Agriculture has always been the economic mainstay of Tabasco, Mexico.
Residents tell you how long they've been growing crops and working the fields by gesturing with their hands at about waist level. Eight, nine years old…their starting age varies.
Nearly two years ago, farms that had sustained generations were destroyed in a matter of days. An estimated 90 percent of Tabasco's crops were wiped out by some of the worst floods in Mexico's history.
"I have the scene recorded in my mind," says Lazaro Magana Hernandez. "I waded through water past my waist for at least a week." The 66-year-old farmer lost about 20 chickens and turkeys and more than 2.5 acres of corn and plantain trees.
Tabasco is known for its farmlands and tropical green foliage. About the size of Maryland, it is bordered by Veracruz to the west, Chiapas to the south and the Gulf of Mexico to the north. The state has a population of about 2.1 million people—nearly half of whom experienced some flooding.
Floodwaters ravaged this southern Mexican state after nearly a week of incessant rain. Like Hernandez, other residents tell stories of losing all their crops, fending for their lives during the storms and contracting infections from the standing floodwater that was in some areas more than six feet deep. Some were stranded on their rooftops for days until the water receded. They also lost livestock to raging waters and disease.
A Confident Start
Residents can recount details of the 2007 floods as if they just happened. But now they have new tools and are better prepared should another major storm come their way.
Catholic Relief Services provided emergency aid in the days immediately following the floods. In January of 2008—after most residents had returned to their washed-out farms and damaged adobe homes—CRS allocated $1 million for a long-term disaster recovery and mitigation program in 14 cities throughout Tabasco.
CRS distributed tools to more than 7,200 farmers in Tabasco.
"The Church came and gave me these tools and they have been a big help so we can make the land start producing again," says Hernandez. The grandfather of three received a machete, two shovels, two rakes, an axe, a hoe and other, smaller tools.
Additionally, CRS provided training in livestock breeding, sewing, beekeeping, cheesemaking and organic fertilizer production. Provided with small loans for business capital, residents started businesses such as bakeries, fish farms and convenience stores.
The program also provided residents with cisterns that harvest rainwater and ensure a clean source of water all year long. The cisterns are elevated high above ground to prevent contamination during floods.
In the past, wells and springs were contaminated by salt water flushed in from the gulf. Residents had to walk for miles to find clean water, which they transported by donkey carts.
Water collected in the cisterns allows for better crop irrigation and fresh water for drinking, bathing and other household needs. "This has made daily life a lot easier," says Juan Jose Rojas, program manager for CRS Mexico.
In addition to restoring what was lost to the floods, the program trained residents to map escape routes during disasters. While the project concludes in September of 2009, Rojas says the preparedness training will have an impact for years to come.
"They have discovered that by working together they can find solutions to problems that they had not been able to resolve on their own before," he says. "Residents have taken on more leadership roles and have a greater understanding of their environment."
While the rehabilitation project concludes in September of 2009, a second project will begin shortly afterward. The Rural Development Project will provide farmers with marketing techniques and create micro-lending and savings groups.
Healing From the Unexpected
To date, Rojas estimates, about 70 percent of the communities and families most affected by the floods have recovered. The process took well over a year, he says, noting that the other 30 percent are still struggling to restore their fields and provide for their families as they did prior to the floods.
Pastors and parish councils throughout the Diocese of Tabasco were instrumental in identifying families to participate in the disaster recovery and mitigation program. While families in Tabasco are still healing from the trauma, they have gained a sense of security and confidence.
"People are changing their habits and practices to mitigate risks," says Rojas. "People are taking more of an interest in caring for the infrastructure in their communities."
Kai T. Hill is an associate web producer. She works at CRS headquarters in Baltimore.