The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America and home to millions of people and species. Neither people nor wildlife in the desert could live without the rivers that flow through it – the Rio Conchos and the Rio Grande.
I travelled to the region in late 2011 to work with my Mexican colleagues in the light of increasing threats to these rivers – a growing population, agricultural and industrial expansion and climate change.
This is the third of my five days in the field:
After a long five-hour drive back to Chihuahua on Friday night, I’m up early on Saturday to drive to the opposite end of the Rio Conchos, to the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara, where its waters originate.
Half the rainfall in the Rio Conchos river basin falls in the Sierra Tarahumara region. Numerous small streams and tributaries eventually meet and deliver water to the Rio Conchos proper downstream.
And very much like the Big Bend I visited yesterday, the Sierra Tarahumara is mesmerisingly beautiful. It too is home to populations of wolves, black bears and mountain lions. And, at this time of year, the mountainous landscape is rich with the most beautiful flowers. My guide, Jose Luis from WWF-Mexico, has to spend the best part of the morning pulling over to the side of the road while I take photos.
But this is not a completely wild area. More than 270,000 people live in the Sierra, including an indigenous population of around 55,000, mainly Rarámuri people.
Our first stop today is at the house of Alvaro, president of the Soil Conservation Committee for the small village Sojawachi. We’re made very welcome and we try the local homebrew made by fermenting corn.
This is without doubt one of Mexico’s poorest regions. Locals like Alvaro scrape a living growing crops like corn, beans and potatoes. This year, Alvaro tells me, because of the lack of rain, the corn harvest has failed and there isn’t enough food to feed his family, let alone to sell to the market.
So it’s a huge relief to discover that WWF has offered work to him and 37 others, providing a vital source of income during these tough times.
Alvaro leaps up and takes us outside. Treading very carefully so as not to tread on any of his prize squashes, Alvaro leads me to the top of the valley to see what his team have been working on.
The scale of the erosion in the river bed is a shocking sight. Over the years trees have been removed on the higher slopes to make way for extra farmland. So when it does rain, vast quantities of soil are being washed away into the streams, clogging up the rivers and opening up huge gullies. This is bad news for the farmers, as they are losing their land into the farmers.
It’s bad news for wildlife too, as the streams don’t flow like they used to. With most of the Rio Conchos’ water originating here, I worry what consequences this might have downstream.
Alvaro is keen to show me what they’re doing about this. He explains that earlier this year WWF spent time in the community teaching locals about better soil management techniques. And, with the help of his team and our staff, he’s since overseen the construction of hundreds of small dams and terraces which slow the flow of water and prevent further erosion. His team are also planting saplings to restore some of the forest areas.
Our next stop is the village of Choguita, where we meet forest engineer Edgar Bustillos. In 2006, with Choguita suffering the very same soil erosion problems as Sojawachi, WWF employed Edgar to work here. Five years on, the results have been outstanding. Edgar takes me to see some small dams he built back then. Instead of deep ravines, the area around the dams is green and vegetated. A goldfinch hops across the top of the concrete structure and even though there have been no rains in several days, water trickles out of the bottom of the dam.
I look across and Edgar is beaming. Rightly he’s very proud of what he started. He tells me that at first the locals were reluctant to get involved. But soon they learned that this was good for them. Less soil was being lost, the water was more abundant and of better quality, and by keeping the soil moist for longer, yields were increasing. Now farmers are building terraces and dams themselves as they can see the benefits. It was here that Edgar brought Alvaro to inspire him and his team to do the same in Sojawachi.
At night Jose Luis and I enjoy a warm soup. This might be the desert, but at over 2000m it gets cold here. Jose Luis tells me that in winter, temperatures can reach -20°C!