sanctuary
There were a lot of tourists here also.

   It is tough to see poverty next to natural wonders that need to be protected. I am sure that there is a win-win situation – one in which the people are paid more to protect the forests than they are paid to cut them down. It is hard to believe that the value of logging is higher than the value of seeing these butterflies. However, after witnessing the disorganization of the park, I worry about our ability to protect the place, and I also wonder what the future of the begging children is.

Sunset in the butterfly sanctuary

   And there is the challenge. We must conserve these forests, help these poor people, and reduce our carbon dioxide emissions if we want forests of monarch butterflies for our children (as well as better lives for the locals). The ecosystems of the world face these multiple challenges, and this is just one of the places like this I will be visiting.

   I’m in Mexico City now, enjoying biking among 20 million some people. You can see a sneak preview of shots from the city here.

Queretaro to Toluca via the Butterflies – 5 days 205 miles

Monday, February 6th, 2006

   It is difficult to put recent experiences into an entry here – this trip amazes me every day with new people and experiences, and it is difficult to keep up in the personal journal I write. This blog is a balance between providing interesting stories and not overloading this site – there are many experiences that you don’t read about.

Just Another Day on the Farm - in Presa de Bravo
They make 500 tortillas 5 times a week (over 100,000 a year)

   Heading south from Queretaro, I camped the first night next to the house of a family who grew their own corn, which they eat and feed to their chickens and sheep. The next morning, I watched while the mother of the house and her neighbor hand-made tortillas. They make 500 tortillas five times a week, and you should watch the two videos on the left. The daughter of the house dreams of moving to the U.S. and buying a Ford Mustang. (Many people in these small towns have worked in the U.S., and most have family working abroad.)

A burro can carry a load!
South of Queretaro, it rains enough for agriculture, mostly corn.

   The land south of Queretaro receives more rain than the land to the north, and I traveled south through a patchwork of small corn fields. The harvest was in the fall and the land is mostly bare or covered with dry dead corn stalks.

   After staying with the bomberos (firemen) of the small town of Maravatio, I climbed to 11,000 feet where I encountered the first forest I have seen since Durango. This is where the butterflies are.

These trees are covered by monarch butterflies.  yes.
Millions of Monarchs at 11,000 ft
This is for real.

   Monarch butterflies, having migrated south from eastern U.S. and Canada, congregate here in colonies of millions of butterflies for the winter. In only a handful of sites you can find almost every monarch butterfly in the world. At night they sleep in huge clumps of butterflies coating a handful of trees, and during the day the sky is full of millions of butterflies (watch movie on right). Yes. Those pictures are for real. I camped within the park, and spent an entire day sitting beneath the butterflies.

   To hear more about what climate change means for these butterflies, you will have to wait until my next entry.

   The next two days were an easy bike ride down to Toluca, a large city 50 miles away from Mexico City. The first night I stayed with a family who, like the previous one, farmed corn that they ate and fed to their animals. (My favorite part of the conversation is when they ask me if I own any chickens). I also got to ride a horse (middle movie).

A horse, a Mexican, a bike, a tent
New Wheels
On the farm, in the shade of del Fuego

   I am in Toluca now, staying with the Bomberos. Tomorrow I will cut a course into Mexico City, the center of Mexico.