Milking the desert

22 Feb 2007

Cuatro Cienegas, an ancient warm-water oasis in Mexico’s Great Chihuahuan Desert, risks drying up if dairy farmers continue to tap underground water sources to grow alfalfa to feed their cows.

The 170 cactus-encircled pools of Cuatro Cienegas are home to fish, snails, turtles, bacteria and unique living rock structures, known as stromatolites, that provide a unique glimpse of the forms of life that thrived in the area 200 million years ago.

At that time, when phosphates had yet to be released into the oceans, the stromatolites harnessed oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulfates in the atmosphere, and this allowed them to form the basis of all life.

NASA scientists claim that Cuatro Cienegas could hold the key to how the earth developed and to whether other planets such as Mars are home to primitive, extraterrestrial life forms.

Under Mexican legislation anyone is allowed to dig wells and extract water in the Cuatro Cienegas area, which is situated above a large underground water table. Scientists and locals blame big dairy groups in nearby Torreon, northern Mexico’s main dairy center, for drilling wells to grow alfalfa and buying milk from producers who feed their cows with the leaves of the plant.

Under pressure from environmentalist lobbies, Lala, Mexico’s largest dairy, was recently forced to close eight wells for what it described as ‘cautionary’ reasons, and the Coahuila state government is now asking federal authorities to ban the opening of more wells, though it has as yet no plans to ban the cultivation of alfalfa.

La Cronica de Hoy



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