Asking Mexican Immigrants for Investments Instead of Remittances

Pablo Camarillo (Photo via Diario de México)

San Martín del Valle is a nearly-deserted area in the Zapotitlán Salinas region, in the southeast of Puebla, populated by thorny bushes, inhospitable hills and rocky slopes. Now, a dream that seemed once impossible is beginning to come true with the construction of a plant to process local food products.

Generating jobs with decent salaries and attracting investments from people who have migrated to the United States – particularly those living in New York City – is the goal of the families who formed the Zontle cooperative, said Pablo Camarillo, a community organizer and inspector in San Martín del Valle.

The project, he explained, seeks to halt the outward migration of young men and women by encouraging the production of infusions, juices and native spices to export to European and U.S. markets.

According to Camarillo, fewer people have migrated out of the town, population 400, compared to the nearby municipality of Zapotitlán and its town San Antonio Texcala. Still, there is concern that the “epidemic to travel north” may also hit San Martín del Valle.

“We have counted some 20 migrants among San Martín del Valle families in the last few years. We are trying to prevent more locals from leaving for New York and other U.S. cities in search of a future. We cannot continue depending on remittances and migrant-owned businesses to sustain the local economy,” said Camarillo. “We are developing a sustainable project to benefit poor families in the area and to allow migrants to direct their remittances toward a production system that will yield earnings for them in two or three years.”

The Zontle cooperative was launched in September, supported by more than $3 million Mexican pesos (around US$136,000) in federal funding from the Comisión Nacional de Zonas Áridas (National Commission on Arid Areas), a division of Mexico’s Department of Agriculture, Cattle, Rural Development, Fishing and Nutrition (SAGARPA).

Even though the plant will start operating in March 2017, the community enterprise is already processing native spices such as wild oregano.

“Seniors who are no longer being hired by the [area’s onyx and marble] quarries are benefitting from the community enterprise. They collect the wild oregano, and the cooperative pays them between $300 and $600 Mexican pesos, pending on the amount of the product,” explained Camarillo. “We are trying to break into the international organic product market with exotic spices native to the Zapotitlán drylands.”

In addition to processing herbs and spices, the cooperative will handle fruit and medicinal plants such as camoreal, a type of mountain sweet potato which locals say speeds up the healing of wounds and broken bones.

“We plan to produce juices made of pitahaya – dragon fruit – and other fruits growing in low-precipitation conditions. The goal is to start growing as many as 1,300 plants per hectare. Migrants who own land may invest in these crops,” said Camarillo, who leads the project. “This area is a desert, but we are making the most of the natural resources we have. We already have buyers and expectations to export, mainly to London.”

“Migrants are the country’s bank”

Andrés Barragán, 66, a resident of the Zapotitlán region, said that the remittances sent by his son Manuel allowed him to afford to build a house, buy a car and open a butcher shop, although the business closed in 2013, less than two years later.

Manuel migrated to New York in the late 1990s to save enough money to start a small company. In the absence of a clear business model, his goal to retire early ended up in limbo, said his father.

“We were hoping for my son to come back from the north quickly. We saved his money, we built him a home but, here in Mexico, a house is no longer enough to live well. Young people need to invest their money in long-term projects, something that will guarantee earnings. The truth is that the Mexican government does little to offer good opportunities for our youth,” said Barragán. “Mexico depends more on remittances than migrants depend on their native country. It is tough to say it, but it’s true. Migrants are the country’s bank.”

According to Banxico, or Bank of Mexico, remittances coming from Mexicans abroad increased 6.61 percent in 2016. By August, money transfers reached US $2.2 billion. Most of the remittances come from the United States and, in 2015, they represented the country’s second largest source of external income, after direct foreign investments.

“Zapotitlán migrants made everything more beautiful with their pretty houses and a handful of businesses that yielded little earnings but were at least enough to sustain families. However, one day, when they are unable to work anymore, migrants will return. What will happen to them if they don’t have a retirement plan or an investment to support themselves? Our families here are worried about their future,” said Barragán. “It will all be much worse if there are massive deportations. Migrants need jobs so they don’t have to cross the border again.”

The Zontle cooperative is attempting to respond to this need of long-term investments by establishing the food processing plant. Camarillo said that the member families are seeking subsidies from the federal government to travel to New York City and meet with migrants from their region.

“We hope to travel to the Big Apple in February or March. We want to introduce migrants to the farming and export investment projects, and we are convinced that the community enterprise will be an important source of jobs with dignified salaries,” said Camarillo.

The food processing plant is not the first project undertaken by the residents of San Martín del Valle. In recent years, a number of families created tilapia farms in a body of water located north of the area. The Zontle cooperative, for their part, is hoping that their exports will attract foreign investment.

“We are no longer thinking of local sales. We want to reach other countries with our products. These are high-quality products that could easily position themselves in the international market, and we want to make the most of the vegan and organic boom. It is a good moment to push this enterprise forward,” said Camarillo.

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