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Cancun Climate '10

Mayan farmers struggle to grow corn

Scott Tong Dec 9, 2010
Cancun Climate '10

Mayan farmers struggle to grow corn

Scott Tong Dec 9, 2010


Tess Vigeland: U.N.-led talks on climate change are wrapping up in Cancun, Mexico. Negotiators are hung up on the same issues that bedeviled them last year, and the year before: Money. One question is how much the biggest polluters, mostly rich countries, should pay poor countries to mitigate the effects of all that pollution.

Marketplace’s Scott Tong has our story.

Scott Tong: Two hundred miles from resort Mexico is actual Mexico. This is Tabi, a community of indigenous Mayan farmers.

Forty-two-year-old Anadina Nawat Abam takes a spoonful of cornmeal, dollops it onto a piece of plastic and pats it flat.

Sound of patting

It’s a tortilla.

Anadina Nawat Abam: Everything revolves around corn for us small farmers. It’s what most people in this region do, grow corn.

Sound of rooster crowing

Corn feeds her animals and her four children. But Mexican officials say corn harvests here are down, by at least 50 percent compared to 15 years ago.

Nawat: Lower production means we don’t always eat three times a day. Sometimes twice or just once. Still, no one goes hungry.

She considers one meal a day enough. The husbands who grow the corn blame climate change: They say rains are less predictable, and dry spells are coming more often.

Fact is, they don’t know the science or the endless policy debates in the halls of Cancun. But to 48-year-old farmer Francisco Tun Poot, something is changing.

Francisco Tun Poot: Twenty years ago, we’d have years with so much corn we could sell the surplus. We don’t have those years any more.

What the scientists do know, with confidence, is that global temperatures are already rising. Heat wilts plants, and it warms the atmosphere, which then sucks more water out of the soil. And — we’ll spare you the details — the experts think drought-prone areas like this will likely get more drought-prone.

So the challenge for the Mayan farmers: Produce more corn. They’ve just started using fertilizer (as in chicken poop) so that’s a start. The quantum leap would be storing water, instead of simply waiting for it to fall.

Poot: I wish the government could help me buy a well. Then I could grow corn and even other crops, like tomatoes.

That’s where money comes in, and the bureaucrats at the Cancun summit. They’re now knocking heads over climate change funding, among other issues. And baked into the Kyoto Protocol is the notion that the historic emitters, rich countries, send money to poor countries.

Antonio Hill at Oxfam argues the farmers deserve it.

Antonio Hill: These people are not responsible for climate change. Those countries that are responsible and also able to help have a responsibility to both stop climate change, but also to start helping them avoid the worst impacts of what’s already inevitable.

Avoiding climate effects is not something there’s necessarily a market for. Sure, the private sector will bet on bankable products, like solar panels and electric cars. But helping farmers in Mexico? No return on investment.

Hill: So therefore, it needs to be led with public investments so that communities can count on resources to then go on and become a more productive part of the economy.

Even if governments chip in money — will it trickle down to places like this? The international finance guys in suits would decide whose deserving and how much. And there’s always the corruption question, local officials siphoning off their own share.

Women singing

The struggling Mayan corn growers don’t control any of that. But they can sing, and they can pray. This a Christian community. This hymn is called, “We will worship God, if He comes to us.”

In the community of Tabi, Mexico, I’m Scott Tong for Marketplace.

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