Mexico’s tomato-farm workers toil in ‘circle of poverty’

Landowners make big money on tomatoes, but the hard work falls to armies of workers from Mexico’s poorest states, who labor for paltry wages.

Farmworker Ramiro Castillo stands in front of his living quarters near Villa Juarez in Mexico’s Sinaloa state. Half the tomatoes eaten in the U.S. this time of year come from Sinaloa. (Javier Valdez / For The Times / November 9, 2013)

VILLA JUAREZ, Mexico — They sure do have tomatoes here in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.

Elongated red ones. Round green ones. Cherry tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, grape tomatoes.

Vast fields of tomatoes, lining the roads out of the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan, miles and miles of mesh tenting shielding the plants from the sun.

Last year, Sinaloa exported 950,000 tons of vegetables, mostly tomatoes and mostly to California and other parts of the United States, worth nearly $1 billion. Half the tomatoes eaten in the United States this time of year are from Sinaloa. The tomato is the symbol on the Sinaloa license plate.

But while a short list of landowners make millions, the planting, weeding, pruning and picking of the vegetables fall to armies of workers from Mexico’s poorest states — Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas — who have little opportunity for schooling or other forms of legal employment.

So they are here in these fields, recruited by enganchadores — or “hooks” — who round them up in their home villages, and working in conditions that vary from producer to producer but that many critics say amount to indentured servitude.

Felipa Reyes, 40, from the violent state of Veracruz, has been toiling in the fields of Sinaloa for seven years. “You have to do the work they want, or you don’t earn anything,” she said. Complain? “And I’d end up with nothing.”

Carmen Hernandez Ramos is 52 and looks 80. She has been sticking tiny tomato plants into the earth, then harvesting the fruit months later, for 15 years, but still earns the same daily wage as Reyes: $10. Originally from a small village in Oaxaca, the mother of six works back-wrenching nine-hour days. “If we work, we have security,” she said, waving her thick-knuckled hands. “If we don’t, we have nothing.”

The two women live in tin-roofed adobe shacks set behind chain-link fences.

Conditions, the women said, have changed little over the years. They have electricity but no running water; some floors are tiled, others are dirt.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times

Monarch butterfly numbers drop to new lows

Few monarchs in eastern Canada this year

The number of monarch butterflies now on their migration to Mexico appear to to be at record lows. A monarch feeds on silky red milkweed, in a monarch way station as part of Monarch Watch, a continental effort to create backyard habitats for the butterflies along their migratory routes. (Steve Smedley/The Pantagraph/Associated Press)

Monarch butterflies appear headed for a perhaps unprecedented population crash, according to scientists and monarch watchers who have been keeping tabs on the species in their main summer home in Eastern and Central North America.

There had been hope that on their journey north from their overwintering zone in Mexico, the insects’ numbers would build through the generations, but there’s no indication that happened.

Only a small number of monarchs did make it to Canada this summer to propagate the generation that has now begun its southern migration to Mexico, and early indications are that the past year’s record lows will be followed by even lower numbers this fall.

Elizabeth Howard, the director and founder of Journey North, a citizen-scientist effort that tracks the migrations of monarchs and other species, says one indicator for the robustness of the monarchs is the number of roosts they form in late August and September, something Journey North monitors throughout the migration periods.

Read more at CBC News

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