Water Flowing North of the Border: Export Agriculture and Water Politics in a Rural Community in Baja California

Peer Reviewed


Favored by neoliberal agrarian policies, the production of fresh crops for international markets has become a common strategy for economic development in Mexico and other Latin American countries. But as some authors have argued, the global fresh-produce industry in developing countries in which fresh crops are produced for consumer markets in affluent nations implies “virtual water flows,” the transfer of high volumes of water embedded in these crops across international borders. This article examines the local effects of the production of fresh produce in the San Quintín Valley in Northwestern Mexico for markets in the United States. While export agriculture has fostered economic growth and employment opportunities for indigenous farm laborers, it has also led to the overexploitation of underground finite water resources, and an alarming decline of the quantity and quality of water available for residents’ domestic use. I discuss how neoliberal water policies have further contributed to water inequalities along class and ethnic lines, the hardships settlers endure to secure access to water for their basic needs, and the political protests and social tensions water scarcity has triggered in the region. While the production of fresh crops for international markets is promoted by organizations such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank as a model for economic development, I argue that it often produces water insecurity for the poorest, threatening the UN goal of ensuring access to clean water as a universal human right.

Christian Zlolniski, November 2011.

Photo caption: Residents in Arbolitos get water full of mud in their faucets, which many filter by attaching a cloth to the faucet as they fill up buckets

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published numerous articles on inequality in Mexico. See, for example, Peter S. Cahn’s “Consuming Class: Multilevel Marketers in Neoliberal Mexico” (2008), Michael Montoya’s “Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research” (2007), Ana María Alonso’s “Conforming Disconformity: “Mestizaje,” Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism” (2004), and Laura Lewis’ “Of Ships and Saints: History, Memory, and Place in the Making of Moreno Mexican Identity” (2001).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on neoliberalism, including the February 2011 issue, Ahmed Kanna’s “Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging ‘City-Corporation’” (2010), Daromir Rudnyckyj’s “Spiritual Economies: Islam and Neoliberalism in Contemporary Indonesia” (2009), Thomas Pearson’s “On the Trail of Living Modified Organisms: Environmentalism within and against Neoliberal Order” (2009), and Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook’s “Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul” (2006). Each February issue, through 2014, Cultural Anthropology will publish on the theme of neoliberalism.

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on natural resources and the global-local interface. See, for example, Marina A. Welker’s “‘Corporate Security Begins in the Community’: Mining, the Corporate Social Responsibility Industry, and Environmental Advocacy in Indonesia” (2009), Martha Kaplan’s “Fijian Water in Fiji and New York: Local Politics and a Global Commodity” (2007), Ananthakrishnan Aiyer’s “The Allure of the Transnational: Notes on Some Aspects of the Political Economy of Water in India” (2007), and Kaushik Ghosh’s “Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India” (2006).

About the Author

Dr. Zlolniski is a social anthropologist interested in issues of globalization, international migration, labor, and forms of collective resistance. He is the author of Janitors, Street vendors, and Activists: The Lives of Mexican Immigrants in Silicon Valley (UC Press, 2006). His current project in interdisciplinary collaboration with two researchers at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana, Mexico examines the impacts of export-oriented agriculture in the San Quintín Valley in Baja California on the working, labor and living conditions of indigenous farm laborers from southern Mexico who have migrated and settled in this region.

Links to Newspaper Articles

Water Supply Concern on Both Sides of the Border

Water Wells for Agriculture at Risk (in Spanish)

Public Rally Against New Water Fees in San Quintin (in Spanish)

Angry Arbolito's Residents Shut Down a Water Connection Valve (in Spanish)

Selected Images from the Field

I thank Ritu Khanduri, a visual anthropologist at the University of Texas at Arlington, for her help in choosing the images for this page.

Christian Zlolniski, November 2011.

Caption: A typical unpaved and dusty street in a farm workers settlement in the San Quintín Valley    

Christian Zlolniski, November 2011.

Caption: Desalination plant and water reservoir of an agribusiness that exports strawberries to the United States                              

Christian Zlolniski, November 2011.

Caption: Water reservoir from an agribusiness’ desalination plant -- workers are leveling it as part of its maintenance                      

Christian Zlolniski, November 2011.

Caption: Farm laborers picking tomatoes  in one of the dozens of shadehouses that have been built in the region to make a more efficient use of water for agriculture                              

Post a Comment

Please log in or register to comment