After the Fall

LAST SUMMER, when cracks began to appear in the road to the small Mexican farming town of Santiago Mitlatongo, no one really noticed. Hardly anyone paid attention to the little sinkholes that began forming in the village’s cornfields, or that the deep-rooted sabino trees lining the streets were drying up and slowly dying. Despite this area having been declared an ecological disaster zone by the World Bank, nobody imagined a catastrophe was in the making.

But then, about a year ago, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon a few months after these signs began to appear, the disaster below suddenly announced itself. A cliff above town collapsed, and a torrent of rocks—some the size of two-story houses—rained toward the village below. Within days, the little cracks became vast chasms, and the sinkholes opened their mouths to swallow entire cornfields. Houses began to break in half; some simply sank into the ground and disappeared.

In the weeks that followed, while people were busy salvaging what they could from their toppled houses, they saw that the entire horizon had shifted—the forest above town didn’t quite line up any more, and the road leading out wasn’t just torn up, but no longer even pointed in the right direction. The chasms and sinkholes continued to grow until they formed a vast semicircular tear surrounding the village. Finally, it became clear what had happened: The entire town had broken off from the land around it, and the whole thing was moving—about a yard a day—like a gigantic, land-borne iceberg setting sail on a sea of bedrock. In all, an area of about two square miles—homes, stores, church, and farm fields—was slipping downhill, skidding off its mountain perch like icing off a fallen cake.

Before it began its slide to oblivion, Santiago Mitlatongo, a village of about fifteen hundred people, was like any other in the Mixteca, a rugged, mountainous region straddling the borders of the southern Mexican states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. The region’s high peaks and deep valleys are marked by corn farms, quiet villages, and not much else. Poor and indigenous, isolated from the rest of a rapidly transforming Mexico, and far off the tourist trail, the Mixteca’s strongest connection to the outside world lies in the half-million migrants who have left to seek work in the United States, most never to return. Some villages have lost up to 80 percent of their population and have become little more than ghost towns.

Looking at half-deserted villages surrounded by cornfields eroded down to bedrock, it’s hard to imagine that the Mixteca was once a jewel of Mesoamerica. But this region once sheltered one of the most advanced cultures in the Americas, the only one in the Western Hemisphere with a written history dating back over a thousand years. The birthplace of hundreds of varieties of native corn and some of pre-Columbian Mexico’s most storied fighters, the Mixteca grew into such a powerful region that it was one of the few Mexican kingdoms never to be fully subjugated by the Aztecs. Mixtecapan, they called it: “Place of the Cloud People.”

But today, the “People of the Clouds” have largely drifted away. Few see much future in a place that has lost up to five meters of topsoil to runaway erosion, leaving over 1 million acres so severely damaged that the UN now calls the region one of the most heavily eroded landscapes in the world. One of the oldest continually cultivated patches of ground on earth, tended by one of the world’s oldest farming cultures, is becoming little more than a vacant wasteland.

How could a land that once supported a much larger population, from whose soil had sprouted one of the most advanced cultures in Mexico, fail so miserably? To the extent that the Mixteca’s ecological problems have been examined by outsiders, the list of possible causes feels more like a grab bag of accumulated wisdom than the result of a serious scientific study: droves of grazing sheep introduced by the Spanish, the oxen-powered plow still widely in use, chemical fertilizers and pesticides promoted by the Mexican government, slash-and-burn farming, altered weather patterns from climate change, or just inherently fragile and unstable land.

The source of the Mixteca’s environmental collapse most likely lies in a combination of all of these factors, an accrual of ecological ills meshed against a five-hundred-year history of social upheaval following the Spanish conquest. But to the villagers whose lives have been upended by the erosion of the land, the point is moot, and the directive is clear: get out.

Meanwhile, the town of Santiago Mitlatongo is still moving, a few feet a day, its deserted streets filled with the rubble of toppled-over houses, half a mile from where they once stood.

Matt Black is a photographer from California’s Central Valley. His work has explored themes of migration, farming, poverty and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico. Recent photo essays have been published in The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and Vice Magazines. His work has been profiled by National Geographic, The New York Times, National Public Radio, Time and Slate, and has been honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Foundation, the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, World Press Photo, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Pictures of the Year International, the Alexia Foundation, and the Center for Cultural Innovation, among others.


  1. This tragic story brings to mind the history of Easter Island. Both are metaphors for the current global crisis caused by a people who have forgotten how to live in balance on the planet.

  2. I never read anything about this tragedy in Mexican newspapers. As you say, it´s a combination of all the factors you mention. It is always the poor and dispossessed that suffer the most.

  3. The writer of this article fails to understand geological shifts. Sometimes the earth moves suddenly, or slowly. Political history and farming technique has no bearing. To imply that these forces were set in motion by Spanish sheep and ox plow farming is a silly grasp for nuanced emotion. Why not throw in the curse of the Aztec? The photos are beautiful but fail to illustrate the transition on a macro scale. An aerial photo or 2 would have accomplished that. Even the title is misleading, evoking a political rather than seismic event.

  4. Gregg,

    I think it’s you who fails to understand this story, so very typical of the “advancement” of civilization.

    This was an ancient farming culture whose practices of terracing and careful rainwater channeling to protect their fragile mountain soils were replaced by slash & burn, plowing and chemical intensive farming.

    If it’s true that the World Bank declared the area an ecological disaster zone, then there’s sufficient reason to believe that human interventions were at least a significant part of the slumping of long-stable soils.

  5. Robert,

    Thanks for your input.

    I admit that I have no expertise in geology, or farming for that matter. But I was noticing the vertical cliffs, covered with trees and shrubbery that were falling away, where plowing had not taken place. It reminds me of the sinkholes in Florida that created many of the lakes there. Most of these happened before large scale tapping of the groundwater, which people think is the cause of more recent sinkholes.

    I’m curious when this particular community changed from terraced farming to slash and burn. I didn’t see any explanation of this in the text. They seemed to be portrayed as traditional farmers.
    If this is true, then it is their “advancement” and not my own, that has failed them.

    The World Bank does not lift up the poor nearly as well as it advances capitalocracy by foreign investors, so their declarations as to the state of the ecology is mute.

    Sure, soil erosion can be a major destructive force. But it is also a natural force that carves out our most scenic treasures, and deposits rich farmland. Without evidence of fracking, mining, or other insidious endeavors, I see no reason for this environmental shift other than natural. Nature continually moves to the edge of chaos, where new opportunities arise.

    Anyway, what I think I was reacting to most was the emotional rather than empirical explanation to the tragedy. To say these processes began when the Spanish brought sheep to the area was an evocative, but silly invocation for sympathy.

  6. Gregg, the desertification of north Africa was due to the large-scale hydraulic agriculture of the Nile Valley civilizations.

    The beginning of significant ecological decline was coincident with the start of technological agriculture. This was true everywhere in the world.

Commenting on this item is closed.