How COVID-19 Is Impacting Women Poppy Growers in Guerrero, Mexico
Since the beginning of the pandemic, much has been written on its effects on people who use drugs, drug trafficking and the need to release people arbitrarily detained in compulsory treatment centres.
Equis Justicia para las Mujeres (EQUIS) - a feminist NGO devoted to women’s access to justice in Mexico - and a collective of women who grow poppy in the state of Guerrero, Mexico - want to shine light on another facet of the intersection between COVID-19 precautions and drug policy: that of the growing deprivation of women in the context of rural poverty, organised crime and patriarchal culture.
This article, which is part of a larger project set to be published in early 2021, highlights the impact of social distancing measures - intended to avoid the spread of COVID-19 - on women growers in Mexico.
Poppy cultivation in Guerrero
EQUIS have been working with 33 women belonging to communities which have, for the past four decades, dedicated themselves to the cultivation of poppy for the production and trade of heroin to the United States. Women growers often lack visibility and go unheard, often experiencing heavy stigmatisation and criminalisation.
As the third largest poppy grower in the world, Mexico provides 6% of global production, after Myanmar (7%) and Afghanistan (84%). Whilst poppy cultivation can be found in 18 of Mexico’s 32 states, Guerrero, situated in the South of the country on the Pacific coast, accounts for 60% of the national production. Guerrero is also the second poorest state in Mexico: whereas in 2018, 41.9% of Mexican people lived in poverty and 7.4% in extreme poverty, estimates for Guerrero amount to, respectively, 66.5% and 26.8%.
Involvement in the global trade of poppy has allowed many growers to generate sufficient income; since the 1970s poppy cultivation has taken place in predominantly rural, poor communities with little or no access to economic activities besides subsistence agriculture. Farmers interviewed by Noria Research in the period 2016-7 report that opium base paste was paid between $1,060 and $1,480 per kilo, depending on the season of the harvest. But, since mid-2017, prices have dropped to as little as $315 dollars a kilo or less, largely because of a fall in demand for heroin (and a growing fentanyl market in the United States). Most families have been forced to stop growing entirely.
Although farmers and their families can decide autonomously whether to grow or not, there is ongoing pressure to produce opium for cartel bosses in the region. The cartel “Jalisco Nueva Generación” controls the trafficking of heroin into the United States. Local criminal groups, referred to as “Los Comunitarios”, “offer protection” from COVID-19 using the threat of lethal violence and control; the Comunitarios play a substantial role in defining and imposing social distancing measures among women growers and local communities.
COVID-19 and rising poverty rates
Mexico has registered more than 100,000 deaths resulting from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Mexico seems stuck between strict lockdowns (although these have been timidly loosening) and converging waves of the pandemic. The crisis is made worse by a president that, in line with other populist and irresponsible leaders such as Trump in the United States and Bolsonaro in Brazil, has generally dismissed the gravity of such a public health crisis and the need for precautionary and protective measures such as the wearing of face masks and other PPE. But poor villages such as Guerrero, with little or no access to health service, cannot afford this luxury of mocking life and death.
The daily routine of women growers and their families has changed abruptly since March 2020: schools and regular medical services have been suspended, as has public transport and local trade. Families have witnessed their harvests, (mainly seasonal fruits which women and children used to sell on the highways to passing drivers), rot and spoil due to a lack of commercial flow. Essential goods such as cleaning products, milk and basic processed foods are often absent from the shelves of local shops - with prices increasing due to scarcity when such goods are available.
We are just poorer… there is no work; we hardly have enough to eat, it’s not like before when one went to the city to work or grew something, not anymore, girl, people no longer come to our villages to buy our products (Consuelo).
There is no money, no sale, we cannot go to the city to sell our products (Elsa).
Since the pandemic began, our crops are rotting. Pears, peaches, it’s all rotting because nobody is buying them (Alejandra).
Some families - those led by men - who are able to cultivate collectively owned land, have been able to continue to grow maize, beans and other basic vegetables for local consumption, relying on informal gift economies, bargaining and trade for survival. But whilst lack of income, employability and hunger affect everybody in these communities, (resulting sometimes in the use of child labour) patriarchal relationships expose women and their children to an increased vulnerability to violence.
Women’s political and economic participation within their communities
Typical social relations in Guerrero are fundamentally rooted in patriarchal structures. Women do not usually possess or inherit land; their access depends on their lineage, in which either their father or husband is entitled to land and political representation. Women who have been widowed only have access to land if it is formally inherited to them by their spouses. Single mothers or separated women are likely to have to live with their parents in order to provide for themselves and their children.
As a single mother I have suffered a lot, because I don’t depend on anybody and I live by the day, and now there is no work (Mariana).
In political terms, decisions are made during community assemblies. However only landowners or household representatives are permitted to vote.
The household representative is just one and it’s the family man. Women who are widows can vote but their vote is the last to be counted (Concepción).
Social distancing measures implemented during lockdown - hand washing, face masks, the closure of schools and suspension of public transport, among others - were decided in large part by a community representative -“el comisario”- and the Comunitarios, enforced by cartel groups. Such top-down decision making processes are legitimised in Guerrero despite women not being able to exercise their citizenship fully. Communities have expressed fear of the constant threat of armed violence that structures their precarious daily lives.
This group of “comunitarios” are people who give us security. To be honest, they belong to a criminal group and are not from our community. Since November 2019 they have been participating in our meetings and assemblies and people have been subjugated to the decisions they take (Concepción).
Throughout the research process, the women told their narrative of vulnerability and empty bellies. The interplay of criminal groups, sexist oppression and chronic poverty provides the foundation for womens’ experiences during the pandemic, characterised by lack of access to money to buy food and other essential subsistence resources. These difficult conditions have also fostered communication, listening and sharing between women, with the purpose to organise and bring about much needed change. As one of the women who interviewed her fellow villagers told us:
I feel that every day we get poorer in the Sierra (mountain), because of the security issues and the decreasing price of our main crop and source of living -poppy-. I would like the government to pay attention to us, to provide us with productive projects, roads to trade our crops, schools to teach our children and doctors to let us go ahead.
It is important to gather and share the feelings of my fellow women growers, to hear their necessities, what they lack and all the needs we share. By gathering and sharing this information, we are letting other people know what we feel, live and want (Guillermina).
*Corina Giacomello is a researcher at the University of Chiapas and Equis Justicia para las Mujeres, Mexico; firstname.lastname@example.org