Introduction

It is estimated that 791 million people in 98 developing countries were undernourished in 1996-1998. They were geographically distributed as follows: 86 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, 36 million in the Near East/North Africa, 55 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 348 million in China (including Taiwan) and India, and 166 million in other nations of Asia (Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO], 2000).

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the number of undernourished people in total populations varies considerably. Brazil has the largest number of malnourished citizens, followed by Colombia, Mexico, Haiti, Peru, Venezuela, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Paraguay, El Salvador, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Guyana, Uruguay, and Suriname (FAO, 2000). The FAO has reported that there are 5 million undernourished people in Mexico of a total population of approximately 101 million people.

Mexico has a rural population of around 25 million people, and almost half of them are indigenous. The 1991 census indicates that more than two-thirds of the farms are less than 5 ha. Typically, farmers commonly have several land parcels with various soil types located at various distances from the farmstead.

Indigenous farmers live in the sierras (highlands), where most of the maize (Zea mays), beans (Phaseolus spp.), pumpkins (Cucurbita spp.), and fruit trees are produced on hillsides, under rainfed conditions, and using local production technology. Most of them are native people whose ancestors resided in the same areas at the time of Spanish conquest. Their traditional farming system is slash-and-burn agriculture. Great genetic diversity is evident in the local varieties of maize, bush beans, pole beans, and pumpkin. Most of these genetic resources are well adapted to local soil and climatic conditions, since most have been selected by farmers over many generations.

Burgeoning populations, however, have forced hillside farmers into an almost permanent agriculture system.

Typically, soils lie fallow for only 3 to 5 years, instead of 15 to 50 years as in the past. Furthermore, farmers do not attempt to reduce soil erosion, which is a major problem in hillside agriculture. These farmers typically obtain very low yields. In many cases, their net incomes are negative, and soil quality continues to decline.

For some officials, technicians, and farmers, these conditions are a colossal barrier to increased food production and inhibit the modernization of agriculture. The sierras play a key role in the terrestrial cycling of water. This process represents the replenishment of fresh water resources and meeting the water demand of rural and urban populations. When soil erosion leads to the destruction of surface soil cover, runoff overtakes water infiltration. It affects the water-holding capacity of soil, which results in more water stress during the growing season and lower yields on indigenous farmers' small parcels. Thus, major challenges for these populations are how to achieve food security, and how to maintain and/or improve soil quality, which is a critical issue for atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases.

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