Review of Chapter 2: "Mexico and California" of American Exodus by Giles Slade

Posted: 3 February 2015
Mexican farmland1
An arid cornfield in Oaxaca.
Video: About drought in Mexico and farmers

Chapter 2 of American Exodus is essentially the story of small farmers and how their crops were ruined by petrochemicals in Mexico and climate change. It is a brief, well documented history of Mexico’s economic and environmental problems since the 1960’s condensed into 30 pages. Though in retrospect, after reading it more than twice, it is perhaps also the saddest chapter in the book, although it is not Slade’s style to make that emotional judgment for his readers. According to Giles Slade, Mexicans leave Mexico, not to return when crop production goes down. In the southern states of Mexico, floods destroy crops, and in the northern states, the same high temperatures that destroyed crops in Texas eliminate moisture in northern agricultural regions of Mexico and make it no longer a viable place to farm.

“Mexico is being bludgeoned by climate change.”

American Exodus p.31

The problems were created by the government owned petroleum corporation PEMEX and their sale of petrochemicals to the farmers that deconstructed the romantic, tradtional ways of farming in Mexico and laid the groundwork for oncoming climate change weather extremes to hit Mexico particularly hard.

Mexican farmers

It goes without saying that Mexico was already a hot country before climate change was widely recognized. After all they did invent the siesta and they specialize in the placement of fountains in parks, the center of towns, or in the architecture of buildings to add a cooling effect to the environment, a point which Slade does not bring up though he is surely aware of as a Mexico aficionado.

Chapter 2 goes over the downfall of Mexico’s economy essentially from 1982 onward. It was  caused by bad decisions from the government which exploited the farmers for money, left ordinary citizens without food-security, and cleared the way for the drug cartels to take over and nearly replace the state.

Mexico has not recovered from the economic trouble that became extremely bad for that country in 1982.  It climaxed after the Mexicans, in summary, had too much naive faith in the oil industry and the wishful thinking that a good thing could be bought rather than earned, (surely they are not the only people who make this mistake, the United States suffers from similar flawed thinking in other industries):

“El boom petrolero (the petroleum boom) from 1976 to 1982 was an unjustified period of infrastructure mega projects, widespread importation of foreign goods, and expensive government subsidizing programs. One government program supplied fertilizers and pesticides to farmers but ended up having disasters unforeseen effects."

American Exodus, p. 34


“From the beginning, this crisis, completely dissolved any elements of economic security for ordinary Mexicans. In February 1982, personal savings disappeared into an abyss of devastation when overnight the peso lost 30% of its purchasing power.”

American Exodus, p. 35


squash plant
A squash plant, one of the "3 sisters" (squash, beans, and corn) grown by Mexican farmers in rotation to replenish the soil.

In the 1960s and 1970’s corporate farms were started in Mexico that were accompanied by huge irrigation water management systems that ruined the subsistence agriculture of the campesinos, small farmers who shared community owned land and water. (In chapter 3, Giles Slade will go into explaining the sophisticated aqueduct system used by Mexican farmers prior to the irrigation methods introduced by the corporate farms.)

Throughout this chapter he refers to the misleadingly named “Green Revolution” in the farming industry in Mexico during the 1960’s which had devastating results for small Mexican farmers, causing them to abandon thousand year old traditions, ruin their soil, and leading to more reason to move north to the affluence of the United States.

“During the Green Revolution, the Mexican government gave bags of chemical fertilizers to small farmers who rejoiced because their yields immediately multiplied. Farmers soon abandoned traditional agricultural techniques like the planting of the 3 sisters (corn, beans, and squash) that enriched the soil through their rotations.”

American Exodus p.38

Slade then explains that Mexican farmers disdained the methods of natural corn cultivation that served their ancestors well for thousands of years in favor of the deceiving technological fix of petrochemicals, sold by the government owned oil company PEMEX. However, these fertilizers and pesticides provided by PEMEX (Mexico’s Monsanto) were only marketable because PEMEX subsidized them during the early trial period, and then replaced the trial with government loans which put the small farmers in debt who had become dependent on the petrochemicals.

Returning to the Sing C. Chew idea of environmental and economic disaster following each other, Slade has described evidence of this phenomenon in Mexico.

“Mexico’s economic collapse paralleled the nations simultaneous environmental devastation.”

American Exodus p.36

By Andrea Boggs

Reference list

Giles Slade (2013) American Exodus. New Society Publisher; Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada.