Making Sure Rain Grows Grass for Chiapas Cattle (Not Floods)

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Learn

“Where I come from, rain is a good thing. Rain makes corn. Corn makes whiskey. Whiskey makes my baby…feel a little frisky.” 

 – Lyrics from country song Rain is a Good Thing, by Luke Bryan and Dallas Davidson

By the time we reached the village of Tierra y Libertad, the sun brightening southern Mexico had reached its midday strength. Plants and people wilted. Almost instinctively our group of ranchers, agricultural specialists and conservationists sought the shade of nearby trees. And shade was pretty much why we were in this remote part of the state of Chiapas.

Shade – specifically shade from trees – is part of a strategy that aims to protect the lives and livelihoods of poor ranchers in the face of a changing climate, while also helping sustain Mexico’s economy. And it’s working.

Tierra y Libertad sits in a steep mountain range along the country’s Pacific coast, although some of the rivers drain across the country into the Gulf of Mexico. Parts of the mountains get up to four and a half meters of rain a year, or about 140 inches. Traditionally the rain came during half the year, while the other half was dry. But with global climate change, the dry season has lengthened to seven or even eight months. The rains, when they do come, are drenching downpours that pour off the mountains, destroying roads, towns, and bridges.

Portions of the floods flow into the Grijalva River, which feeds four reservoirs that produce nearly 10% of Mexico’s electricity. Floods threaten this economically vital hydropower two ways: First the reservoir managers must keep water levels lower to allow room for potential floods, even in years when they don’t come. And the sediment carried by the floods when they do come is gradually filling the reservoirs up from the bottom – also reducing the volume of water behind the dam. Less water equals less power production.

So how does all this rain and flooding relate to shade in a pasture?

As the dry season has lengthened, pasture productivity all through the mountains has gone down, and what were once appropriate grazing practices are now stripping the land bare. Red dirt is all that remains in many pastures, populated by hungry cows with startlingly prominent ribs and hips. When the rains do finally come, without grass to hold back the water, it pours into creeks and rivers to help create the floods.

The Nature Conservancy is working with CONANP (the Mexican government’s protected areas agency), INIFAP (a national research institute within the Mexican department of agriculture), local conservation group Pronatura Sur, the agricultural research institution CATIE and the Chiapas Cattlemen’s Association to fix the problem by helping farmers shift their production methods. The International Climate Initiative (ICI) of the German government is supporting the implementation of the work.

In a technique called silvo-pastoral grazing, farmers plant carefully chosen trees in their pastures. The trees shade the grass, keeping it from drying out as fast so that it can continue growing even into the dry season, and also produce fruits and forage for the cattle directly. Some trees draw nitrogen out of the air and fix it in the soil, helping increase the productivity of the pastures. (Nitrogen is one of the primary ingredients of plant fertilizers.) The trees also break the force of the rain, so that more of it filters into the ground.

The silvo-pastoral approach includes small-scale solar systems that power electric fences so that cattle can be rotated through pastures, giving areas time to recover, as well as portable water supplies that can be placed near the cows. With shade and water available right where they are, the cows burn fewer calories sweating and walking to rivers, leaving them more energy for making milk. The work also includes restoring patches of forest to help protect and connect wetlands and rivers.

The silvo-pastoral approach benefits ranchers, forests and rivers. One rancher, Victor Zunin Roblero smiled broadly and told us that his milk production had doubled since he implemented silvo-pastoral approaches.

For the rural poor of Chiapas, increasing production of milk and meat means less risk of hunger, more opportunity to keep children in school, and a shot at economic advancement. And by slowing the rain and keeping grass growing, the trees reduce floods, protecting not only downstream cities and critical reservoirs of the Grijalva, but also the ranchers themselves. Roblero’s village of Nueva Flor had to be moved hundreds of yards uphill and away from the river after one set of floods.

It was April, the height of the dry season, when I visited. And while many pastures we passed were red dirt populated with skinny cows, Roblero’s fields were still green, and his cows were fat.

This is nature-based climate adaptation in action; making sure that rains bring grass and cattle, instead of floods and devastation.

Frank Lowenstein is Climate Adaptation Strategy Leader for The Nature Conservancy

Thumnail photo by Frank Lowenstein (Cattle on parched, eroded pastures. Traditional ranching methods are encountering challenges with a changing climate in Chiapas, Mexico, as a long dry season alternating with instense rains and floods, are lowering pasture productivity).

Top photo by Jeff DeBlieu (Frank Lowenstein (right) visits ranches at Union Pijijiapan in the Mexican state of Chiapas).

Inset photo by Frank Lowenstein (Milk cans on the way to market in Chiapas, Mexico).

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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